How Will Tino Sunseri Handle His First Start?
We've heard everything from how hostile the Utah environment is going to be, to how great Utah's defense is. Everything that Sunseri will have to deal with on Thursday is an outside factor. How well can he make his reads, and how well can he make his throws--that's the key. Also, he's got to make sure that he spreads the ball around, and not focus on just one receiver (i.e. Jon Baldwin).
Every other outside factor that Sunseri will have to deal with is no different than anything else he will have to deal with in this game. It's part of that Dave Wannstedt one of 11 mantra, that he spoke of at his weekly press conference. If Sunseri takes care of the quarterback things he's asked to take care of, Pitt should be fine.
How Will Pitt Deal With The Altitude?
One of the most frequently-asked questions of the week, that got very little response.
"You can't simulate it," defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said last week. "I don't know that (the altitude) plays a big factor. There's no way around it. That's one of the reasons why we have depth, and that our young guys are ready to play. We're pretty strong that way. On the defensive line, I feel like we can play eight or nine guys. We have enough people to do that. I'm not real worried about that."
Wannstedt also spoke a little about it, taking the tough-guy approach. That tough-guy approach did lead Wannstedt to a 3-1 record in Denver, when playing in the high-altitude out there.
"Everyplace I've coached for 16 years (in the NFL), we've gone out the day before, lined-up and played," Wannstedt said. "I think that all the studies from the Olympic athletes will tell you, that if you want to try to make a total adjustment, you have to be out there for three days, it takes 72 hours. So even going out that extra day, which some of the NFL teams do, doesn't really do anything. You go out, you line up and play."
It might be bad bringing this up, but the last time Pitt played in a higher-altitude situation was the 2008 Sun Bowl. El Paso sits at 3,762 feet, and the Panthers lost 3-0. Though the altitude wasn't passed around as an excuse by anyone that day, you have to wonder judging by the minimal output the Panthers had that day, especially the passing game.
How Will Pitt Stop The Spread?
Utah has a lot of speed in their offense, particularly in the way they use running backs in Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide, along with quarterback Jordan Wynn and Terrance Cain. Though Wynn is the starter, don't be surprised to see Cain as well, in some Wildcat situations.
Pitt has gotten much better at stopping the spread since the infamous ‘We have to get faster' quote from Dave Wannstedt at halftime of the West Virginia game in 2005. There have been some momentary lapses, such as the West Virginia game last year, where Noel Devine ripped off a 90-yard touchdown run, which was a huge difference in such a tight game.
A lot of the Pitt players have compared Utah's offense to Cincinnati's--meaning they are going against an athletic quarterback, who is almost impossible to get a hold of. Two years ago, Tony Pike completed 20-of-28 passes, and was sacked just twice by a team that entered the game averaging six sacks a game. Last year, the same thing happened, as Pike was sacked just twice in 44 passing attempts. If Utah is similar to Cincinnati, in scheme, it's a question of how effective Pitt's philosophy of bringing four every time can be. Either those four get to the quarterback, or Pitt loses.
How Will Pitt's Offensive Line Fare?
Though the offensive line is a concern, they at least have older players in the starting lineup. It could be worse if there was a true freshman or second-year player starting in one of those holes. Keep in mind last year, when Pitt started its opener, the offensive line was almost as much of a question as it is now. Last year, Joe Thomas had to rebound from a junior year where he struggled at right tackle. Lucas Nix was just a sophomore, and had never started. Robb Houser was coming off an ankle injury, and no one knew how healthy he was going to be.
This time around, there's still three players to worry about. One has started, and did well in his first start (Jacobson), while the other two have been here at least four years, and have been a part of the Tony Wise system for a few years.
The biggest worry is filling Malecki. That's why all the pressure is on Greg Gaskins. This is the position that has the most question marks on a team that is pretty solid at other positions. If this position--the weakest from a depth point of view--comes through, the Panthers become even more of a force.
What should be Pitt's first play?
With a quarterback making his first start, one of the best players on the field in Jon Baldwin, and three new starters in Utah's secondary, why not chuck it up there, and let Baldwin go get it for a long touchdown. Three problems solved with one play, that gets Pitt off on the right foot.
One, what better way to take that pressure off Sunseri right away. Two, showcase Baldwin as the weapon he is. Three, exploit Utah's biggest question right away--an inexperienced secondary.
If it's incomplete, then it's 2nd-and-10.