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Nov. 21, 2011

Todd Graham
West Virginia Preview Press Conference
November 21, 2011

Opening Statement:

“We are obviously very excited for this week. Like I told the players, this is why you coach and why you play – to play in games like this. This is my first Backyard Brawl as a head football coach and I am extremely excited. Not only because of the rivalry, but the bowl and conference championship implications of this game make it big. It is exciting to have the opportunity to play in this game come this Friday. We are excited and our guys are focused.

“Obviously, we have a huge challenge. They have the number one offense in the league. Geno Smith is very impressive. He can make every throw, he extends plays and he is a tremendous player – one of the best in the country. They have a great receiving corps. Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey really stick out to me. Austin’s ability to return kicks and punts is phenomenal. Those two are as good as there are in the country. They are extremely fast and explosive. Our biggest challenge is containing their offense.

“I have a lot of confidence in our guys. I know they know what challenge is ahead of us. The strength of our team is our defense. This is one of those games that will be fun to watch. The key in the game for us is to take care of the ball on offense. The best thing we can do is keep their offense on the sideline. Both of us are no-huddle teams, so there will probably be a lot of plays in this game. It will be an exciting game.

“Pete Gonzalez is going to be our honorary captain. Everybody remembers his 1997 comeback win there in overtime. We have Pete going down there with us and we are excited about that. I can’t tell you what an honor and a privilege it is for me to lead this group of guys. We’ve had a tremendous two weeks of practice, with some extra days to get ready.

“We anticipate that Lucas (Nix) will play. It’s still the same thing – I don’t want to tell you that he is definitely going to play, then he doesn’t and you don’t think I’m telling you the truth. I think he has got the best chance to play this week. He has had the most time to get ready (given the bye week). So I anticipate and expect him to be playing.

“Like I said, I have a lot of confidence in our defense. Guys like Aaron Donald up front – our defensive line is one of the best in the country at sacking the quarterback. We have to be on our ‘A’ game this week against Geno (Smith). We have a lot of confidence there. Third-down defense has been a positive for us and we need to continue that. This is the biggest challenge that we have faced. This is the best offense we have gone against. I do have a lot of confidence in our defense and their preparation. It is going to be a great challenge and we are excited about that.

“Offensively, we have really improved and gotten better. The big key in this football game is the turnover ratio. We cannot turn the football over. We have to get takeaways on defense. How many snaps we play on defense is going to be big. We’re going to play more snaps then we have played all year long. Every turnover we get, we’re going to play five-less snaps. That is our number one focus – we have got to get takeaways. We must win explosive plays. They have tremendous potential for big-time plays in the return game and on offense. We can’t give up cheap touchdowns.

“The Backyard Brawl is going to be an extremely physical football game. We are going to their place on Friday night, so it is going to be a physical contest. We have got to play hard-edge Pitt football.”

On any special preparations for Geno Smith and WVU’s no-huddle offense:

Dealing with the tempo is a lot easier for us because we are used to seeing it every day. There is a lot more no-huddle in this league than I thought. Louisville ran some no-huddle, so we have seen no-huddle this year.

“Where he (Geno Smith) poses the biggest problem is his ability to throw the football down the field. He has a tremendously strong arm, he is a seasoned veteran and he has a great feel for his receivers. Those guys have a great synergy amongst each other, you can tell. You can’t ignore their running game. They are very good at throwing screens, so you have to account for that. We have to try to keep them off-balance and try to impact the quarterback without giving up cheap big plays. That is the big challenge for us.”

On Geno Smith as a decision-maker within the offense:

“I think he does a really good job. He has got a tremendous rapport with his receivers, especially Bailey and Austin. He knows where they are going to be and they have great timing. They are really good. They are two of the better receivers in the country. They are very different. Austin is an inside receiver who can hit you with reverses, screens and seam patterns. He is going to catch the ball and run with it. Bailey can stretch the field and is as good of a route runner as there is. They are a really strong combination. They have guys behind them that run really well and do a great job. I think the key is the quarterback first, and then they have got some really explosive receivers. The key is to not give up cheap touchdowns, and that is easier said than done. Their scheme is very good. They are very well coached. They spread you out. You have to make sure that it is not dictating to you, but you dictate to it. That is a challenge. This is the Backyard Brawl. You can throw the records out. You can throw everything else out. I can’t wait to kick it off.”

On WVU’s Defense:

“Defensively, they have graduated a lot of guys from last year. Coach (Jeff) Casteel is one of the best in the business. I have a relationship with Jeff. He is as good of a football coach as there is. He has done a tremendous job with their guys. They have gotten better every single week. They will be well-coached. If you look at the turnover ratio and explosive plays at the end of the game, those will determine the winner.”

On having a chance to win the Big East:

“Our goal is to win championships. That is what our goal as a program is. Everybody has two losses. We are going into this game understanding that we are in first place. If we win the next two games the worst we are going to be is co-champions. The winner of this game is sitting in a good spot as far as the conference championship is concerned. That is my feeling on it, but I can only worry about things I can control. This is the 2011 Backyard Brawl and that is important enough. But, the fact that the conference championship is on the line this weekend makes it even more exciting for us. I said at the beginning of the year that we would have to win a lot of close football games. Obviously, you want to be playing for a championship in late November. There is a lot of parity in this league, but this is a perfect setting for us and for them. The winner of this game is going to be sitting pretty nice.”

On competing with WVU Head Coach Dana Holgorsen:

“We have always been at rival schools. He was at Houston and I was at Tulsa. He is a really good football coach. His background is with Coach Mike Leach. I have tremendous respect for Coach Leach. We have always been fierce competitors. I have tremendous respect for him as a football coach. He is one of the best offensive guys I have gone up against. His staff, with Coach Casteel, I have nothing but respect for them.

“I respect this game. I believe this game is about the 2011 West Virginia Mountaineers against the Pitt Panthers. It is the Backyard Brawl. That is what it should be about. I believe in sportsmanship. I got into this business because coaches made a difference in my life, so I have a great respect for coaches. I am also a fierce competitor, so obviously we compete. Whether it is Coach Strong or Coach Holgorsen or whoever I’m going against, we are competitive. Other than that, I think that is what everyone else makes of it. From my end, there is nothing but respect for Coach Holgorsen, Coach Casteel and the people there.”

On familiarity with Coach Holgorsen’s schemes:

“Yes. There is familiarity on both sides of the ball. He is very adaptive, just like we are. If you look at what we are doing, it isn’t exactly what we did at Tulsa. If you look at what he is doing, it is not exactly what he did at Oklahoma State or at Houston. What he did at Oklahoma State was different than what he did Houston. But, the core principles of the scheme stay the same. At the end of the day, it is about being able to execute and stop them from executing. That is where the challenge is. There is a lot of familiarity on both sides. It is about this set of players. College football is about matchups. They are trying to get the ball to their best players…and we are trying to do the same thing. They do a very good job. They have a really good scheme. I think we have a good scheme, too. Being able to go against each other has contributed to where we are at. I think going against people that are really good makes you better.”

On running backs Zach Brown and Isaac Bennett:

“I think they make a good tandem. We are trying to get Isaac to compliment Zach like Zach complimented Ray Graham. He has done a great job. Zach has played solid in every game and Isaac has come in and done a good job as well. We have a lot of confidence in both those guys. Isaac is really doing a good job and we are excited to see him break a big one.”

On differences between the offenses and facing Tavon Austin:

I think our offensive systems are different. Ours is more run and play-action passes. Theirs is more pass to set up the run. I do think our systems are different. Austin plays the inside slot receiver position, which in our system is Mike Shanahan. So, that is a difference. Austin plays more of a slot position. You have to know where he is at. He will run reverses on you. He will catch screens, seams and under-routes. He catches those under-routes and he can just fly. He gets yards after the catch. When he gets the ball in his hands he is electrifying. They use the same principles with the no-huddle, spreading the field and creating mismatches, but it is just a different presentation. We are more run-oriented.”

On the difficulty of defending the no-huddle offense:

“I think it is very difficult. Everybody wants to be in a rhythm. When I was a defensive coordinator I wanted to be in a rhythm. When you constantly vary the rhythm, it makes it challenging. They do it for the same reason why we do it. We are trying to extend the game. We want to get more snaps on offense. It makes it harder for them to call defenses and you play more reps, you are playing a fifth-quarter. If you play 65 snaps on defense one week and then play 80 snaps the next game, the odds of you giving up more points are pretty good. Their offense is similar to ours in that they want the ball off on timing. They are a timing passing team. There are a lot of similarities in what we are doing and what our beliefs are. I don’t care if I ran pro-style, two-backs, one-back or no-back. We would run the no-huddle because we believe that it is such a challenge for a defense. With three days to prepare it is tough if you don’t practice it every day.”

On eliminating the distraction of the Big East title situation:

“I always spell out to them what the givens are. I am never going to worry about the things I can’t control. I am only worried about what is straight in front of me. We know right now that we are tied with four or five teams at the top of the league right now. The bottom line is, if we go and win the next two games, we are going to be co-champions. That is the worst we are going to do. That is what we can control. Obviously, this is a big game for our players because this is the 2011 Backyard Brawl. Our guys know the challenge that lies ahead of us. That is what we focus on. Our guys are excited. I’ve been telling the guys for two weeks, if we just go and win then we are going to be in a position to play for a championship. I believe this game will have a lot to say about who is the champion of the Big East.”

On whether Tino Sunseri was the most decisive he has been all year against Louisville:

“Yeah, I think so. He really did a good job of making good decisions. He took care of the football. The big deal going into that game was 100-percent ball security from his standpoint. We did have one fumble on a mesh-play, where the running back put the ball on the ground. We need to get through this game with the same type of decisiveness. He did a good job. There is no substitute for experience in this system and I think he is playing his best football right now. With their defense and how they can attack and run, it is going to be very important that he just manages the game and takes care of the football. That will be the key for us.”

On if West Virginia attacks like Rutgers did:

“No, they are obviously a different scheme. They will pressure. They are an attacking style of defense.”

On West Virginia’s dangerous returners and the importance of special teams:

“It is huge. They are as good as there is in the country with Austin as a kickoff returner and a punt returner. They have also had other guys back there. They have really good skill players in their return game. They get great field position. They start on their forty-plus yard-line a lot. Our coverage teams have to do a great job, there is no question about it. That is going to be big in the game. That is part of those explosive plays.”

On the special teams game plan:

“We have a plan each game and we have pretty much been just kicking the ball off deep. We probably won’t do a whole lot different.”

Meet the Press: Backyard Brawl 2011

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