GAME NOTES: The premiere college football opener during the first night of the 2010 season has the Utah Utes entertaining the 15th-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers in a non-conference showdown at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.
"It's one of those games where one turnover might mean the difference in the game, a bad decision in the kicking game might mean the decision of the game or where a broken coverage for a touchdown might make the decision of the game," Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt noted during his weekly news conference. "There's less room for error when you're playing a very good football team at home as compared to an opponent that you can maybe make a mistake, and you're strong enough in your talent to overcome."
Clearly the pressure is on both teams to perform well coming out of the gate and live up to their lofty expectations. Last season, the Panthers posted an impressive 10-3 mark with a 5-2 record versus the rest of the Big East Conference, but in the final games of the regular season they simply couldn't get over the hump. A loss to NC State early in the 2009 campaign may have kept Pitt out of the national title picture, but clearly the setbacks to West Virginia (19-16) and versus Cincinnati (45-44) made sure of that. As a result, the Panthers were sent to the Meineke Car Care Bowl where they barely made it by North Carolina in a 19-17 final.
As for the Utes, while they are not currently ranked in the AP's Top-25, the squad is clearly on the radar having won 17 consecutive home games to rank among the best in that department as the 2010 season gets underway. Head coach Kyle Whittingham, who picked up his first win with the program back in 2005 when he and the Utes posted a 35-7 win in the Fiesta Bowl against this same Pittsburgh team in their first-ever meeting. That win was one of nine straight for the Utes in the postseason, the longest current streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Last year, ranked 23rd in the nation heading into extra play, the Utes logged a 37-27 win over California in the Poinsettia Bowl, and even though the team lost two of its last four games on the schedule, it still jumped to 18th in the final polls. The squad finished the season 10-3 and was 6-2 against the rest of the Mountain West Conference after losing to TCU (55-28) and BYU (26-23 OT) both on the road.
The importance of this season-opening game has not been lost on coach Whittingham and he is ready to get the action started.
"Pittsburgh's very good. They have a lot of weapons. There are a lot of positives for a team that was picked to win the Big East. Our guys are ready. They are having great practices. The work ethic is good, the focus is good."
Opening on the road for the first time since 1993, the Panthers are led on offense by sophomore running back Dion Lewis and quarterback Tino Sunseri. Lewis exploded onto the scene for Pittsburgh with a total of 10 100-yard rushing games and eight straight to close out 2009 as he averaged 138.4 ypg on the ground to not only rank first in the league but also third in the nation at such a young age. With an average of 5.5 yards per attempt and a total of 17 touchdowns, Lewis showed the sort of flashes that made Tony Dorsett a legend at Pittsburgh.
However, as great as Lewis might be, having a new quarterback directing the offense might hurt his production if opposing defenses are not sold on Sunseri. The offensive line is stocked with juniors and seniors and that should help keep Sunseri upright as well as open the necessary holes for Lewis to run through.
"Tino is very intelligent," coach Wannstedt has said of his new starting signal-caller. "He understands what we're trying to do as an offense. He has a strong enough arm to make all the throws that we ask our quarterbacks to make. We're not going into a game saying that we can't call this play or that play because the quarterback can't get the throw there accurately. He can make all the throws."
The other skill positions on offense for the Panthers have Mike Shanahan at split end and Mike Cruz at tight end, both of whom are sophomores, while the flanker spot is occupied by Jon Baldwin who led the team last season with 57 catches for 1,111 yards and eight touchdowns.
Except for a handful of games last season, the defense for the Panthers was right on top of the action. The squad was 17th in the nation in stopping the run with just 106.3 ypg allowed and was tops in sacks with 3.6 per outing. Tackles for loss was another highlight for the group, registering more than seven and a half per game to rank third in the conference and ninth in the country. The team had five guys with at least five sacks each, while Greg Romeus came up with a team-best eight sacks and Mick Williams a team-high 17.0 TFLs.
Romeus is a terrifying presence, standing 6-6 and carrying his 270-pound frame around with ease. The senior was one of two players to start every game along the offensive line at the same position last year, so getting into a groove was no problem.
Coach Wannstedt believes linebacker might be the deepest position on the defense, with guys like Tristan Roberts, Greg Williams and Dan Mason all able to control the action in the middle of the field, while both Roberts and Williams can also leak out to the edges as well.
"We feel we have two very good backs in Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide," coach Whittingham says of Utah's primary ball carriers heading into this season. "We have two starters and anticipate equal carries, but if one gets the hot hand, we will ride that hot hand, which is natural. If we rush 35-40 times in the game, I expect they will each get 18-20 carries. There is no target number, we just want to keep them fresh and rotate."
Wide had some strong plays for the Utes last year, but his consistency wasn't where it could have been. He put together six straight 100-yard rushing games, but there was also the mere 37 yards on 21 carries against California at the end. Obviously quarterback Jordan Wynn picked up the slack in the bowl game, throwing for a career-best 338 yards and three touchdowns and the hope is that the Poinsettia Bowl MVP will be doling out such efforts on a regular basis this season now that he knows the offense is firmly under his command.
Asiata, who is a threat to both break off a big run and take direct snaps from center, is coming off a knee injury that put him on the sidelines for the final nine games of 2009, so his return will provide a huge boost to the offense. If Asiata is able to rebound in solid fashion, perhaps having only one returning starter at the receiver position (senior Jereme Brooks) will not be such a bad thing.
Back in 2007 the Utes had the top defense in the nation, based on pass efficiency, but the last two years the group has slipped a bit and that might be cause for concern.
"We have two safeties who have never started a D-I game," says coach Whittingham. "Justin Taplin-Ross was playing behind Robert Johnson, and true freshman Brian Blechen is playing opposite him. We will be particularly interested to see how Brian reacts. We expect him to play well but you never know about the transition."
With those sort of concerns coming in the secondary, it will be crucial for the Utah linebacking crew to handle the business in front of it this week, especially when they encounter Lewis breaking through the first line of defense.
Being on the road in the season opener is something quite new for the Panthers and if the crowd in Salt Lake City has anything to say about it, Sunseri will be under the gun for all 60 minutes. The fact that Wynn has already performed well in a high-profile game means the youngster is that much farther ahead of his counterpart on the other side of the field.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Utah 28, Pittsburgh 24