MORGANTOWN - Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri has a lot in common with his West Virginia counterpart as they both head into today's Backyard Brawl in Morgantown.
That their first names are similar - Tino and Geno - is just one of the things the two junior quarterbacks have in common.
Both started for their respective teams a year ago in this game, and both are trying to learn new offensive systems under new head coaches.
West Virginia and junior quarterback Gino Smith host rival Pitt today at 7 p .m. in the ‘Backyard Brawl.’
Site: Loudon, N.H.
Schedule: Friday, practice (ESPN2, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.), qualifying (ESPN2, 3-4:30 p.m.); Saturday, practice (Speed, 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.); Sunday, race, 2 p.m. (ESPN, 1-5:30 p.m.).
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (oval, 1.058 miles).
Race distance: 317.4 miles, 300 laps.
Last year: Clint Bowyer won the Chase opener, taking the lead when Tony Stewart ran out of gas with a lap left. Bowyer was fined 150 points after his car failed inspection. Crew chief Shane Wilson was suspended for six races and fined $150,000, car chief Chad Haney was suspended six races and Richard Childress was docked 50 owner points. NASCAR said the rear end of the car was manipulated.
Last week: Stewart opened the 10-race Chase with his first victory of the season and 40th overall, conserving fuel and holding off Kevin Harvick in the rain-delayed Chicagoland race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third.
Fast facts: Harvick leads the standings, seven points ahead of Stewart. Carl Edwards is third, followed by Kurt Busch, Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin. ... In July at the track, Newman raced to his lone victory of the year, holding off boss and teammate Stewart.
Next race: AAA 400, Oct. 2, Dover International Speedway, Dover, Del.
Those new head coaches - Pitt's Todd Graham and West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen both point to controlling the opposing quarterback as a key to victory.
"You can tell it means a lot to him," Holgorsen said of Sunseri. "He's excited about playing. He's a fiery guy. (The loss of running back Ray Graham) has elevated Tino's game. He's taken the team on his shoulders."
Graham said his defense will be taxed in trying to avoid "cheap touchdowns.
"That's easier said than done," said Graham, an assistant coach under Rich Rodriguez at WVU. "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."
Pitt comes into the 7 p.m. (ESPN) contest in Morgantown with a 5-5 record, but is 3-2 in the Big East Conference and still harbors a hope of winning at least a share of the conference championship
WVU has a 7-3 record and is also 3-2 in the conference. Like Pitt, WVU also hopes to win at least a share of the title.
The loser of tonight's game will be effectively eliminated from any hopes of playing in a BCS game.
"If we win the next two games, the worst we are going to be is co-champions," Graham said. "But I can only worry about the 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 makes it even more exciting for us."
Sunseri has completed 191 of his 300 passing attempts and is averaging about 203 yards per game. He has run for four touchdowns, the most by a Pitt quarterback since 2005. Smith is the leading passer in the Big East, throwing for an average of nearly 350 yards per game. He has thrown just five interceptions in 417 passing tries. Smith has tossed 24 touchdown passes in his 10 games.
"I think the key is the quarterback first, and then they have some really explosive receivers," Graham said. "(Smith) has a tremendous rapport with his receivers, especially (Stedman) Bailey and (Tavon) Austin.
"He knows where they are going, and they have great timing. They are two of the better receivers in the country."
Austin is second in the Big East with 72 catches, while Bailey leads the league in receiving yards and touchdown catches.
"Austin is an inside receiver who can hit you with reverses, screens and seam patterns," Graham said. "He is going to catch the ball and run with it. He gets yards after the catch. When he gets the ball in his hands, he is electrifying.
"Bailey can stretch the field and is as good of a route runner as there is. They are a really strong combination."