Utah's altitude provides another challenge
By John Grupp
Published: Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010
Pitt prides itself on being one of the fittest programs in Division I football.
All of those wind sprints could pay off Thursday.
The No. 15 Panthers will have to contend with the thin air of Salt Lake City when they travel to play Utah at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the 2010 opener.
The stadium sits 4,657 feet above sea level, which is high enough that the body feels the effects of altitude. Only six stadiums in Division I football sit at a higher elevation than the 45,017-seat venue.
Effects at high elevation - where air density diminishes -- include faster heartbeats, inefficient digestion of food and an overall reduction of work capacity. The built-in home field advantage perhaps is one reason why Utah has won 17 games in a row at home.
Pitt plays its home games about 750 feet above sea level. The second-most elevated stadium they visit this season is Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, which is a mere 751 feet about sea level.
Senior tackle Jason Pinkston said Pitt's conditioning program under strength coach Buddy Morris will have them prepared.
"This is probably one of the hardest summers we've had," Pinkston said. "We will be fine, as far as being in shape."
Pitt fullback Henry Hynoski thinks the effect of thin air on athletes is overrated.
"It's more in people's heads than anything else," he said. "We're just going to go up there and play football. We are probably one of the most conditioned teams in the country. We are in such good shape. We are in the best shape we can be, so I really don't think the elevation is going to be an issue."
For sure, high elevation has an impact on the body. At Invesco Field in Denver, for example, there is 17 percent less oxygen available. While the percent of oxygen in the air is 21 percent at all altitudes because there is less air pressure, a person must breath more to receive the same oxygen.
Some NFL teams try to prepare themselves for Denver by arriving a day earlier than normal. Studies show it takes about four days to acclimatize to an elevation of about 5,000 feet. Pitt, as it always does, will arrive one day before the game, on Wednesday.
When he visited the Mile High City as an NFL coach, Wannstedt said he never believed in the theory of arriving a day early. He was an assistant or head coach in five games in Denver, including one preseason game. His teams, the Cowboys, Bears and Dolphins, went 3-2.
"Every place I've coached for 16 years, we went out the day before, lined up and played," he said. "That extra day that some NFL teams do, it doesn't do anything. You go out and you line up and you play."
Wannstedt said the Panthers don't use preparation different from any other road game. There are oxygen tanks on the sideline. Because there isn't much an athlete can do to counteract the effects of thin air, the most important factor can be team depth. If someone gets weary, especially at running back and defensive line, they can take a rest.
"Fortunately we are fairly healthy," he said, "so we will be able to play guys."
On reducing Tino Sunseri's pressure:
"I really wanted to make the point to him that he is one of 11 players on offense. Does he have to make plays• Sure he does. But Lucas Nix needs to make blocks, (Jon) Baldwin needs to make catches, Dion (Lewis) needs to make runs. I want Tino to feel that there is no more of a burden on his shoulders than any other player on offense."
On responding to adversity:
"There is nothing like when you are out there on your own and the lights are on and you get hit in the mouth. Everybody's got a plan until you get in the ring and get hit in the mouth. Then you see how good your plan is."
On first-year starter Alex Karabin making calls at center:
"That's not keeping me awake at night. He's as smart a player as we got on our team. As far as identifying things and making calls, he's really good. That's probably what gives him a little bit of an edge, to be quite honest with you."
On Utah game in the scope of the season
"The focus has been on Utah. Our guys understand when you are on national TV playing a ranked team, your focus has to be there. We've got to have that sense of urgency."Additional Information:
Here is the stadium elevation of Pitt's games this year:
Venue School Altitude*
Rice-Eccles Stadium Utah 4,657
Nippert Stadium Cincinnati 751
Heinz Field Pitt 750
Notre Dame Stadium Notre Dame 725
Raymond James Stadium South Florida 52
Rentschler Field UConn 48
*Feet above sea level
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