SALT LAKE CITY — Dion Lewis' Heisman Trophy campaign got off to a slow start.
The Utes held Pittsburgh's standout running back to just 75 yards on 25 carries in their 27-24 overtime win on Thursday night. The sophomore running back, who had 1,799 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns last season, rarely had room to run against a stacked Utah defense.
"We struggled a little bit running the ball," said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. "They (the Utes) had a lot of guys in the box. That's the way it's going to be every week for Dion."
Lewis, a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, started the game fast, and looked to be headed for a big night in the nationally televised contest. He broke off an 18-yard run off right tackle on his first carry. He gained 42 of his yards in the first quarter.
It was tough sledding from there for Lewis. His longest run in the final three quarters went for 8 yards. And rather than wearing down the Utah defense, the Utes stiffened up against him. Lewis had a 6-yard loss and a 2-yard loss in the fourth quarter.
"They had a lot of guys in the box," Lewis said. "I had to find a way through it."
Lewis didn't get the chance to carry the ball in overtime, as quarterback Tino Sunseri threw an interception on Pitt's first play from scrimmage in the extra session. Lewis' 75 rushing yards was a career-low total. The fewest rushing yards he had last year was 79 in a game against Navy.
It was a confidence builder for the Utes to slow down one of the nation's top players.
"He's a great back, a Heisman Trophy candidate," said Utah linebacker Chaz Walker. "He's little (5-foot-8), shifty and a great running back."
While Lewis was held in check, the Panthers had more success offensively when they found some balance in the second half. Sunseri led his team on three scoring drives, including two in the final eight minutes of the game when Lewis was hardly a factor.
Sunseri will need to continue making plays in order to loosen up defenses for Lewis.
"The first half, we wanted to come out and establish Dion," Sunseri said. "I mean, Dion is a heck of a player. He's got to get his carries. We tried to open it up a little bit in the second half and calm my nerves."
Lewis knows he's going to get defenses stacked similarly to Utah's the rest of the season.
"That's what teams are going to do," he said. "We just have to fight through it. Our receivers are going to have to make some plays."8 comments on this story
The Panthers simply didn't make enough plays to beat the Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Sunseri's interception in overtime was costly, and the Panthers fumbled in the second quarter on a kickoff to set up Utah's second touchdown. The Panthers managed just 266 yards of offense, and didn't live up to their No. 15 preseason ranking.
"They showed up tonight," Wannstedt said of the Utes. "We knew we'd have to play clean. We didn't play good. We really didn't. Our guys are going to fight to the end, but we weren't consistent enough."