And speaking of people from a different planet - in reading some of my e-mails from Utah fans, I'm not sure Pitt should make this trip as it sounds to me like the Utes could beat an All Star team from all six of the Steelers Super Bowl teams. I mean, my goodness I'm hearing about big scary Samoan linemen who are far more athletic than anything Pitt has seen, I'm hearing about a quarterback who is almost as technically sound and experienced as Peyton Manning, I'm hearing about a team who Dion Lewis wouldn't even start for and might be the second team back and I'm hearing about a defensive line which is far better than any in the Big East, or maybe it was the NFC East. Heck, my original prediction was something like Utah 20, Pitt 17 but now that I've been educated by Utes fans I should certainly get my mind out of the gutter and I predict Utah 77,897, Pitt (-30). The Panthers should save the cost of the plane tickets and night in the Marriott and forfeit in order to save themselves from being embarrassed by what is clearly the greatest team in college football history....
Here are a few broadcast notes: There will be no "Pitt Sports Call by Subway" Thursday night on CW-15 for two reasons - one, I'll obviously be at the game in Salt Lake City and two, the Steelers game is on KDKA-TV which means the regular CBS programming is moved to CW-15 for that night. However, we will return next Thursday night at 10:35 to preview the New Hampshire game. The ratings have been pretty strong for the first two weeks so that's a good thing because it means we get to continue!
The Pitt chat with Paul Zeise will return every Thursday at noon. You can begin logging in and sending questions at about 9:30 a.m. every Thursday and then I'll begin answering questions live at noon. This has been a lot of fun over the past few years and has brought us some classic one-liners, you know, like "Bill Stull needs work..."
Ray Fitipaldo will also be doing a live chat - you can log in through our main sports page - Thursday night during the game and also during every Pitt game. It is a cool feature, an outlet to vent every time the coaches or players do something that would usually get you to throw something at the television! Ray, like Bill Stull, needs work so send him a zillion questions and keep him on his toes.
Anyway, let's look at some of the more meat and potatoes items and forget about silliness for a while:
** Greg Williams is your starting weakside linebacker, at least according to the man who should know such things, Dave Wannstedt. He said Williams will get the starting nod but he and Tristan Roberts will share the time. Williams did come on strong at the end of camp here but something else is at work -- his speed against the spread of Utah is something that gives him the edge over Roberts. Williams struggles with the coverage aspect of playing linebacker but one thing he can do is run guys down, pursue plays and make tackles. Roberts is athletic but not as fast as Williams and he also isn't as physical of a player as Williams is. The spread forces you to make tackles in space and in the end, coaches opted for Williams experience and his speed advantage over Roberts ability to read and understand passing plays and cover. I think one thing which should be pointed out is this -- there could be very limited amounts of reps for the weakside linebacker because so much of this game will be played in the Panther defensive subpackages - Bandit, Buck, Nickel, etc., etc. -- and in most of those cases Max Gruder and Dan Mason stay on the field while the weakside linebacker is pulled in favor of Andrew Taglianetti or Jason Douglas. That means there could be very few snaps for Roberts, but of course, it will all depend on how Williams performs and how the game plays out.
** Another interesting development -- who is that big, fast defensive tackle playing on the scout team these days? Oh yeah, that would be Tyrone Ezell, who began training camp as the third tackle in what appeared to be a three-man rotation. But Ezell fell out of favor because he got a little bit out of shape and he gained some weight - and thus lost a little bit of his explosiveness. He has really pulled it together, however, in the last week and I'd expect him to get back into the rotation at some point this season but don't be shocked if we don't see him at all against Utah. That means the first tackle off the bench could very well be, yep, you guessed it, Aaron Donald, the freshman phenom from Penn Hills. Donald is a classic example of a player who Dave Wannstedt really, really wanted to redshirt but who played so darn good throughout camp that he forced his way onto the two-deep. What is interesting, however, is that Donald plays primarily the defensive tackle spot (behind Chas Alecxih) and given his youth he isn't likely to swing and play the nose tackle spot when Myles Caragein needs a breather (Ezell is actually listed as the back-up nose) which means one of two things - either Caragein is going to ironman it or Tyler Tkach is going to have to play some snaps at nose tackle when he needs a breather. This will be very interesting to watch, how these snaps are handed out on the defensive line - especially since the head coach prefers rotating guys and keeping the fresh while the defensive coordinator has often said he'd prefer to keep his best 11 out there as long as they can go.Caragein, by the way, has quietly become perhaps the best player on this defense and it won't shock me if he makes at least one big play which impacts the game, perhaps an interception on a screen pass or a sack which causes a fumble.
** I saw tailback Ray Graham (knee) run today and he certainly looks a lot better than he did last week. Now, whether he is truly ready to play remains to be seen but he was listed as "probable" today on the Panthers initial injury report. Whatever that means. I will say this, he has been given a little more work each day which would suggest he is going to be ready to play. Still, if he is not 100 percent or close to it, I question the sanity of putting him out there in what is basically an exhibition game. Yeah, I get it - it will be a nice win with national implications and all that stuff - but ask yourself this - if you could get Graham at 100 percent for Miami -- three weeks from now - and have him for the rest of the season, isn't that what matters. I'm just not sure if this has the right risk/reward ratio if he is not truly ready to play.
** One guy who is ready to play is Greg Romeus, who apparently has been a man among boys at practices the past few days. That's a good sign because this defense is doomed to mediocrity without both he and Jabaal Sheard playing at a high level. If those two guys are playing well, the other nine have an easy job. If they aren't, if they aren't getting to the quarterback, well, that changes things dramatically.
** I think it is always amazing to watch the change in demeanor Dave Wannstedt undergoes as the season gets closer. It began late last week - his answers got shorter, he had less small talk and joking around with reporters before interviews and he clearly has one foot out the door so to speak while answering questions as he is anxious to get to practice. He also tightens way up on information about injuries and becomes visibily irritated when he's pressed about them. It just goes to show you the pressure these guys - head coaches - are under. He really has no pressure to win because his job isn't in jeopardy but he knows this is a huge season for his program. Today when we talked to him it was clear that he wasn't going to be making it a long session. Wannstedt is the absolute best - I don't know there is a close second that I've encountered - at being accessible and making it easy to do his job but after five seasons I've learned the drill and know when it is a good time to start backing off a little. By this point in the game, I have most everything I need to get through the game. That being said, after games, he'll answer tough questions win or lose and that is something that not a lot of guys will always be willing to do. But right now would not be the right time to start probing him about the extent of Ray Graham's injury.
** Speaking of injuries, today the Panthers first injury official report was released. As per Big East rules, every team must put out an NFL-like injury report each week two days before gameday. I think it is a good idea and wish it would become an NCAA rule because there has to be some sensibility and uniformity brought to the way injuries are reported. All these games coaches play are silly - do you really think anyone gets that much of an edge by holding information or lying about a guard or tackle or even quarterback? I think that is way overrated - teams prepare a game plan and are ready to play regardless of who plays. Anyway - here is the official injury report: Defensive end Greg Romeus (back) and tailback Ray Graham (knee) are listed as probable while redshirt sophomore lineman Keith Coleman (knee), freshman lineman Arthur Doakes (shoulder), freshman defensive end Bryan Murphy (foot), freshman tailback T.J. Peeler (knee) and freshman defensive back Jeff Knox (shoulder) are all out.
** Another interesting development to watch - who is the sixth best offensive linemen? This is really a very interesting question - who would go in the game if there is an injury along the offensive line? For instance - if Jason Pinkston goes down, would Jordan Gibbs really be the guy who is handed the left tackle spot? Gibbs is big and looks the part, but this is his fourth year and he hasn't seemed to progress much. Maybe he is a gamer, but so far he hasn't shown a lot which begs the question - would Ryan Turnley be put in at right guard and Greg Gaskins move over to the left tackle spot? Turnley could obviously play both guard spots and from what I've seen he is likely the sixth best linemen on the team but I obviously don't make these decisions. It does, however, go to show you that the depth along the offensive line is very dicey.
** Speaking of Versus - in case you care about such things: The play-by-play guy for the Pitt-Utah game will be Joe Beninati and former NFL quarterback Kelly Stouffer will provide the color commentary. Also, Lindsay Soto will provide the sideline reporting and former Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch is in the studio. Beninati, of course, is the television play-by-play guy of the Washington Capitals which automatically makes people skeptical of him around these parts, even though I've always found him to be balanced and fair when he's called Penguins playoff games for the Versus.