Pittsburgh-Utah Preview

So close to earning a BCS berth, Pittsburgh settled for its
first bowl victory in seven years last season. Expectations could
be even higher for 2010.

The 15th-ranked Panthers open on the road for the first time
since 1993 on Thursday night when they face a Utah team looking to
begin its final season in the Mountain West Conference with its
18th straight victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

While a 19-17 victory over North Carolina in the Meineke Bowl
gave the Panthers their first double-digit win season since 1981,
Pittsburgh dropped its final two regular-season games by a combined
four points to fall out of the top 10.

Leading then-No. 5 Cincinnati by 21 late in the first half, the
Panthers lost 45-44 on Dec. 5 – a devastating defeat that prevented
them from earning the Big East’s BCS berth.

Despite having only nine seniors under scholarship, Pittsburgh
is nearly a unanimous pick to win the conference this season.

“We have high expectations here, and the outside expectations
are getting even higher,” said senior defensive lineman Greg
Romeus, who led Pitt with a career-high 8 1/2 sacks in 2009. “We
had a 10-win season last year, and we want to win even more games.
We definitely have lofty goals, and that’s no different than any
other year. It’s just that everyone else feels that way, too.”

The key to the Panthers’ season could be how quickly redshirt
sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri can replace Bill Stull, who
helped Pittsburgh score 417 points last season – second-most in
school history.

Sunseri, the son of former Pitt linebacker Sal Sunseri, has just
17 career pass attempts, but is looking forward to starting in a
hostile environment where no visiting team has won since Sept. 8,
2007.

“Everybody has to start somewhere,” he said. “… I’d rather
play one of the teams that’s good rather than a bad one.”

Sunseri has a great running back to take his handoffs –
sophomore Dion Lewis, the reigning Big East offensive player of the
year and a second-team All-American. Lewis rushed for 1,799 yards
and 17 touchdowns in 2009, breaking Tony Dorsett’s school freshman
record for rushing yards (1,686). He capped his season and achieved
the record with 159 yards and a TD in the bowl victory.

“I never thought he could do that as a freshman,” coach Dave
Wannstedt said of the 5-foot-8 back, who finished with eight
straight 100-yard games.

Lewis could struggle to match last season’s totals after
considerable offseason shuffling on Pittsburgh’s offensive line.
Chris Jacobson and Greg Gaskins take over at offensive guard, while
fifth-year senior Alex Karabin won the starting center position
after earning a scholarship earlier this month.

Sunseri should also benefit from the presence of junior wide
receiver Jon Baldwin, who caught 57 passes for 1,111 yards and
eight TDs last season.

While Wannstedt’s team has a home game in three weeks versus No.
13 Miami and a visit to Notre Dame on Oct. 9, the Panthers don’t
want to overlook Utah, which has won 21 of 22 at home versus
non-conference opponents.

“Opening out at Utah, there’s no margin for error,” Wannstedt
said.

Coming off its ninth straight bowl victory – a 37-27 win over
California in the Poinsettia Bowl – Utah opens its season in Salt
Lake City for the final time as a member of the MWC. The Utes
accepted an invitation this summer from the Pac-10 to become the
conference’s 12th team. Starting next season, Utah will have a
chance to earn an automatic berth into a BCS bowl, unlike in 2004
and 2008 when it was undefeated and needed an at-large bid.

“We don’t have limits right now so we can take a full swing,”
athletic director Chris Hill said following a June news conference
to announce the decision.

Coach Kyle Whittingham is hoping sophomore quarterback Jordan
Wynn can lead the Utes to a third straight double-digit win season.
Wynn took over for Terrance Cain in the eighth game last year and
threw for 1,329 yards with eight TDs and four interceptions. Wynn
was the offensive MVP of the bowl victory, completing 26 of 36 for
338 yards and three TDs.

Wynn and senior running back Eddie Wide, who led Utah with 1,069
yards and 12 TDs in 2009, could struggle if Pittsburgh can get into
the Utes’ backfield. The Panthers posted a Bowl Subdivision-best
3.6 sacks per game last season with Romeus leading the way.

Senior defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who has 10 1/2 sacks over
the last two seasons, will line up for the Panthers despite a July
18 arrest for aggravated assault and resisting arrest for throwing
a man through a glass door at a Pittsburgh art gallery. Sheard
pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct and paid a
$300 fine and the medical bills for the man.

This is the second meeting between these teams. Utah defeated
Pittsburgh 35-7 in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl to cap off a 12-0 season.
Whittingham served as co-head coach in that game – Urban Meyer’s
last with the Utes.