Inside the Top 25

Our scouts go inside each of this week's Top 25 matchups with game breakdowns and predictions.

Updated: November 26, 2004, 11:45 AM ET
Scouts Inc.
As the season winds down, teams on the outside of the BCS picture are running out of chances to impress. No. 5 Texas must defeat No. 22 Texas A&M to keep its hopes alive, while No. 10 Boise State can't afford a letdown against Nevada. Meanwhile, No. 11 Virginia Tech's battle against No. 16 Virginia will go a long away toward determining the Big East champion.

Thursday, Nov. 25

No. 21 WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS  at
PITTSBURGH PANTHERS
Pittsburgh, PA
8:00 p.m. ET - ESPN
When West Virginia has the ball: The Pittsburgh defense has risen to the challenge in big games recently. It will need another strong performance against a versatile Mountaineers' rushing attack that averages 258 yards per game. QB Rasheed Marshall triggers a spread offense that uses a lot of read options, with the quarterback and running back adjacent to one another in the shotgun. RB Kay-Jay Harris rushed for 112 yards on 19 carries, and he should be as healthy as he's been all season following the week off. The Mountaineers' passing attack already ranks last in the conference in terms of yards per game. The suspension of star WR Chris Henry, who was responsible for 811 of the team's 1,657 total passing yards, won't help matters. That's a huge break for a Pittsburgh defense that ranks 109th nationally, allowing 264 passing yards per game. Without Henry to worry about vertically, SS Tyrone Gilliard can become much more involved near the line of scrimmage to keep Marshall and Harris in check.
When Pittsburgh has the ball: QB Tyler Palko has emerged as one of the most dangerous passers in the nation. After getting off to a slow start as a first-year starter, Palko has thrown for 994 yards with 11 touchdowns and just one interception in the team's last three games. Palko's top two receivers, Joe DelSardo and Greg Lee, continue to improve with each start. DC Adam "Pac Man" Jones has the man-to-man coverage skills to take one of the two out of the game, but the other receiver will create matchup problems against DC Anthony Mimms, who has struggled with his consistency this season. The Panthers have all but aborted their running game and will look to simply spread the field with multiple receiver sets. If the Panthers' improving offensive line can keep the Mountaineers' pass rush at bay, Palko can pick this defense apart.
Bottom line: The 97th meeting of the "Backyard Brawl" features two teams headed in opposite directions. West Virginia has failed to live up to expectations. It is coming off a demoralizing defeat to Boston College, and Henry has since been suspended. Pittsburgh rebounded from a slow start and has won four of its last five games. With Palko leading the charge against an inconsistent Mountaineers' defense, West Virginia simply doesn't match up well enough to beat a surging Pittsburgh team at Heinz Field.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 30, West Virginia 27