Struggling Utes' plan familiar to Graham

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Utah has an exceptional attacking defense that will pressure Pitt's offensive line, but the Utes have had quarterback issues and their offense is a work in progress.

Sound like a team Pitt knows?

It sounds a lot like Rutgers, which defeated the Panthers, 34-10, Saturday.

The Panthers (3-3) will play host to the Utes (2-3) Saturday at Heinz Field and Pitt coach Todd Graham hopes last week's game taught his team about taking care of the football and understanding the importance of not giving a struggling offense a short field.

"If you look at it, Rutgers hit one play against us, that's really it," Graham said. "But turnovers will kill you and we made four of them, including some in our end of the field that led to points. They knew they needed the short field to score and we couldn't get the field position flipped.

"Utah has had some of the same issues with injuries and things of the such on offense and they have a great defense, so we need to protect the football and make them drive the field against our defense."

That really was the story of the Pitt-Rutgers game last week -- the Scarlet Knights were patient and content to punt and play defense while the Panthers turned the ball over and didn't execute well enough on offense to improve their field position.

Rutgers' average starting field position in that game was at its 44, Pitt's was at its 22. Further, the Scarlet Knights had five drives begin inside the Panthers 40 and also scored a defensive touchdown.

Graham believes the Utes' game plan is likely to be similar to Rutgers' strategy: run the football, make sure the quarterback isn't put in bad situations, play sound defense and force Pitt into making mistakes.

The Utes have better personnel on offense than Rutgers, but starting quarterback Jordan Wynn is out for the rest of the season because of a shoulder injury that required surgery this week.

Junior college transfer Jon Hays has stepped in, and the difference in the Utes offense has been easy to see.

Hays has completed 28 of 47 passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns, but his four interceptions have been costly. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said that the Utes must eliminate turnovers to have any chance of winning.

Hays made his first start Saturday in Utah's 35-14 loss to Arizona State. He completed 18 of 30 passes but threw three costly interceptions, which were the difference in the game.

"This past weekend, we had the same issue with turnovers that we had the week prior and it unfortunately led to our demise," Whittingham said. "We were up, 14-13, with three minutes left in the third quarter, and then our three turnovers led to their three touchdowns. We got down in a big hurry and the game was out of reach at that point. But Jon Hays showed promise for his first outing and has things to build on.

"We've got to continue working on our primary issue, which is taking care of the football. Once we get that resolved we will be a good football team, but time will tell."

Although Utah is struggling on offense, its defense, according to Graham, is one of the best the Panthers will face this year.

Whittingham is a former defensive coordinator and his defenses have been strong against the run and are aggressive. This year the Utes have nine sacks and 28 tackles for loss.

Utah is giving up only 21.8 points per game, and that number is skewed because the offense's turnovers have provided opponents with short fields. Utah is allowing only 99 yards rushing per game, just 2.9 yards per carry.

Pitt had some offensive line problems against Rutgers and Graham said Thursday he was going to make some changes in the unit.

Graham said redshirt freshman Matt Rotheram will be given some opportunities to play this week at tackle in place of Juantez Hollins. Rotheram was in the mix at guard earlier this season but was moved to tackle, an area of concern since the start of camp.

"[Utah] has great character, toughness and class," Graham said. "They are very, very well coached. They are a very good defensive football team and one that will put a lot of pressure on our offense. They have had similar problems that we have had [on offense]. They've turned the football over. They are a lot better football team than their record shows."

Paul Zeise: or 412-263-1720. First Published October 14, 2011 4:00 AM


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