PITTSBURGH – Season openers aren't supposed to be this difficult for a team such as No. 15 Pittsburgh.
The Panthers are going into Thursday night's game at Utah with a first-time starting quarterback (Tino Sunseri), a center who went on scholarship only last week (Alex Karabin), two new starting cornerbacks (Ricky Gary and Antwuan Reed), plus a new middle linebacker (Dan Mason).
That's a lot of inexperience to take into a stadium where the home team hasn't lost in three years.
With only one senior who's a returning starter on offense — left tackle Jason Pinkston — it's by far the youngest of the six teams Dave Wannstedt has coached at his alma mater.
Still, if Wannstedt is overly worried about Pitt's first road opener since 1993, he's not showing it. He is convinced that difficult games like this one, plus upcoming non-conference games against No. 13 Miami and Notre Dame, will illustrate the depth and talent that has been building at Pitt for several seasons.
That's why Wannstedt decided such an opener would be only beneficial, not detrimental, as Pitt tries to follow up on its first 10-win season since 1981.
"I think that whether you have 25 seniors or you have nine seniors, it's the quality," Wannstedt said Monday. "What is this group made up of? And when we hit the adversity, which every team hits every year, I believe our guys will respond the right way. Sometimes being a little bit younger, kids are excited about the opportunity to play, and they're more focused on what they should be focused on. ... And we've reached the point where there won't be too many freshmen that play unless we need them."
Sunseri, a redshirt sophomore, has thrown only 17 passes in the regular season, but his teammates said they're comfortable with Sunseri running Wannstedt's pro-style offense. Bill Stull had to beat out Sunseri a year ago to keep his starting job, and Stull went on to become the all-Big East quarterback.
"He brings an air of confidence to the huddle, and we respond positively off his attitude. It was the same with Bill last year, and he had a great year. We expect Tino to have the same," fullback Henry Hynoski said. "He brings big-play capability to our offense, because of his arm strength, so that's another factor for us."
To guard against Sunseri getting too worked up for his first regular season start, Wannstedt sat him down a few days ago and reminded him what's expected of him.
"I gave him a few stories of other quarterbacks, both on this level and the NFL, that were starting off their careers for the first time," said Wannstedt, the former Bears and Dolphins coach. "I really wanted to make the point to him that he's one of 11 players on offense. We're not the type of offense where Tino's the only one who needs to make plays. ... I want him to have the mindset of being confident, but also going into this game feeling that there's no more of a burden on his shoulder to carry than any other player on offense."
Utah's spread offense has consumed much of Pitt's preparation time, although Wannstedt said both West Virginia and South Florida run similar formations and plays. Pitt held West Virginia to a combined 43 points the last three seasons, winning twice.
While Pitt is mostly inexperienced in the secondary, defensive ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard are coming off big seasons and nose tackle Myles Caragein had five sacks as a backup. Mason, who replaces Adam Gunn at middle linebacker, had a strong training camp.
"They spread you out," Wannstedt said of the Utes, who averaged 30.5 points in six home games last season. "They have a lot of screens, a run game; they do a good job of mixing it up. ... They have a lot of offense. A lot of the stuff we've been working on in preparation for Utah will carry on all season for our team."
However, Wannstedt said, no team truly knows how it will play until the first game that counts.
"We have a good plan," he said. "Everybody has a good plan until you get hit in the mouth. Then you see how good the plan is."