Through the first three weeks of college football, Pitt is 2-1. The first two games of the season against Buffalo and Maine were must-win games. Losing to one of those teams may have brought the Panthers' season to a screeching halt. As most of us expected, though, they came out on top with Iowa in their sights.
We all know what happened next - the Panthers led the Hawkeyes by 17 points with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Coach Graham elected to continue his "high-octane" play-calling, snapping the ball every fifteen seconds or so. The decision to not run the clock out and take away some time for Iowa to score points has come into question all week long. Todd Graham's first game against a bigger opponent resulted in a loss due to, in my opinion, a coaching error. He told the press that he did not want to get away from their game plan regardless of the score and given the same opportunity would call the plays just the same way.
What's done is done and Notre Dame will be at Heinz Field this Saturday. The game will be nationally televised on ABC, and could be Graham's "coming out party." Win this game and the entire Panther Nation will be behind him. If he loses, though, (especially if it is anything like the disheartening comeback loss to Iowa last week), he'll be facing more scrutiny than he probably has in his entire life.
Graham, who previously coached at Rice and most recently, Tulsa, was hired to lead Pitt after the Michael Haywood debacle in January. From day one, he preached a "high-octane" offense and a "nitro" defense. He was a great public speaker, captivating Pitt fans young and old. I remember listening to 93.7 The Fan, and hearing people talk about how excited they were for a fast-paced offense that would light up the scoreboard and a defense that was going to get takeaways left and right. I will even admit that I was on the bandwagon ... I could not wait.
Graham had an incredible track record to back up his claim of a "high-octane" offense. In 2007, his first season at Tulsa, he coached his team to a 10-4 record and a bowl game victory over Bowling Green. The score of that game was 63-7 and was the largest margin of victory ever recorded in a bowl game. His team was also the first in history to have a 5,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher, and three 1,000-yard receivers in a single season.
Those statistics, regardless of conference and strength of schedule and all of that, are impressive. Looking at those numbers, it was easy to envision sold out stadiums at Heinz Field. Graham didn't promise that he would fill all of the seats, but instead told the public that everyone at Heinz Field would be standing and cheering because of his explosive offense. Bold statements from a man that had only three successful seasons as head coach (2007, 2008, and 2010 at Tulsa won 10+ games).
With three games in the books as Pitt's head coach, things have not gone as well as planned. Now, the key thing to remember is that Graham isn't yet working with his own players. These players were recruited to run a pro-style offense that Dave Wannestedt and his staff had implemented for years. When Graham has a chance to bring in his own guys, the potency of the offense should increase.
For now, though, the team looks lost (aside from Ray Graham who is currently third in the nation in rushing). Tino Sunseri does not seem to fit in the offense like Graham had hoped. Coach Graham even admitted after the Maine game that Sunseri was not making the throws that need to be made in this offense.
Graham, though, is the coach and regardless of his offense and his philosophy, he's here to win games. If that means adjusting his game plan a bit to win some games this season with these players, then that needs to happen. If he doesn't produce some quality wins, or at least enough success to cause fans to be excited for the next season, then he will not even get the chance to implement his offense fully and develop any of his recruits.
This game against Notre Dame on Saturday is more than just a rivalry game on national television. It's more than men on the field fighting for every yard. On Saturday at Heinz Field, Todd Graham will be coaching for the support from his fans, the belief that Pitt football can return to the relevance that they experienced in the 1970's when Tony Dorsett ran rampant, and most importantly for him--maybe his job. Graham obviously won't be fired this season or probably even next regardless of what Pitt does on the field, but these are the types of games college head coaches need to win these days. Losses like the Iowa game accumulate over time and the more of them you have, the easier it is to be canned. This game could set the bar for what to expect for the rest of the season. Coach Graham called this "the biggest game of the season" and has likely had the date circled on his calendar since his hiring.
Graham gets another chance to pass a big test this weekend. The Iowa loss was deflating, but a win over the Irish would go a long way to restoring some of the hope that's been lost.