3 Players Pitt Needs to Focus on to Beat West Virginia

Matt PowersCorrespondent IINovember 23, 2011

3 Players Pitt Needs to Focus on to Beat West Virginia

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    Playing in the Backyard Brawl on the road is always a tough test for Pitt, especially when West Virginia has a high-powered offense led by quarterback Geno Smith.

    New West Virginia coach Dana Holgorson has had little trouble getting his offense going, while Pitt's first-year coach Todd Graham has had some issues adjusting. Holgorson was Pitt's top choice to replace Dave Wannstedt last offseason, so there were some Pitt fans that were disappointed about ending up with Graham. A win here though, and that will all be forgotten.

    For the young Panthers to pick up a win in this rivalry game and get to bowl-eligible status, there are a couple of key players that they need to focus on. This slideshow takes a look at the three most important players for Pitt to slow down.

Tavon Austin

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    Receiver Tavon Austin is having a monster season in Dana Holgorson's offense. The pint-sized speedster already has 72 catches for 907 yards and four touchdowns through 10 games. Pitt's defensive backfield will have its hands full trying to slow him down.

    However, It's not just the defensive backs that will have issues with Austin. He is also one of the most dangerous return men in college football, and his speed and field vision are the reason that the Mountaineers rank 13th in the country in punt returns and 20th in the country in kick returns.

    The Panthers can't afford to let him have a big day on special teams when West Virginia's offense is already hard to stop. A big return by Austin could easily cost the Panthers points. At the same time, the defensive backs can't afford to let him make any big plays.

Bruce Irvin

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    Senior defensive end Bruce Irvin came to campus last year and immediately produced a monster season. His All-Big East debut saw him post 21 tackles, including an eye-popping 14 sacks. His production is a bit down this season, but with 5.5 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss, he is still a top pass-rusher.

    Irvin is especially key for the Panthers because of their struggles up front all year. If the Panthers struggle against lesser talents to protect their quarterbacks, a player like Irvin could have a big game. In order to win, the offensive line will need to give Tino Sunseri enough time to get his passes off.

Geno Smith

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    The key to stopping Dana Holgorsen's high-powered offense is slowing down star quarterback Geno Smith. Smith is in the middle of not only a great season, but an ultra-efficient season as well. So far the junior has completed 65 percent of his passes for nearly 3,500 yards and 24 touchdowns to only five interceptions.

    Smith has two games this season where he threw two interceptions—losses to Syracuse and LSU. The Panthers likely need to force some mistakes if they want to pull off the road win in this rivalry game. It's going to be tough for the Panthers to stop Smith, but a strong pass rush could potentially force him to make a few bad throws.