Dion Lewis looks to jumpstart his Heisman campaign in Salt Lake City.
The Pittsburgh Panthers have a giant test right off the bat as they travel to face the Utah Utes on Thursday night.
Bookmaker.com has Pittsburgh as three-point ‘dogs with a total of 48 ½-points. It’s plus 135 against the money line.
Expectations are at an all-time high for coach Dave Wannstedt. The sixth-year coach is coming off his first 10-win season. The Panthers went 10-3 straight-up and 8-4 against the spread last year.
The three losses were all by seven-points or less, including a crushing 45-44 defeat to Cincinnati that cost them the Big East title and a BCS Bowl berth. They did finish on a high note with a 19-17 Meineke Car Care Bowl win over North Carolina as one-point favorites.
Pittsburgh is ranked No. 15 in the opening AP poll and it would have been higher if not for uncertainty at quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Tino Sunseri is a first-year starter. He threw just 17 passes last year as a backup.
Jon Baldwin is one of the biggest receiving threats in the country. He had 1,111 receiving yards on 19.5 yards per reception. His big-play ability may be stymied in the first few games with conservative play calling, limiting Sunseri’s long throws down the field.
Sophomore running back Dion Lewis is sure to get a ton of carries again. He had the nation’s third most rushing yards (1,799) on 325 attempts. The 5-foot-8, 195 pound Lewis also had 17 rushing touchdowns.
Wannstedt has a defensive background from his NFL days and Pittsburgh’s 19.8 PPG allowed last year ranked 19th nationally. Pittsburgh led the nation in sacks and senior defensive ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard both return.
The secondary has two returning starters at safety, but none at cornerback. However, the team plays a lot of zone coverage and shouldn’t be burned too many times with its strong pass rush.
The Panthers are listed at plus 275 odds to win the Big East. That puts them tied with Connecticut and West Virginia. Wannstedt has never won the conference, with the last title coming in 2004.
Utah is ranked just outside the AP top-25 and 24th in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll. It’s won its last 17 home games (10-5-1 ATS) at Rice-Eccles Stadium dating back to September 2007.
The Utes finished 10-3 SU and 6-7 ATS last season. They ended with a 37-27 win over California as 2 ½-point ‘dogs in the Poinsettia Bowl. This is their last season in the MWC after accepting a bid from the more prestigious Pac-10.
True sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn is ready to lead the spread offense. He replaced Terrance Cain in the eighth game of last season despite the team going 6-1. Wynn lost two games at ranked TCU and BYU, but played very well in the bowl game (338 passing yards, three touchdowns).
Cain is still around and could be used in some situations. The running back tandem of Eddie Wide (1,069 rushing yards) and Matt Asiata is very good. Asiata is back from his knee injury after being granted a sixth year of eligibility. They will run behind an experienced offensive line with four returning starters.
The defense lost disruptive rusher Koa Misi and returns only four starters overall. The Utes will continue to employ an attacking style with blitzes and man-to-man coverage on the outside.
Utah linebacker Nai Fotu (knee) was lost in the spring and there are no returning starters at linebacker. Pittsburgh isn’t going to do anything too fancy on offense, which should help the inexperienced Utah defenders get settled.
This is the second meeting all-time between these teams. Utah beat Pittsburgh 35-7 in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl to finish undefeated. Walt Harris coached Pittsburgh and it was Urban Meyer for Utah.
Thursday’s game will begin at 5:30 p.m. (PT) with Versus broadcasting. Weather should be clear and in the upper 60s.