Pitt senior quarterback Tino Sunseri will look to put a difficult junior campaign behind him starting with Saturday's opener. (Getty Images)
Youngstown State at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Saturday, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN 3)
Spread: No line
Watchability: While Pittsburgh's opener doesn't have the intrigue of some of its other high-profile September matchups, there's plenty of reasons to tune into Saturday's game. If senior running back Ray Graham is cleared by the medical staff, it will be the Walter Camp Award nominee's first game back since tearing his ACL in his right knee last fall. Senior quarterback Tino Sunseri also has first chance to erase the memories of a forgettable junior season.
Shining stars: Pittsburgh: A Panthers' running back. Graham, one of the top returning running back in FBS, is expected to be a game-time decision against the Penguins. If the Panthers' senior is sidelined by the knee injury, he has capable replacements in sophomore Isaac Bennett and freshman Rushel Shell. Bennett will likely receive the start if Graham is held out of the lineup by coach Paul Chryst. Since the start of spring practice, Bennett displayed his explosiveness with at least five runs of 50 yards or more. Youngstown State: Running back Jamaine Cook. Penguins coach Eric Wolford served on the Illinois staff when Rashard Mendenhall consistently darted past opposing defenses in the Big Ten several seasons ago. Cook's rushing style has some similarities with the Steelers' back. The Penguins' senior reads blocks well and has exceptional vision. Like Mendenhall, he is a physical runner who needs to be gang-tackled at times in order to be brought down. Despite a diminutive stature, Cook (5-9, 205) can take a pounding. In 2010 against Illinois State, Cook carried the ball 43 times for 213 yards.
Who could steal the show: Pittsburgh: Wide receiver Devin Street. The senior wideout may be the greatest beneficiary of the switch to a pro-style offense. At the start of camp, Street appeared thrilled to spend his senior season under Chryst and described his coach as an offensive genius. The Biletnikoff Award nominee ran approximately a dozen routes last season, but could have an expanded role in 2012. Expect Chryst to move Street around in the slot, as well as the outside. Youngstown State: Quarterback Kurt Hess. Deafening crowd noise from the fans at Heinz Field will probably have little impact on the Penguins' junior quarterback. As a redshirt freshman in 2010, Hess went 21 of 25 for 189 yards and two touchdowns at Penn State. Hess made his college debut in front of a hostile crowd of more than 101,000 fans. Last season, Hess set single-season school records for completion percentage (64.8) and touchdown passes (26).
You going? Ranking the road trip: The drive from Youngstown, Ohio to Pittsburgh lasts just more than an hour in light traffic. If a large contingent of Penguins fans makes the trip, they will likely encounter an unfriendly atmosphere at Heinz Field. Pitt fans have a reputation for being tough on visitors.
Magic number for Pittsburgh: 4.0. The Panthers averaged 4.0 yards per carry as a team through 10 games last season, before suffering a drought in their final three contests. During the final stretch, Pitt averaged just 1.97 yards per carry.
Magic number for Youngstown State: 28. The Penguins surrendered 28 points or more in four of their five losses in 2011. The extra points are critical as Youngstown State dropped four games by a combined 17 points last season.
The game comes down to: The Panthers' offensive line. If the unit can protect Sunseri and open seams in the defensive line for Pitt's stable of talented running backs, the Panthers can control the ball and wear down the Penguins' defense. If not, the score may be closer than expected.
Prediction: Pitt 37, Youngstown State 20
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