Utah at Pittsburgh - Game Preview

The Utah Utes heads back east to take on the Pitt Panthers.

Facts and Factors:
Utah (2-3, 0-3 Pac-12) travels to Pittsburgh, Pa., on Saturday, to take on the Pitt Panthers (3-3, 1-1 Big East). Kickoff is at noon ET (10 a.m. MT) on Heinz Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Utah has never lost a game to current members of the Big East Conference, posting an 8-0 all-time record.

The Utes are 2-0 against Pittsburgh. Utah's first win against Pitt was in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. Utah also beat Pitt in overtime last September in Salt Lake City. The Utes have also played Louisville (4-0), South Florida (1-0) and West Virginia (1-0).

Pitt is Utah's final non-conference opponent of the season. The Utes are 2-0 in non-conference play with wins over Montana State (27-10) and Brigham Young (54-10).

With losses to USC, Washington and Arizona State, the Utes are off to their first 0-3 conference start since 2002, when they were members of the Mountain West Conference. Utah is off to its first 2-3 start since 2007.

When Utah has the ball:
The Norm Chow show featuring Jon Hays will begin its' coast-to-coast road trip at Heinz Field, facing a Pittsburgh defense that has frustrated offense juggernauts such as Notre Dame and South Florida, while giving up big points to lesser offenses such as Maine, Buffalo, and Rutgers. The Utes with Hays at the healm have been less than stellar offensively. In 3 halves of football under Hays, Utah's offense has produced just 21 total points. The Ute offense has rushed the ball more often under Hays than under Wynn. Against Arizona State, Utah rushed the ball on 50% of plays from scrimmage, showing a big change in offensive strategy with the new QB.

In his first career start, Jon Hays passed for 199 yards on 60% passing with 1 TD and 3 INTs. At times, Hays showed the ability to move the offense up and down the field, but killed a few drives with bad decisions. Hays must do a better job of taking care of the football; the mental mistakes must be limited.

At Running Back, John White has impressive season statistics, averaging 100 yards per game, 5.4 yards per carry, and 7 total touchdowns. Inside the PAC-12, White has been less than spectacular. In PAC-12 play, White is averaging just 59 yards per game. White consistently is getting 15-20 touches per game, and regardless of production, is a major component of Utah's offense. Without very many big play threats, and with Jordan Wynn out for the season, White will need to shoulder a bigger role for the Utes.

On the outside, Devonte Christopher has become a legitimate weapon for the Utes. Christopher has 351 yards receiving on the year with 2 TDs, and has been at his best against better competition. Christopher was injured against Arizona State, and is questionable against Pitt. If Christopher can't go for the Utes, then Freshmen Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott will be asked to pick up the slack and make plays. Anderson has proven to be a capable receiver for the Utes, while Scott recently returned from injury and is still working himself back into the rotation. Junior speedster Reggie Dunn has flashed the ability to make plays, but lacks consistency and continually drops passes. At Tight End, Dallin Rogers has emerged as a go-to receiving option for the Ute offense. Rogers is second on the team in receptions with 21 on the season, and has a knack for getting open on third downs.

Utah's Offensive Line has underperformed thus far this season. Senior Tackle Tony Bergstrom returned from an injury to play vs. Arizona State and managed just won just 76% of plays, a season low for the best Ute lineman. Still, the right side of Utah's line with Bergstrom and senior guard Sam Brenner has been solid, and leads the Offensive Line. Opposite of Bergstrom is Senior Tackle John Cullen, who has had a disappointing season to date. Cullen's poor play on the field has been amplified with mental mistakes. Next to Cullen is Miles Mason, who has surprised many by cracking the rotation, but is a less than intimidating presence next to Cullen. Senior C Tevita Stevens has been consistently solid for the Utes. This is a group that has the potential to be better than they have played, and perhaps a long road trip to the East Coast is just what this group needs to build cohesiveness as a unit.

Trying to take advantage of Utah's Offensive Line woes will be a revamped Panther front. In last year's season opener, Pitt featured a pair of Defensive Ends that were both drafted into the NFL. Pitt's new defensive line has remained remarkably healthy this season, and has been very productive given their 3-4 scheme. The unit has 9.5 TFLs and 6 sacks on the season. The Panther defensive line is not going to be relied on to get into the Ute backfield very often, rather they will be relied on to occupy blockers allowing the linebackers to fly around the field.

Behind a talented defensive line is a group of linebackers that will play best in open space. Led by Max Gruder, the Panther defense will attempt to get after Jon Hays early and often. With mobility playing a big role in Jon Hays' effectiveness as a quarterback, Pitt's linebackers will play a key role in containing Utah's offense.

In the secondary, Pitt is vulnerable. Senior CB Antwuan Reed and Sophomore CB K'Waun Williams will give up yards through the air on Saturday. Safeties Jason Hendricks and Jared Holley won't be much help in pass coverage as well. While the secondary is capable of producing big plays that can change a game, the group also gives up big plays. Utah's receivers will get open, it will simply be a matter of the Offensive Line giving Hays time to find the open receivers, and Hays making good decisions with the ball. If those two things happen, Norm Chow will be able to attack the Panthers.

When Pitt has the ball:
Pittsburgh is an offensive team with great size. The panthers will rely on a very strong rushing attack to move the ball, without taking too many chances down the field. Against Rutgers, Pitt ran the ball 52% of plays from scrimmage, a very high number considering it was a blowout loss with lots of second half passes. In games where Pitt has put up good offensive numbers, their passing game has been simple and manageable, while their rush attack has set the tone for the game. Long drives eating up much of the play clock will be the goal.

On defense, Utah has been productive at times, but still looks like a unit playing without an identity. Defensive Coordinator Kalani Sitake has dialed up a number of packages, using a LOT of different players. The Utes are still trying to find a group of players that play well together, and fit within an offensive scheme. Until that time, expect Sitake to try a lot of different things, and even more personnel groups.

At Quarterback, returning Pitt starter Tito Sunseri has had a rough season for the Panthers. Sunseri started his career with a reputation as a dual-threat quarterback. Over the past two years, that reputation has slipped, as Sunseri's mobility hasn't been great. While Sunseri has disappointed with his mobility, his passing ability has been frustrating to to say the least. Sunseri has managed to complete over 60% of his passes, but the inconsistent QB has thrown 7 interceptions on the season. Sunseri is coming off of his worst performance of the season against Rutgers where he threw for 127 yards on 14/28 passing, with 0 TDs and 3 INTs. Sunseri won't need to put up huge numbers through the air, but must take care of the football and make Utah respect Pitt's passing game.

While Sunseri's effectiveness is in question at quarterback, Pitt's leader on offense has been RB Ray Graham. The dangerous Graham has been spectacular all season. Graham is the nation's leader in total rushing yards, and is second in rushing yards per game. While Utah's defense has been good against the run as a whole, Washington's Chris Polk and USC's Marc Tyler have had success running the ball against the Utes. Graham is arguably the best Running Back that Utah has faced this season, and if given the opportunity over time, Graham will run for a lot of yards against the Utes.

On the outside, Pitt has a TON of size. Mike Shanahan and Devin Street are both over 6'4, and present huge matchup problems for the Ute defensive backs. Facing a similar size disadvantage against Arizona State, Utah was forced to play reserve CB Mo Lee, and backup FS Keith McGill more than in previous games, and sometimes out of position, all in attempt to prevent ASU's larger receivers from picking on Utah's small CB Ryan Lacy. Utah had mixed results with the game plan. Pitt's receivers may not produce many big plays throughout the night, but they will be a key component of Pitt's game plan when inside the red zone, and when facing 3rd and long scenarios. Utah must keep pressure on Sunseri, forcing him to get rid of the ball early. The longer Sunseri holds the ball and buys time with his feet, the more dangerous Shanahan and Street become.

Pitt's Offensive Line enters Saturday's matchup hoping to avenge last year's loss against the Utes. Last season, the interior Offensive Line of the Panthers struggled all night against a strong Ute defensive front. With a spread offense in place, Pitt won't have to overpower their opponents as much as in previous years. All they have to do is provide a small running lane, and know that Ray Graham will find the space, and take advantage of. With a few holes on the line, and glaring deficiencies in pass protection, Pitt will look to run the ball frequently against the Utes, passing only to change the pace or when desperate to pick up big plays. Look for Pitt to try and move the pocket around regularly, getting Sunseri on the outside where he can use his legs or his arm to make plays.

For the Utes, this game will come down to stopping the run, and getting off the field on 3rd down. Generally, Utah opponents have struggled to get large chunks of yardage on the ground. The once "deep" Utah Defensive Line does not appear to be nearly as deep as once expected. Star Lotuleli and Derrick Shelby have been the best performers on the DLine for Utah. Starting Defensive End Joe Kruger has had a disappointing season for the Utes, failing to establish himself as the pass rush specialist they needed. Kruger is without a sack or a batted ball this season, a stat which the 6'7 defensive end must change quickly. The goals are simple for this group however…stop the run and get off the field on 3rd down.

Utah's Linebackers will display a slight facelift on Saturday. Sophomore Trevor Reilly will get his first start as a linebacker in place of Brian Blechen, who returns to strong safety position after renting space among the linebackers for the first half of the season. Reilly has been one of Utah's best defenders on the season, and continues to make plays when called upon. Alongside Reilly will be seniors Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez. Boo Anderson will also rotate in with the group, providing some more size up front within an otherwise undersized linebacker core. A key for this game will be if Utah has to blitz their linebackers frequently to help pressure the QB. When Utah has had to blitz their linebackers, their defense has struggled to defend the pass over the middle of the field.

In the secondary, Utah has been searching for a Strong Safety that they can play every down. Brian Blechen will get the job on Saturday, making the move back from Safety. Pitt provides a favorable matchup for Blechen, as his speed will not be questioned as much as his strength and toughness paired up against Pitt's massive wide receivers. Next to Blechen will be true freshman Eric Rowe, who continues to get better each week. On the outside, Utah's CBs will give up a lot of size to Pitt, and will be a key component on Saturday. If Pitt's tall WRs are able to outreach Utah's CBs on 3rd downs and inside the red zone, Utah could be in for a long day. If Utah Defensive Coordinator Kalani Sitake can dial up a defense that protects the speedy but short CBs, Utah will be in great shape.

Special Teams:
On Special Teams, Pitt Kicker Kevin Harper has connected on 10 of his 14 FG attempts this season. Harper started out the season rough, but has made 8 of his last 9 kicks, missing a long attempt last week vs. Rutgers. At Punter, sophomore Matt Yoklic is averaging nearly 42 yards per punt for the Panthers.

In the return game, 5'7 junior wide receiver Cameron Saddler is a dangerous punt returner for the Panthers. On kickoff return, Pitt has a freshman back deep in Corey Davis, who has proven himself as one of the better kick returners in the Big East. Last week vs. Rutgers, Davis had over 100 return yards on 5 attempts.

For the Utes, Coleman Peterson remains the choice at place kicker. The junior has not attempted a field goal since the BYU game, and has been plagued all season by low trajectory kicks and blocked kicks. At punter, Utah continues to utilize 2 situational punters. Junior Sean Sellwood may be creating some separation over the past couple of games, but both punters are expected to be used on Saturday.

In the returns, Reggie Dunn is the man for the Utes. Utah will adjust their return game to improve Dunn's chances of getting the ball kicked to him. Last week, Dunn had 93 return yards on 4 returns. On punt returns, Utah's explosive freshman, Charles Henderson, has been injured and will miss the remainder of the season. His replacement will be Griff McNabb, who is known as a sure handed return man with less potential to break a big play.

Intangibles:
The weather report in Pittsburgh right now looks very much like the conditions that Utah played in last week. Expect Rain all weekend, with highs around 60 and a low slightly below 50.

First year head coach Todd Graham is trying to establish an identity with his team. The team has a clear and vivid memory of last year's crushing overtime defeat, and would love to send the Utes home disappointed.

Both teams have had to travel this week. Pitt is coming off of a road game at Rutgers, while Utah is traveling across two time zones to visit the Panthers.

Pitt will be without Senior OG Chris Jacobsen, but do expect OG Lucas Nix to return to face the Utes. For the Utes, starting QB Jordan Wynn will soon have shoulder surgery, and will miss the remainder of the season. Freshman WR Charles Henderson and LB Jacoby Hale are also out for the Utes. Junior WR DeVonte Christopher is questionable.

Prediction:
Utah 17 Pitt 20

Utah's defense will be relieved to face a quarterback not named Matt Barkley, Keith Price, or Brock Osweiler, and will respond well to the challenge. Utah's offense however lacks the weapons at this point to consistently move the ball. If Utah is going to win, they are going to need to create some points from either special teams or defense. On offense, Utah won't need to put up huge numbers, but must do a better job of moving the ball in the second half, giving their defense time to rest. If Pitt sees frequent short fields, it could get ugly for the Utes. Ultimately, expect a sloppy, defensive battle on Saturday between two evenly matched teams. In the end, Pitt's ability to run the ball in the fourth quarter may be the difference, as the Panthers should win this game at home.

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