Utah football faces Pitt in another tough test
Pittsburgh • Utah linebacker Brian Blechen said he couldn't wait to travel to Pittsburgh for Saturday's rematch with the Panthers even though the Utes are on a two-game slide and without their No. 1 quarterback.
He isn't afraid that the Panthers might be more than the Utes can handle at this point.
"If you want to play big ball you have to play big opponents," he said. "We talk about wanting to be the best so we have to play the best. It's something we enjoy. There are losses, but you expect to win them all; we have all the confidence in the world in ourselves and like these opportunities."
He'd better enjoy today's nonconference game to its fullest extent, then, since it's doubtful the Utes will have more opportunities like this in the future.
Now that the Utes are in the Pac-12, there isn't as much of a necessity for the Utes to schedule strong, out-of-conference opponents for strength of schedule purposes as there was in the past.
Ideally, the Utes will schedule one strong opponent and two lesser ones for their nonconference games.
The reason for the philosophy is apparent in the Utes' current situation. The team is beat up and struggling in its first year of playing in the Pac-12. As game as Blechen is to take on the Panthers, it might be nice to have a game with the outcome secured early and let some key players rest in the second half.
"You do worry about that," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the season wearing on a team. "But we had a blueprint before we joined the conference so it'll change in the future."
Utah athletic director Chris Hill said he didn't try to buy Utah's way out of the game, feeling the Utes had an obligation to play at Pitt since the Panthers visited last year.
"Sometimes I think I should have," he joked. "This was an ideal schedule, five, six, seven years ago when we were on the Mountain West and had our eyes on the Big East to prove we were worthy of the BCS. It was a great game then, but our schedule is awfully aggressive this year with us being in the early stages of the Pac-12. It might be even too aggressive nonconference."
While it's not set in stone, Utah's rivalry game with BYU takes care of the strong opponent for the future. The Utes are also scheduled to play Utah State the next three seasons, so presumably the other open game will be a team along the lines of Montana State, Utah's opponent for the 2011 opener.
However, Hill said the Utes continue to examine whether it is viable to play BYU or Utah State.
"This is all still a work in progress for us," he said. "We're just getting our toes in the water so it makes absolutes very difficult."
Whittingham said going east has some advantages since it gives the Utes more national exposure, but overall the Utes would like to stay west for recruiting purposes.
"In general, you want to pick spots for your games where your recruiting footprint is," he said.
Such a schedule might not send a rush of fans to the ticket windows, but it is preferred, particularly at a time when the Utes are still building the depth they feel is necessary to compete in the Pac-12.
That lack of depth is a concern today for the Utes, who face a strong Pitt team led by running back Ray Graham, the second-leading rusher in the nation, averaging 149.83 yards a game. Also of concern is quarterback Tino Sunseri, who was 16-for-28 for 184 yards last year in Utah's overtime win. His top receivers this year are Graham, who has 27 catches for 190 yards, and Mike Shanahan, who has 22 catches for 254 yards.
"It's going to be a good challenge for us," Whittingham said. "They had a tough loss last week [against Rutgers] but they beat an exceptionally good South Florida team in a rout at their place so it is going to be a good challenge."
While the team's attitude has been good in practice, Whittingham said it is important the Utes get a win today.
"Whether it's a conference game or nonconference game is irrelevant," he said. "We've dropped two in a row and that is a horrible feeling. The only way to get it out of your system is to get a win."
Still, as much of a challenge as it is and as crucial as a win seems for the program, the players say they wouldn't want it any other way.
"This whole program loves challenging games," receiver Dres Anderson said. "If we're going to have success in this division we have to play good teams and we like the competition and being in the spotlight. We know we need a win and we want to win for all Ute nation."
Utah at Pittsburgh
P At Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
Kickoff • 10 a.m. MDT
TV • ESPNU. Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 2-3; Pitt 3-3
Series history • Utah leads 2-0
Last meeting • Utah, 27-24 (Sept. 2, 2010)
About the Utes • Utah ranks 19th nationally in rushing defense (99.4) and 21st in red zone defense (11-for-15, 73 percent). â¦ Receiver DeVonte Christopher (ankle) is questionable for the game and safety Keith McGill (shoulder) is doubtful.
About the Panthers • Lost at Rutgers 34-10 a week ago. â¦ Pitt is 23-25 against current members of the Pac-12. â¦ Ray Graham's 899 rushing yards are the most by a Pitt player after six games in school history.