Amidst the picturesque setting of Heinz Field, home to both the Pittsburgh Panthers and the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers, Utah improved to 3-3 overall on the season with 26-14 victory over the Big East's Pitt. The Utes scratched out the much-needed win, albeit with yet another ugly performance and this time in new and different ways than usual.
Saturday's culprit was special teams, which gave up all 14 of Pittsburgh's points, meaning Kalani Sitake's defense pitched a shut out, once again carrying the team.
Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham came into the contest with 899 rushing yards gained on the season, a statistic that led the country. That number also equates to 149.83 yards per game, making Graham the second-leading rusher in the nation in that category prior to the third meeting between the two schools.
In fact, Pitt did not accumulate Graham's average rushing yards per game in total offense through the course of the game. The Panthers managed 70 yards on the ground, and just 50 passing yards for a total of 120. 47 of those yards belonged to Graham on just 12 carries, as the Utes held him in check to the tune of 103 yards less than his average, and 21 yards came on one play, which would represent his game-long.
"Our defensive front seven were getting after it pretty good. We've got some big guys; Star [Lotulelei], James [Aiono] and the Kruger boys. We've got some physicality in the front seven, plus we loaded up the box and basically dared them to throw the ball," Whittingham said. "Our rush defense has been very good all season long, except for one half. We had one poor half of rush defense, and otherwise we're playing the run very well."
In a dominating defensive performance, Utah had six sacks for a loss of 39 yards, eight tackles for a loss of 44 yards. The Ute defense held Graham and the Pitt offense completely in check, as the Panthers never got into the red-zone for the entirety of the game. Beyond the first quarter, in which special teams did the scoring, Pitt was shut out and the offense did not account for a single Pitt point.
"That's what we have to do, you know. The last couple of weeks, we've kind of been coming out low after a turnover and things like that," said defensive end Derrick Shelby. This week, we kind of wanted to show that that fight all the way through, no matter what happened."
The Utes couldn't have anticipated completely shutting Graham down, but they planned to curb his effectiveness and minimize his impact with a specific and concerted effort to do just that.
"We had a game plan, and we believed in it," explained Shelby. "Obviously we knew we had to tackle that guy, and it looks like we did that."
That game plan was revealed, and commended post-game by head coach Kyle Whittingham.
"It was gang tackling. We swung to the ball, we had a plus one in the box all the time. We had an extra hat in the box they couldn't account for," revealed Whittingham of his defense's plan to stop Graham and the run. "Congratulations to the players. Our players did a great job. And Coach Sitake and the defensive staff had a great plan going in."
Fittingly, it was Shelby who gave post-game comments after an impressive, individual performance. Shelby led the Utes in tackling with seven, but also recorded 1.5 sacks for a loss of nine yards and 2.5 tackles for a loss of 13. Additionally, he had two key pass breakups, and of course, a freak athlete play wherein he read a Pitt screen all the way, adjusted his body in midair to snag the ball out of the air for an interception that he would return for the touchdown that would ultimately ice the game, putting the Utes up 26-14.
In additon to the tackles for loss and sacks, the Utah defense forced two fumbles and two interceptions to complete a dazzling defensive performance, which as badly needed as the Ute offense continues to sputter, despite the best efforts of running back John White, who rushed for 171 yards on 36 carries with a long of 37 yards.
White's efforts, according to Coach Whittingham were a key contributing factor to the Utes' win.
"The bottom line is [White] did a great job. He had a hundred and seventy yards," said Whittingham. "And that's another guy, that was the bright spot of the offense, was John White."
Offensively, the first half was ugly and fragmented for both teams, as neither Utah nor Pitt from was able to establish any real rhythm. Still, Utah still managed two red zone opportunities which resulted in points, with two Coleman Petersen field goal conversions from 23 and 34, respectively in the first half.
The points were a silver lining to a troubling and trending development with Utah's offense, wherein the Utes are consistently leaving badly needed points on the board. the board as Utah's Jon Hays and the Ute offense could not convert the opportunities into touchdowns.
"We also didn't do a good enough job in the red zone" Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham summarized. "We had to settle for field goals far too often. So there's work to do, but bottom line is, we got a win. It was good to get back in the win column after a frustrating couple of weeks."
In a contest where points were at a premium, the special teams errors looked to foretell another regretful loss that should have been a win, Utah's defense, along with place kicker Coleman Petersen held strong, pulling out a 26-14 victory on a blustery, fall day in the midst of Big East country, where the Utes remain un-defeated in school history versus current members of said conference.
The Utes packaged and gift-wrapped 14 points for the Panthers in the form of special teams mishaps. The first, a 98 yard kickoff return by Pittsburgh's Buddy Jackson after the Utes' first field goal, giving Utah an early 7-3 deficit.
On the next offensive possession, Utah went three and out, moving backwards on a Jon Hays sack for good for a nine yard loss, producing a 4th and 18 punting situation. Disaster struck, as the punt was blocked for a 10 yard return for a touchdown by Pitt's Antwaun Reed.
14-3, Pitt, with a rocking crowd and all the momentum in the world. All of which occurred in a total of 5:32 seconds of offensive production and 31 total yards in by Pitt and found the Utes bewilderingly on the wrong side of the scoreboard despite all efforts.
Against a more formidable opponent, it could have been the ball game given the way that the Ute offense stalled as Pitt buckled down on the run, effectively shutting down John White who had been the workhorse for the Ute offense, for a stretch late in the first quarter and deep into the second quarter.
What the Ute offense did do, however, was chew up the clock for most of the second quarter, embarking on a 7:12 drive consisting of 14 plays and 68 yards, that would result in a Coleman Petersen field goal at the 3:19 mark in the second quarter. Three Pitt offensive snaps and two Utah sacks later, the Panthers would shank a punt for 27 yards, giving the Utes the ball back on the Pitt 33 yard line with 2:19 remaining in the half.
A gift in the form of a tipped pass into the outstretched arms of streaking Luke Matthews would result in the first Ute touchdown of the game, and 33 yard reception was the first touchdown of the season for Matthews. Matthews finished the game with two catches for 39 yards. The leading receiver for Utah was redshirt freshman Dres Anderson who caught four passes for 43 yards.
With some momentum going into halftime and the prospect of opening the second half with the ball as the result of the Utes' decision to defer to open the contest, the ship had seemingly been righted and the sense was that the swell of momentum was decidedly in Utah's favor.
The Utes marched the ball 49 yards on the opening drive of the second half, but again, could not convert the touchdown, instead settling for yet another Coleman Petersen field goal, this time from 39 yards as the Utes took the lead 16-14.
The field goal would represent the only points of the quarter for either team, as a combined five punts would follow the opening half drive.
The fourth quarter would go in much the same way until the 7:45 mark in the fourth when Petersen would hit his fourth field goal of the day, a 45-yarder that would put the Utes up by just five, and left the game still very much in doubt.
While true in all four attempts, the season has been a rocky one for Petersen, whom Kyle Whittingham would praise and partially credit with the win in post-game comments.
"Credit goes two places. Defense, outstanding effort. Shutout. The two touchdowns we gave up were special teams errors," Whittingham announced to kick off his post-game remarks. "And Coleman Petersen, the field goal kicker. He had an outstanding afternoon, so that's really where the credit goes."
Going into the game, Petersen indicated that he anticipated being called upon more often than in past weeks, having not attempted a field goal in over two games.
"They told me a lot that it was going to be really windy and rainy, might be a little sloppy, so it may be a little bit harder to get yards, so they definitely said it was going to be a big week for me," Coleman revealed. "This week they gave me the chance, and I definitely had a really good week in field goals, so they had a lot of confidence in me."
Apparently, the windy conditions didn't phase Petersen at all, as the 45 yard conversion represents his career collegiate long, but revealed that dating back to high school, had hit from 52 and 57 yards.
While the win got the proverbial monkey off the Utes' back, one can't help but wonder if the feeling of euphoria is temporary. The defense, once again played an impressive game, and simply was not put into bad situations by offensive turnovers and being on the field too long. At least, fans got a glimpse of what this Utah defense looks like, and can do when it doesn't have its back to the wall throughout the course of an entire game. The emergence of Petersen is also settling in, and gives some confidence; in that regard two positives came from the game.
Offensively, however, concerns still loom large over Norm Chow's unit, who despite glimmering performances by John White still fail to produce points.
That fact becomes all the more frustrating after sustained drives and demonstrating an ability to move the ball, only to come away with field goals, or punts, sometimes in their own territory. In short, the Ute offense, both under Wynn when healthy, and Hays simply does not have the necessary killer instinct.
We've got a lot of work to do on offense, that's very evident. That was disappointing in that respect," explained Whittingham. "We had a couple of chances to put the game away, and had some great field position opportunities we didn't take advantage of."
While the Ute offense did not turn the ball over for the first time since September 17 versus BYU, and Utah came away with the win, there are still serious problems that urgently need to be resolved. Another road trip to Cal in a conference battle in Berkeley on October 22 gives the Utes another good opportunity to do just that.