How healthy are the Panthers?
Though the Panthers didn't suffer any season-ending, or any long-term injuries coming out of the Utah game, there are four players that will be under the watch--Ray Graham, Greg Romeus, Dom DeCicco and Andrew Taglianetti. Should Graham play Saturday after missing the Utah game, or would it be more beneficial to get by without him for one more game, giving him almost another two weeks before Miami? If Dion Lewis can handle the workload by himself--and there's no reason to think that he can't, look for Pitt to save Graham for one more game, to prevent any more setbacks.
Romeus played 59 snaps at defensive end last week. Since Pitt was playing from behind for most of the game, the coaches only used three defensive ends--Romeus, Jabaal Sheard and Brandon Lindsey. Romeus--since he was limited training camp, it's a matter of him getting back into football shape. The Utah game may have been too much--physically--for him to overcome. With one game under his belt, we'll have a better idea of where he's at, conditioning-wise.
With DeCicco and Taglianetti--that question is more from the position as a whole. DeCicco went down in the second quarter against Utah, still being bothered by a hamstring injury, from camp. Taglianetti was also limited in the Utah game. The safety position looked like it had more depth, entering the season. If DeCicco and Taglianetti aren't able to go, it's down to Jason Hendricks and Jared Holley--who played pretty well last week--and Kolby Gray.
Will Tino Sunseri continue to ride his confidence streak?
There can't be a much tougher way to start on the road than what Sunseri went through. He completed as many passes (eight) in the fourth quarter than he did in the three previous quarters combined. On top of that, he led the Panthers to three scoring drives in the fourth quarter, leading them back.
The only thing that will prevent him from carrying on his confidence level, is if he gets too juiced up for his first start at Heinz Field. If he can contain his emotions--and character seems to be one of his strong suits--he should be able to pick up where he left off.
How will the defense react to the spread…again? It was much noted this past week that Pitt is going to see a different version of the spread every week, starting with this game. The one difference with New Hampshire's spread, is that they have more of a running quarterback than Utah did. Granted, Jordan Wynn could be a pretty good runner, and in fact, he was pretty elusive against the Pitt defense. The question is, if the Panthers couldn't get to an elusive quarterback like Wynn, will they fare that much better against a quarterback who actually is considered a runner? The answer probably lies in the health of the defensive line, mainly Romeus.
What kind of pressure will Pitt put on New Hampshire?
Pitt's natural scheme is to bring pressure from the front four, so that much is expected for this game. Can they get to New Hampshire quarterback R.J. Toman. If they do, since he's a running quarterback, will it force the Wildcats to revert more to the pass game? Since Wannstedt believes the Wildcats offense is built around Toman--whether he runs or throws, if Pitt's defensive pressure can shut down Toman, this will be the most important factor in Pitt getting a win.
Will the offensive line improve?
Pitt's offensive line was as much of a non-factor in last week's loss as it has ever been under Dave Wannstedt. Sure, there are new starters Alex Karabin and Greg Gaskins that struggled in their first start, but returning starters Jason Pinkston, Chris Jacobson and Lucas Nix were often overwhelmed, as well. If Karabin and Gaskins continue to struggle, either a change is imminent, or even more weight will fall on the shoulders of Pinkston, Jacobon and Nix to make plays.
Can Pitt cut down on its penalties?
One of the things that got buried in the loss to Utah was the number of penalties Pitt committed--12. Of course, Utah committed just one less penalty, which is one factor as to why it wasn't such a glaring factor.
However, Pitt committed a total of five penalties in the red zone last week, a partial factor as to why they had to settle for field goals, as opposed to punching the ball in for touchdowns. Last year, Pitt cut its penalties down significantly, which had been a problem in previous seasons. The Panthers averaged just five penalties a game, one of the fewest in the nation per game.
Though a number of factors held Pitt from taking the lead late in the game--taking away one, or two of these penalties in the red zone may have also gotten Pitt to a touchdown score instead of a field goal, giving them the win.
Can the Panthers get a boost from their return game?
Cameron Saddler and Jason Douglas are used as Pitt's returners, because they can make an impact. Pitt doesn't have to rely on Jon Baldwin or Dion Lewis to also make returns--they have players like Saddler and Douglas, who can step into that returner role. Douglas averaged 17 yards a return last week, but also fumbled one away, which led to a Utah touchdown, giving the Utes a 14-7 lead. Pitt would never touch the lead again, which shows how big a successful return game is.
The Utes kept the ball away from Saddler after the opening kickoff. Now that Saddler is more entrenched in the passing game, Wannstedt would love for Saddler to break off some big returns. He even compared New Hampshire's Terrance Fox--who returned a kickoff 91 yards for a score, and earned CAA special teams player of the week honors--to Saddler, meaning he believes Saddler has the potential to be a Big East special teams player of the week at some point this season.
How many yards will Dion Lewis rush for?
Lewis' 75-yard output against Utah was the lowest of his 14-game career. It also ended an eight-game streak where he rushed for 100 yards or more. He failed to eclipse the 100-yard plateau just three times his freshman year, including a season-low 79 yards on 23 carries against Navy last year, the only game comparable to his performance at Utah.
A couple other factors may help Lewis. One of them, is more running room, which is created through the help of the offensive line. Of his 25 carries last week, only four were greater than five yards. The other may depend on if Ray Graham sees any time, or if one of the other backs--Douglas or Chris Burns--is used to give Lewis a breather from the workload. As evidenced by last year, Graham's biggest impact game came against Notre Dame, where he rushed for 57 yards on just three carries. Lewis still managed to rush for 152 yards on 21 carries in that game. Others such as Louisville, where Graham had 75 yards and a touchdown, Lewis gained 87 yards on 21 carries--an obvious situation where Louisville keyed in on stopping Lewis, and not being prepared to stop Graham.