We're at Game 7 of Pitt's season preview. Next up is their final non-conference opponent of the season.
Who the heck is Pitt playing? The Utah Utes
When and where is Pitt playing? Heinz Field on October 15th. Kickoff time is TBA
Have we played these guys before? Two times, both Pitt losses. Utah obviously leads the all-time series 2-0.
What conference do they play in?
The Mountain West The Pac-12
How did they do last season? Utah went 10-3, with wins over Pitt, BYU, and Air Force. But the losses were bad. Lost by 40 to TCU, 25 to Notre Dame, and 23 to Boise State. Utah finished the season ranked #23 (Pitt's only 2011 opponent that finished the 2010 season ranked)
Who's the coach? Kyle Whittingham, who is in his seventh season in Salt Lake City. His overall record is 58-20. He also coached Utah in the Fiesta Bowl against the Panthers.
How many starters return? Seven on offense, Five on defense, One kicker/punter
What's the offense like? Utah, with the hiring of Norm Chow as the offensive coordinator, will run a multiple offense in 2011, departing from the spread. What do I mean by multiple offense? They're going to alternate between pro-style and spread formations, although Whittingham stated that Utah will line up in more two-back sets (translation: more pro-style formations).
Utah finished 52nd in total offense in 2010, gaining 389 yards/game. As is the case with most spread offenses, they scored a lot, averaging 33 points/game. The Utes were fairly decent in both aspects of the offense, running for 153 yards/game and passing for 236 yards/game. There's not much to point out as far as glaring weaknesses. The only stat that sticks out is a -1 turnover margin - and even that's pushing it. I will say this: in Utah's three losses, their turnover margin was -5. In their ten wins, it was +4. Turnovers will cost you games.
Jordan Wynn will be the starting QB for Utah heading into the 2011 season, although it will be interesting to see how he does in his first few games. Wynn is coming off of shoulder surgery in December which caused him to miss all of spring camp. By the time these two teams meet, we'll definitely know. Utah went 2-1 in games that he missed so the offense can still function without him at QB. Wynn was a good QB when he was playing, completing 62% of his passes while throwing for 17 TDs. One thing he will have to work on is lowering the number of interceptions (Wynn threw 12 a year ago in ten games). Luckily for him, there won't be much of a learning curve in this new offense as Jordan spent much of his high school under center. As for his backup should injuries sideline Wynn again, it will be true freshman Tyler Shreve, who was a 10th round draft pick in the 2010 MLB Draft.
Running back will be a position to watch for Utah, who doesn't return a single player in the unit. No joke, their choices for starter are true freshman Harvey Langi, juco transfer John White IV, and walk-on Thretton Palamo. So don't be shocked if the unit is struggling to start the season or when Utah comes to Pittsburgh. As for how the unit will do, I'm not sure honestly. It'll help that Utah returns three starters from the offensive line, but this unit is a huge question mark. If I had to pick a starter, I would start Langi, who was a H.S. All-American, although Palamo, who once starred in the Rugby World Cup, is a very intriguing prospect. At FB, junior Dallin Rogers figures to be the starter and also see some time at tight end if needed.
Wide receiver is the other question mark, although not nearly as big as RB. There is a returning starter in DeVonte Christopher, who if you remember absolutely killed our secondary with long receptions a year ago for 155 receiving yards in only eight catches. Utah is looking for more speed in the receiving corps, so Christopher will have a bigger role (he runs a 4.48 40) as will redshirt freshman Dres Anderson and junior Reggie Dunn, who are both very fast off the line and will be the target of most long balls. A fourth receiver that will figure to play significant minutes will be junior Luke Matthews, who will also see time at fullback. Junior Kendrick Moeai will be the starter at tight end and, with the transition to more pro-style sets, he figures to see an increased role in the offense. It'll be interesting to see how this unit performs in this new offense, which will require speed on the outside, but I'm leaning towards believing that the unit will be fine in the Pac-12.
The line will return three starters from a unit that allowed only 12 sacks (a big change from the last preview). Seniors John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom, the starting LT and RT respectively, and junior Tevita Stevens, who spent last season at LG, all return and Bergstrom and Cullen should vie for All Pac-12. Junior Sam Brenner will be the starter at LG after spending last season as the backup, although he did miss most of spring camp due to injuries. As for RG, there will be a battle in camp between sophomores Percy Taumoelau and Jeremiah Tofaeono as well as freshman Isaac Asiata. Taumoelau is listed as the starter in the depth chart. The unit should be strong in 2011 with the talent returning so I don't expect them to miss a beat in the Pac-12.
The offense will obviously have some growing pains as they adjust to the new system, but it definitely helps that Wynn spent high school running a similar offense. Seven returning starters also helps. The position to watch will be the running back. If that unit doesn't get going, Utah's inaugural season in the Pac-12 will not be a good one. As of right now, I'm going to say the offense will be the better of the two units.
Ok, now what about the defense? Utah will line up in a 4-3 defensive scheme. Whittingham has always been a defensive-minded coach, with the defensive line in particular being strong. Utah was 27th in FBS, allowing 336 yards/game last season. As I said, the defensive line is normally strong under Whittingham, and this was the case in 2010; the Utes were 11th in rushing defense allowing 111 yards/game. The passing defense, on the other hand, was not as great. Utah finished at 73rd in FBS, allowing 225 yards/game and only forced seven picks. Heading into a conference with QB studs like Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Darron Thomas, and Nick Foles, that's not a good thing. Luckily for Utah, they miss the two biggest ones in Luck and Thomas, but in the event that Utah wins the Pac-12 South, they surely will be against one of the two. Utah has one thing going for it and that's the scoring defense, which allowed only 20 points/game, although you have to wonder if it's a product of playing teams like New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado State.
The defensive line, as I said, is strong, probably one of the best units on the team. Whittingham has a system where as many as 12 different players will see playing time on the line, so he will be able to just plug in players and the unit will still be strong. Junior Dave Kruger and senior Derrick Shelby are the two returning starters in this unit, Kruger at left DE and Shelby at right DE, although he spent the past few seasons at DT. Kruger will also see playing time at tackle. At one tackle, senior James Aiono is listed as the starter. Aiono was a highly rated juco prospect who joined Utah in 2009 and sat out last season to work on coursework. The other tackle position is going to junior Star Lotulelei, who Whittingham is very high on. The backups will see plenty of playing time and will be in contention for starting roles next year, as is the usual case with this unit under Whittingham. This unit will be a clear strength for the Utes and will continue to be so as long as Whittingham is the coach.
The linebackers will also be a strong unit in 2011 for Utah. The headliner is senior middle linebacker Chaz Walker, who was Utah's leading tackler a year ago and was on the All-MWC second team. But Walker, despite all the talent, is not a guarantee to be the starter as former starter J.J. Williams, who missed most of last season due to injury, returns. I'm assuming that both will be seeing significant playing time. Senior Matt Martinez also returns at outside linebacker and was Utah's second leading tackler a year ago. The other outside LB will be held by sophomore Brian Belchen, a converted strong safety who has a lot of speed and was on several freshman All-American teams a year ago. Like the defensive line, this unit will be good in 2011, especially if Belchen can grow into his new role at linebacker.
The question marks for this unit are in the secondary. The cornerbacks, though, have a lot of speed as projected starters Ryan Lacy and Conroy Black can run a 4.32 and a 4.35 40-time, respectively. Top backup Wykie Freeman also has plenty of speed. The problem is that Black is the only one with any significant game experience and, as I wrote above, in a conference that prides itself on its QBs, an experienced secondary will be a huge help. Unfortunately for Utah, the safety positions are not as secure. Sophomore Michael Walker will be the starting strong safety, and while he had a good spring camp, Whittingham is still unsure of this unit due to the inexperience. At free safety, it will be a battle between juco transfer Keith McGill and true freshman Eric Rowe. I'm very cautious of this unit because there is so much inexperience and, I can't state this enough, but in a conference like the Pac-12, this will hurt Utah badly, especially when you look at how average they were in defending the pass a year ago.
The defense hinges on the success of the secondary. If the unit can step up to the increased competition, I like the defense to be very strong. But, as of right now, there are too many questions in the backfield to make me lean towards putting the defense on top of the offense.
What about special teams? Utah returns junior punter Sean Sellwood, who was a freshman All-American in 2009, so you have to like that. At kicker, field goals will be taken by Coleman Petersen while kickoffs will be done by Nick Marsh.
Prediction? This is a toss-up to me. On one hand, the game is at home and Utah has to fly across the country. And prior to that, Utah has a tough game against Arizona State. Throw in the weakness of the secondary and there's a lot to like. But, this game comes at the end of a tough five game stretch for the Panthers. And Pitt has their own transition to go through. I like Utah to win the Pac-12 South, or at least finish second to USC, who can't play in the championship game. But in this game, I'm picking home field and the Panthers to win 27-24. I wouldn't be surprised if Pitt lost this game, though.
Stats are from the NCAA. Information on Utah comes from their 2011 Media Guide.
Want more information on Utah? Head over to Utah's SB Nation blog, Block U.