WHAT THIS GAME MEANS?
A lot. It's the opener, it's Thursday night football, and it's a matchup of two of the hottest programs in the country. This game is also, arguably, Pitt's toughest matchup of the season. A win here, and without getting ahead of ourselves, Pitt is capable of beating any of the remaining teams on their schedule. A loss at Utah, even though it would be a loss to a competitive team, and a team also destined for a big season, drastically changes Pitt‘s bowl hopes right away. Though chances to win the Big East remain intact, one loss for a Big East team based on the conference‘s reputation among the bowl selection committee, inflates itself more than it would for another other conference. This also marks Pitt's first road opener in 17 years.
It's also big for Utah, as they can send one more message, as they have in the past, that they are ready to be a BCS school. After BCS bowl wins over Pitt and Alabama in recent years, there's probably not much more of a message the Utes need to send. This would be more of a reminder to all the Pac-10 schools, that they are on their way.
REVENGE ON THE MIND
There are no current Panthers with any ties to Pitt's 2004 Fiesta Bowl team. Interestingly, both programs at that time, were in transition. Walt Harris was coaching his last game at Pitt, even though Dave Wannstedt had already been hired to replace him. Urban Meyer was coaching one last game, before bolting for Florida. Both programs are in more of the national spotlight for this 2010 opener than they were for that game.
The 2004 Fiesta Bowl might not mean anything to the current Pitt players. Current redshirt seniors (Greg Romeus, Ricky Gary, Jason Pinkston, Tyler Tkach) and redshirt juniors Aaron Smith and Justin Hargrove were all high school juniors at that point, and the only current members of the team eligible for written offers at that time. None, however, had been officially offered by the Panthers at that point. Smith and Pinkston, of all these players, were the earliest to be offered, once Wannstedt and company got their hands on recruiting.
While one team will garner national attention for winning, and the other for losing, this game will boast one of the country's best matchups between offensive and defensive lines. The Utes return four of five starters on the offensive line. That fifth spot, the starting left tackle position, is not in a bad spot either. Zane Beadles started there last year, went on to earn all-conference honors and was a second-round draft pick in April's NFL Draft. In his place, four-star JUCO recruit John Cullen, who chose Utah over USC, Tennessee and others, will get the nod. He was the biggest signee of Utah's 2010 class.
On the defensive line, Utah must replace defensive end Koa Misi, who was also a second-round NFL draft pick in 2010. They return an impressive group that includes defensive end Derrick Shelby, and defensive tackles Sealver Siliga and Dave Kruger. Shelby missed all of 2009 with an injury, but is expected to be back in full force. Siligan is Utah's version of Myles Caragein. He got a lot of reps as a sophomore last year, wasn't the full-time starter there, but garnered enough of a reputation to earn honorable mention all-conference honors. Not that Caragein also earned all-conference honors, but he was certainly worthy of it, despite not being the full-time starter. Kruger earned freshman All-America honors last season.
Behind an offensive line like that, anyone is capable of 1,000 yards. However, the Utes have two proven 1,000-yard rushers returning. Matt Asiata suffered a torn ACL in the fourth game, and missed the remainder of the 2009 season. In his place, Eddie Wide put together a 1,000-yard season with 12 touchdowns. Both have constrasting styles. Asiata is the big bruiser, at 5-11, 220. Wide, despite the name, is the shiftier 5-11, 195-pound back. If Asiata remains healthy, this could be a difficult one-two punch for anyone to stop.
Secondary, receiver, linebacker. At all three respective spots, the Utes have to replace three starters. Gone is leading receiver David Reed, who caught 81 passes for 1,188 yards (14.7 avg.) and five touchdowns. Reed, and other prime contributors Aiona Key and John Peel combined for 123 of the Utes' 245 receptions, and more than half (1,624) of the Utes' receiving yards for 2009. The position does have some promise, as Jerome Brooks, who caught 56 passes for 696 yards and seven touchdowns, returns.
In the secondary, there's some talent, but little experience. Junior Brandon Burton is the lone returning starter, and has the ideal NFL size at 6-0, 185. The Utes are counting on senior Lamar Chapman at the other corner spot. Free safety may be one of the better position battles in camp. Greg Bird is there for now, but he will be tested by a talented freshman in Damian Payne. Payne enrolled early, and participated in the spring. If he picks things up well enough, he could win the starting job, or at least be in some of the nickel packages. Senior Justin Taplin-Ross should get the nod at the other safety spot.
Some of the linebacker problems Utah is facing, Pitt has seen in the past year. They lost starter Nai Fotu in the spring to an ACL injury. J.J. Williams is expected to replace him. Williams started as a true freshman in 2006. Fotu's spot is considered the weak-side spot. Losing him was similar to when Pitt lost Shane Murray for the season, due to an ACL injury, right at the end of the training camp in 2008. He was replaced with Austin Ransom, a former walk-on. Matt Martinez, a former walk-on, starts in the middle. Chad Manis is expected to start at the equivalent of the strong-side. Manis is a former quarterback. Former Pitt linebackers such as Murray and Adam Gunn, have made the transition from quarterback to linebacker.
TOUGHEST CAMP BATTLES FOR UTAH
Defensive end: Junior Tui'one vs. Lei Talamaivao
Free safety : Greg Bird vs. Damian Payne
MOST INTRIGUING MATCHUPS BETWEEN PITT AND UTAH
Dion Lewis and Ray Graham vs. Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide
- Is Asiata proves to be healthy from the ACL injury, both teams have the chance to put on a clinic on how to successfully use two running backs at the same time.
Jason Pinkston vs. Derrick Shelby
- Shelby may have missed 2009 with an injury, but injuries can't change players' tendencies. He is a pass rushing force, and will be a good challenge for Pinkston. If Pinkston is truly worthy of being a first-round pick in April, this will be a good test, and a good chance to show the nation what he can do.
Chris Jacobson vs. Selver Siligan
- A battle of two pit bulls.
Greg Romeus vs. John Cullen
- Sure, Cullen may be in his first year as a starter, but the junior-college standout from California was Utah's top signee this past year. He helps the Utes at a position of need, and is talented enough to come in right away and be a force. He'll receive a tough test early in Romeus. It might be too early to tell Cullen's future, but it should be a matchup of future NFL'ers.
Jon Baldwin vs. Brandon Burton
- A 6-5 receiver versus a 6-0 corner--the ideal size that NFL scouts drool over at the respective positions.
This will be a true test for any fan who says they love smash mouth football. The battle in the trenches on both sides will be fun to watch, and won't be for the faint of heart. Though Utah returns more starters on both lines (one new starter on each side), both teams bring the physical element. With both teams having proven running backs, whatever line--offensive or defensive--gains the upper hand in the tranches, will be the key to victory.
Pitt has an advantage at the receiver position, going against an inexperienced secondary. Pitt's running backs could also take advantage of an inexperienced Utah linebacking corps, if they get through the holes in the trenches.
The good thing for Utah, in replacing what they have to replace, is much like Pitt, in that both teams' philosophies hinge on what happens on the interior line. Whoever wins that battle will set the tone and eventually win the game.