YSU - Kurt Hess is back for his junior season after a stellar 2011 campaign. Last season, he was named first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference after passing for 2,468 yards and 26 touchdowns. He threw a touchdown pass in every game for the Penguins. This year, he's already on the Walter Payton Award Watch List - an award given to the top FCS player - and a preseason All-MVFC first-team selection.
PITT - The Panthers also bring experience to the quarterback slot with senior Tino Sunseri, who is making his 27th career start. He has passed for 5,302 yards over his career. Last season, he threw for 2,616 yards and and 10 touchdowns.
EDGE - Even
YSU -Now entering his senior season, Jamaine Cook is the go-to in the backfield. In 2011, he rushed for 1,386 yards - 126 yards per game - and 13 touchdowns. Like Hess, he's also on the Walter Payton Watch List and was a finalist for the award last season. When Cook needs some rest, the Penguins will call on Torrian Pace or Adaris Bellamy. Coming in fourth on the depth chart is Warren G. Harding graduate Demond Hymes.
PITT - Ray Graham is back with the Panthers after spending the offseason rehabilitating from right knee surgery. He hurt his knee in late October last season. Before the injury, Graham was having a stellar season, averaging 134.1 yards per game, which was leading the Big East.
EDGE - Pitt
YSU - The receivers have already had a blow to the unit this year, losing Jelani Berassa to a torn ACL. That means even a bigger load is going to be put on Christian Bryan. The sophomore had a breakout freshman season, setting YSU freshman records for season yards and receptions as well as game receptions and yards. Joining Bryan will be Andre Stubbs and Andrew Williams.
PITT - Both of Sunseri's favorite targets are back this season for the Panthers. Junior Devin Street led the team in receiving in 2011 with 754 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Mike Shanahan added 493 yards and four scores. Also, tight end Hubie Graham is back in the lineup, who pulled in 325 yards and three TDs.
EDGE - Pitt
YSU - One of the biggest strengths for YSU this season is the offensive line. The front line is a veteran group as they were all starters last season. The unit gave up just nine sacks in 2011 and knowing how well Hess and Cook performed last year is a tell-tale sign the line is strong.
PITT - The line is big - they average at 6-foot-5 and 317 pounds. Leading the unit is junior right guard Ryan Schlieper who has lettered three seasons and brings the most experience. He and center Ryan Turnley are the only members of this year's starting five to start by the end of last season. Also, Schlieper has made a move, now playing right guard as he played left guard last season.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - The defense took some hits last season on the scoreboard and on the field, so this is the place where YSU is looking to make the most improvements. Aronde Stanton and Nick DeKraker return to the defensive line of the Penguins as starters and will welcome Josh Fenderson and Luis Quinones. Stanton, a team captain this season, brings back the most stats, as he recorded 32 tackles, two sacks and an interception last season.
PITT - While junior Aaron Donald is a preseason All-American, he's the only returning member of the defensive line - and he is making the move from end to tackle. Last season, Donald compiled 47 tackles, 16 for loss, 11 sacks, 11 hurries and a forced fumble. New to the Pitt line this year is T.J. Clemmings, Tyrone Ezell and Jack Lippert.
EDGE - Even
YSU - This group brings back the most defensive firepower from 2011. Sophomore Teven Williams led the team with 67 tackles last season and sophomore Travis Williams added 59. Starting the season at SAM linebacker is Dom Rich of Canfield and the WILL will be Dubem Nwadiogbu. Teven Williams will be in the middle. Travis Williams is listed as the back up to Nwadiogbu.
PITT - Another big shift in the defense this year is that the Panthers are switching from a 3-4 defense to the 4-3. Also, the three starting linemen for the Panthers are all new starters this year. This could be the one area that YSU can take advantage of on the field.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - If one unit went through a makeover in the offseason, it was the defensive backs. The transformation started when the Penguins brought in new defensive coordinator/safeties coach JoeTresey and cornerbacks coach Glenn Davis. Also, three of the four starters from the secondary are junior college transfers and Cardinal Mooney graduate Donald D'Alesio has moved to free safety from corner. The secondary gave up 2,268 yards last season, a number the Penguins definitely want to see improved. Also, the Pitt receivers are no joke, so this new, revamped unit will see heavy action right out of the gates.
PITT - K'Waun Williams brings back the most experience to the secondary, but, like Youngstown State, would like to see improvement in this squad. Williams was third on the 2011 team with 67 tackles. The Panthers gave up 3,038 yards last season and 16 passing touchdowns. Adding some local flavor, Cardinal Mooney graduate Ray Vinopal will be getting the call at strong safety.
EDGE - Even
YSU - Niles native and punter Nick Liste is back for his junior year. He averaged 39.8 yards per punt, pinning 16 punts inside the 20-yard line. David Brown is also back to handle the place kicking. Brown wasn't called on much last year for field goals, as he was 3 of 4. Stubbs will be handling the kick and punt returns along with Hymes.
PITT - Kevin Harper returns to Pitt as the kicker. Last season, he was 21 of 31 from field goal range, with his long being 52 yards. Matt Yoklic also returns to the punter position. He averaged 41.2 yards per punt and pinned 21 punts inside the 20. Cameron Saddler is the main threat in the punt and kickoff returns.
EDGE - Pitt.
The two teams are actually very similar - high-powered offenses against defenses that are being reworked and that struggled in the past. Both teams also struggled in the fourth quarter last season. The question is going to be who breaks first? The Penguins have become very close to defeating FBS opponents in recent years, almost knocking off Michigan State last year in the season opener. Call me an optimist, but I think this is the year they do it, but it will take a complete, four-quarter game to get it done.