Last year on the way to a game, I noticed vendors selling shirts that said "Shady Who?" Of course, Dion Lewis' emergence wasn't so much a shot at Shady as it was a statement that Lewis had become 'the man.' After Saturday's performance against Florida International, we might start seeing a Ray Graham version of "Dion Who?"
Lewis was out with a shoulder injury and didn't play in Pitt's 44-17 blowout win against Florida International. Earlier this week, I wrote that Pitt had decided to play by the rules and publish its injury list per the new Big East rule. Well, you've got to wonder how much Pitt was being truthful as Lewis was listed as probable and probable players almost always play.
But Lewis wasn't the story - it was Graham who rushed for 277 yards, second most in school history behind Tony Dorsett's monster 303-yard effort more than 30 years ago. Graham also had three touchdowns - all more than 15 yards (89, 34, 19) and had about as good a day as you can have. He got the start, but it wasn't something he knew about until Saturday:
"I learned (I was starting) the day of the game," Graham said. "Since Dion was hurt, we didn't know if he would be able to play. Just play it safe, and put me out there."
Meanwhile, Graham said the record was definitely on his mind:
"I would have liked to have broken the record," Graham said. "But I was satisfied with the W."
Graham, an Elizabeth, N.J., native, also caught three passes for 19 yards and returned two kickoffs for 78 yards to give him 374 all-purpose yards. That is believed to tie the school record set by Dorsett (303 rush, 71 receiving) against Notre Dame in 1975.
"After my third touchdown, they said I was on pace to (break the record)," Graham said. "I was excited, but just being mentioned with a great back like Dorsett is a blessing."
So after a record-setting day, this begs the obvious question - has Lewis been 'Wally Pipped'?
Well, I'll get into that later this week, but the only opinion that really matters is that of head coach Dave Wannstedt. What does he say? That Dion is still the starter:
"Yes, he is," Wannstedt said, when asked if Lewis is still the starter, following Graham’s performance. "The way we want to run the ball, I’ve gone through four tailbacks. We were so fortunate that Dion stayed healthy last year with the number of carries he had. We’re going to need them both. Ray Graham had as good an effort as I’ve seen by an individual. That was great for him."
So what does Graham say? All the right things:
"I just want to go out there and play, whatever the team needs from me," Graham said. "Whether I start or not, I just go out there and have fun."
And at quarterback, Tino Sunseri did exactly what he needed to do to win. He struggled mightily missing several wide open receivers, but as the game went on, he got better, converting some big plays. He had a few passes that should have been caught, including one to Baldwin that should have been a touchdown. Argue all you want about his effectiveness, but the guy doesn't make huge mistakes and gives Pitt a chance to win. On Saturday, he completed 15 of 23 passes for 169 yards, had one touchdown and zero interceptions. His performance, while not great, was pretty good after he got past the early part of the game.
Moving over to FIU - their problem all season has been their inability to finish games. They've been abysmal in the fourth quarter of games - entering today's contest, they had been outscored 41-7 in the last quarter. That was again the problem for them today. Entering the fourth quarter, the game was within their reach as the team was only down by six points. FIU then was outscored 28-7 to end the game.
Watching from the stands, FIU simply looked like they were worn down by the end of the game. FIU coach Mario Cristobal agreed with that:
"Pitt is a good football team. I believe that they got better as the game went on. They blocked better and they are a physical team up front. Their offensive line won the battle; they were very physical there, making us miss a tackle or two. As the game went on they wore us down."
Running back Darrian Mallary also said the fourth quarter was the difference maker:
"We were executing early and up until the fourth quarter. We just needed to finish."
FIU didn't exactly have Pitt on the ropes, but the game through the first three quarters was definitely pretty even. After that, it was a different story.
So what went wrong for Pitt Saturday? Same old story - Pitt was the fifth-most penalized team heading into today's contest with 9.3 penalties per game and the Panthers added ten more of them. I'll also be writing more about this later, but several were key and really hurt Pitt.
I'm also growing tired of seeing Dave Wannstedt mishandle the ends of first halves. He did it again today, when he allowed FIU to run down the clock before kicking a field goal. Pitt had two timeouts and instead of stopping the clock immediately after FIU failed to convert a third-down, he allowed them to run the clock down to a minute. Pitt lost about 30 seconds and when the Panthers got the ball back, they marched down the field deep into FIU territory. Pitt got to the 20-yard line, but simply ran out of time and was forced to kick a field goal. An extra 30 seconds could have allowed them to get into the end zone. Pitt really needs to fix this problem as it's not the first time it's happened on Wannstedt's watch.
When it comes down to it, though, hard to argue too much with this win.