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September 3, 2010

Five things we learned

Thursday night's season opening brawl between Utah and Pitt revealed many things about the state of Utah's program as it gets ready to head off to the Pac-12. With a dominating statistical performance, the scoreboard after four quarters didn't quite tell the tale that played out in front of 45,730 fans Thursday night. Four quarters was enough however to fill in the blanks to those unanswered questions lingering from fall camp. So how good is Utah after only one game? Which, if any, questions were answered and how far will this team go?

Here's what we learned.

Ute defenses don't rebuild, they reload

Not only did the Utes hold Dion Lewis to his worst performance of his career, but they dominated the line of scrimmage all night long and showed their depth and talent. Eleven defensive linemen played in the game (Junior Tui'one, Dave Kruger, Sealver Siliga, Christian Cox, Derrick Shelby, Latu Heimuli, Neli A'asa, Joe Kruger, Trevor Reilly, James Aiono, and Star Lotulelei), and the unit combined for 26 tackles, three tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks. Junior Tui'one and Latu Heimuli made big impressions, each recording a sack and showing their ability to collapse the pocket. Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri was hurried the entire night, eventually culminating in the biggest mistake of the game on his overtime pass that was intercepted by Brian Blechen.

Brandon Burton is as good as we thought he was

The junior cornerback shadowed potential first round draft pick Jonathan Baldwin the entire night with great success. Baldwin was targeted eight times with Burton in man coverage, resulting in three catches for 52 yards and a touchdown. Burton also had two pass breakups covering Baldwin. The touchdown was a blown coverage in the secondary and probably not fair to place full blame on Burton. Even so, Burton showed that the preseason accolades were well warranted as he took one of the most explosive receivers in college football out of the game.

Two backs are better than one

Splitting the carries between Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide proved to be effective for the Utes, running for 122 yards on the night against a very good run defense. The Utes averaged an impressive 4.5 yards per carry against a Pitt defense that a year ago allowed only 3.25 yards per rush. Asiata got the majority of the carries with 16 for 65 yards, but Wide provided the most spark, netting 47 yards on nine carries and adding 24 yards on four catches. Both backs also showed a willingness to lead block for the other. Asiata threw a key block on Wide's 21 yards scamper in the second quarter, and Wide returned the favor in the fourth, helping pop Asiata outside for a first down run.

Cullen's a great technician

OK, so we already knew that John Cullen was great with his feet. However, Cullen also showed great hands and the ability to use his length and athleticism to hold down the blind side. Cullen quickly took star defensive end Greg Romeus out of the ball game and Romeus never got into any rhythm against the junior college transfer. Cullen showed that he was everything Utah thought he would be in the first game, now the biggest question left is can he keep it up each game over the course of the season.

Utah still has a long way to go

Mental mistakes, penalties, bad decisions in all three phases of the game nearly cost Utah this win. Special teams mistakes were directly responsible for 13 Pitt points, including the first score of the game after Shaky Smithson's muffed punt return. Utah's offense left far too many points on the field either by way of bad decisions (Jordan Wynn's poor choice on the pass that was intercepted in the endzone just before halftime) or penalties (a false start just before Wynn's pick took the Utes out of second and goal from the two yard line, and three other drives were put in bad situations due to penalties). Utah's defense had communication problems that allowed some big plays, including Baldwin's touchdown grab. Both the offense and defense committed substitution penalties by having 12 players on the field. The good news is that despite playing as poorly as they did, Utah managed to do just enough to win the ball game. Both the players and coaches know they will have a lot to do over the next 10 days before they host UNLV.

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