NCF Nation: Alex Karabin

A closer look at Utah-Pitt

September, 1, 2010
9/01/10
2:01
PM ET
Thursday night's showdown between Pittsburgh and Utah features two teams with conference title and BCS aspirations, plus some good ol' bragging rights between the Big East and the Mountain West conferences.

For a closer look at this game, national blogger Andrea Adelson and Big East blogger Brian Bennett break down each team's strengths and weaknesses:

Utah

Strengths: The offense is a definite strength with eight starters returning, including quarterback Jordan Wynn. The sophomore started the final five games of last season and had a breakout performance in the Poinsettia Bowl against California, throwing for 338 yards and three touchdown passes. He is now completely comfortable in the spread system Utah runs, and has been given the ability to call audibles this season as well.

First-team All-Mountain West Conference running back Eddie Wide returns and so does Matt Asiata -- the two combined for -- 1,399 yards last season and 16 touchdowns. Watch for wide receiver Jereme Brooks to have a breakout season.

Weaknesses: Utah lost its top four tacklers from 2009 and has to replace seven starters on defense, including all three at linebacker and three in the secondary. The projected starter at rover, JJ Williams, is out with a foot injury, leaving Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker to start alongside converted quarterback Chad Manis. Tackle Koa Misi is also gone, along with his 4.5 sacks. But Utah does have depth on the defensive line, and leading sackmaster Sealver Siliga is back and expected to anchor the front.

Pittsburgh

Strengths: Start with the running game, as Dion Lewis returns after his phenomenal, 1,799-yard freshman season. When the Panthers aren't handing off to Lewis or terrific backup tailback Ray Graham, they're likely throwing the ball deep to Jon Baldwin, a 6-foot-5 athletic freak who is a potential NFL first-rounder next spring.

On defense, Pitt has two of the best defensive ends anywhere in seniors Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus. The Panthers don't need to blitz much because of the pressure their defensive front generates.

Weaknesses: Though strong on the edges, Pitt's offensive line is breaking in three new starters on the offensive line, including a former walk-on at center (Alex Karabin) and a thoroughly untested right guard (Greg Gaskins). That could mean less running room for Lewis and less time in the pocket for new starting quarterback Tino Sunseri. Coaches have confidence in Sunseri, but he's still playing his first important snaps in a tough road environment.

The Panthers also showed some vulnerability in pass coverage last year, and they will be lining up with two new starting cornerbacks.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- Some observations from a beautiful spring day spent watching Pitt practice:

• The Panthers turned in a spirited, two-plus hour workout that included lots of 11-on-11 drills. The talent that Dave Wannstedt has assembled through recruiting is obvious, as this is a team chock full of athletes.

The big question mark remains at quarterback, and none of the three contenders had a great day. Part of the blame can be placed on a blustery wind that made long throws an adventure, but the quarterbacks struggled to complete passes even in skeleton drills. Bill Stull got the first-team snaps, with Pat Bostick on the second team and Tino Sunseri running the threes. Sunseri is the best athlete, but he's smaller in person than I expected. He's listed at 6-foot-2 but looks a good couple of inches shorter than Stull and Bostick, who are each listed at 6-3.

• Interesting developments on the offensive line. Alex Karabin, a junior walk-on who played primarily on the kicking unit last year, took the first-team reps at center. Robb Houser started there the first seven games of 2008 before breaking his ankle. Houser was playing on the second team. Sophomore Chris Jacobsen got a lot of run today with the first-string as well.

• Wannstedt told me earlier in the day that he was preparing to use a committee approach at running back this year. But true freshman Dion Lewis, who enrolled in January, got most of the looks with the first team and could very well end up as the starter there. He's explosive and made some nice plays in the passing game. The run of the day, though, came from Shariff Harris, who dashed up the middle almost untouched for a 45-yard touchdown.

Greg Cross has been moved to receiver and had a long touchdown catch on a busted coverage. The Panthers are deep at wideout, even with T.J. Porter currently suspended. Aundre Wright is lightning quick.

• Watching Aaron Berry and Jonathan Baldwin match up was a lot of fun. Each has a chance to be the best in the Big East at his position this fall.

• Defensive end Greg Romeus isn't going through contact drills right now because of a back problem, and after practice defensive coordinator Phil Bennett was busting his chops for missing so much practice time. "You might end up as a three technique," Bennett joked.

• Basketball coach Jamie Dixon watched practice from the sidelines, less than a week after his team's heartbreaking, last-second loss to Villanova in the Elite Eight.

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