MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- When they'd risen from the lows that followed last month's football loss at Connecticut, West Virginia's players allowed themselves an opportunity to lift their heads and look toward the future.
Despite back-to-back conference losses for the first time since 2004, WVU believed it still could win the Big East Conference title. Doing so, everyone knew, required a victory against Pitt.
Three weeks and two victories later, the Mountaineers prepare to visit the Panthers for Friday's "Backyard Brawl" at Heinz Field (noon, ABC).
There's only a little finality involved. WVU (7-3, 3-2) would be out of the running for even a share of the Big East title and the Bowl Championship Series bid with a loss. Pitt (6-4, 4-1) would no longer control its fate with a loss and would have to rely on Connecticut (6-4, 3-2) losing one of its final two games.
Nevertheless, things are still about what the Mountaineers hoped for after they fell to the Huskies.
"Pretty much everyone in the country thought it was going to come down to us and Pitt, so I think they knew that and we did too," said cornerback Keith Tandy, who intercepted his sixth pass of the season in Saturday's 17-10 win at Louisville and ranks No. 4 nationally with 0.6 picks per game. "Now it's here."
WVU will find itself in a familiar situation and figures to follow its defense and compete in a low-scoring contest.
Both the Mountaineers and the Panthers try to possess the ball. WVU has lately grown to rely more on the run, although much of its motivation is to give the defense a break.
The past three games against Pitt have seen final scores or 13-9, 19-15 and 19-16. The Mountaineers might not be worried about that prospect. They've won games when scoring 17 and 20 points and lost games by three, five and six points when allowing 16, 19 and 20 points, respectively.
"Just to get a close win helps us because of the way we've lost this year," quarterback Geno Smith said. "It's been close games we haven't really finished. To get a close win - a win, period - is great for us. No one comes out with intentions not to score."
WVU remains the only Football Bowl Subdivision team that hasn't allowed more than 21 points in a game and that was one reason the team remained optimistic after the consecutive losses to Syracuse and UConn.
"We knew what we had to do and we knew we had to win the rest of our games and the Pitt game was going to be a critical game for us," said safety Robert Sands, who was once committed to the Panthers. "It's going to be the breaking break point for us toward whether we have a great season or whether we have an OK season."
The Mountaineers assured themselves of a winning record with the victory against the Cardinals. They allowed just 171 yards of offense, the lowest total by an opponent this season and well below Louisville's average of 391.2, which was No. 2 in the Big East.