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Notebook: Brown better understands rivalry leading up to second Backyard Brawl; Clement will still have role upon Carter’s return

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As Neal Brown continues preparations for his second time being involved with the Backyard Brawl, the fifth-year West Virginia head coach has a better understanding of the rivalry with Pitt.

Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. matchup, which will air nationally on ABC, marks the Panthers’ first visit to Morgantown in 12 seasons.

A year ago, in the first meeting between the rivals since 2011, Pitt finished strong to pull out a 38-31 victory at Acrisure Stadium. Brown developed a better understanding of what the rivalry means leading up to that 2022 season opener while making a congratulatory video to Boyle County High School football coach Chuck Smith near the Panthers’ student section before Smith was set to be inducted into the school’s hall of fame the next day.

“I’m out there shooting a video and I had no idea the students were already there. Here I come out of the tunnel with [Brown’s son] Dax and he learned some new words,” Brown said. “He wanted to know why they were giving us the No. 1 signal with the middle finger. From that point on, I got a good understanding of what it’s about.” 

Brown has made it known he’s for the Mountaineers playing Pitt on an annual basis. Saturday’s contest will be the 106th meeting between the former Big East rivals, who are scheduled to meet through 2025 as part of a four-game series.

“It’s fun. Rivalries make college football. A lot of rivalries have gone by the wayside, which is disappointing,” Brown said. “I’m in favor of playing this game and this makes a lot of sense to be our non-conference Power 5 opponent each and every year. It’s a game that our fans and their fans like to see. This is heated and we understand that and our players look forward to getting back into that.”

In what will be West Virginia’s second of three straight home games, Brown is hopeful a raucous environment awaits the visitors. The game was announced as a sellout last month and will be the Mountaineers’ first home Saturday game with a 7:30 or later start in seven seasons.

“I hope it’s electric. I know this is one that’s been circled for a long time and sold out for a long time,” Brown said. “A lot of people coming into town for this. It’s a great opportunity.”

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Both teams enter Saturday’s contest with 1-1 records, though Saturday is sure to be the first win against a FBS level foe for one. The Panthers opened with a 45-7 win over Wofford, but fell short in their bid to rally last week during a 27-21 home loss to Cincinnati.

West Virginia responded from a 38-15 season-opening loss at No. 7 Penn State as well as a slow start against Duquesne to handle the Dukes, 56-17.

The Mountaineers suffered several injuries in both games, including the loss of punter Oliver Straw after he was hit on a first-half punt against Duquesne. During the second half, Straw was on the sideline in a walking boot and replaced by Leighton Bechdel.

“We’ll wait and see how he progresses,” Brown said.

Wide receiver Devin Carter is expected to return after leading the Mountaineers in receptions and yardage at Penn State but missing the Duquesne game a week ago for an injury suffered in practice Wednesday.

West Virginia’s receiver room should also get a lift from the debut of Marshall transfer EJ Horton, who has missed the first two games but is expected to add the element of a big play threat to an offense in need of one.

Wideout EJ Horton hauls in a pass. Photo by Ben Queen/www.BenQueenphotography.com

“We’re hopeful at receiver that we’re going to get EJ and this will be his first outing of the season,” Brown said. “He practiced today and was trending that way toward the end of the week. I didn’t see anything different.”

Brown said he’ll have a better idea Tuesday as to whether or not freshman wideout Traylon Ray will play after he, like Carter, played in the opener and was out last week.

Running back Justin Johnson should return after being out last week.

“He probably could’ve gone on Saturday,” Brown said. “We were careful. He didn’t practice last week. Got hurt close to the end of Penn State game. He practiced today and we’re hopeful he’ll be able to go as well.”

Defensive lineman Asani Redwood was a full participant in Monday’s practice and should also be available to add depth to the WVU defensive line.

The news isn’t as positive for cornerback Montre Miller. The Kent State transfer was injured against the Nittany Lions and missed the matchup with the Dukes. Brown said Miller will be out again Saturday and a decision on his status for the rest of this season looms in the near future.

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With Carter expected to return, it’s likely to lessen the load for wideout Hudson Clement, the star in Saturday’s win.

Clement, who entered the contest against Duquesne without a college catch, hauled in five passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns.

After the victory, Clement, a redshirt freshman and former star at Martinsburg High School, was put on scholarship.

Even with Carter returning, Brown maintains Clement will continue to have a role within the offense.

“He’s going to play. He was productive. Both of those outside guys are pretty much interchangeable,” Brown said. “So Devin will play and Hudson put up big numbers. He’s going to continue to play. We might flip him over and play him a little more at X then when Devin comes back and plays Z.”

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