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.