Ray Graham was one of the bright spots in a forgettable Pitt football season. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
With the final whistle of Saturday's bowl game, another Pitt football season has concluded. Let's take a look at some of the highs and the lows in the 2011 campaign.
Best game: Pitt 44, USF 17 (September 29th)
The South Florida game was far and away Pitt's best performance of the 2011 season. The Panthers got Big East play started off with a resounding win over previously unbeaten South Florida after a lackluster showing on offense against Notre Dame the previous week. Pitt compiled over 500 yards of total offense, including over 300 on the ground, against a hot South Florida team. We later came to realize they were a bit overrated (typical South Florida), but it gave the fan base a win to get excited about and gave the team some confidence. Well, until the next week, anyway.
Honorable mention: Pitt 21, Louisville 14 (November 12th)
Worst game: Utah 26, Pitt 14 (October 15th)
The Backyard Brawl is an easy candidate for this award, but this game in particular was just so bad in every way possible. There just isn't a word good enough to describe how horrendous the offensive performance was, as they put up only 120 yards of total offense. And, please, don't even get me started on the awful idea that was alternating QBs every few drives. The disaster in Iowa City and the lack of a two-minute drill in Morgantown were tough (and I honestly think the game against Iowa would have been worse if not for the ACC move being announced the following day, making it a bit of an afterthought), but I can't think of a game outside of this debacle that was just so painful to watch. Anyone else think of the epic 3-0 Sun Bowl after this one ended?Hiring of Paul Chryst as head coach
The move to the ACC was a great one (although, after watching Clemson and Virginia Tech flop in their BCS bowls, the ACC isn't looking so hot), but when Paul Chryst was announced as head coach, you could feel a sense of relief amongst the fan base. A complete opposite to Fraud Graham, Chryst came off as a no-nonsense type of coach, which is really what the program needs right now. The fact that he's putting together what looks like a great staff is making this hire look even better. Pitt is sure to have some ups and downs in his first season in 2012, but I feel that finally, Pitt got the right man.
Honorable mention: Moving to the ACC
Worst moment: Losing Ray Graham for the season
Despite the revenge victory over a struggling Connecticut squad, Pitt had the worst news of all delivered the following day when it was announced that star back Ray Graham was done for the season. Having rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in only seven games, Graham was a huge part of the Pitt offense and it was rough to see him have to sit on the sidelines for the remainder of the season.
Honorable mention: Fraud bolting for ASU
Offensive MVP: Ray Graham, RB
Graham is the obvious choice. When Graham went down, the offense went with it. We saw that in losses to Cincinnati and West Virginia. Could Pitt have come back to win both of those games with Graham present? Maybe, but it's also possible they might not have been in that situation with Graham healthy in the first place. Ray had rushed for 958 yards and nine scores while catching 30 passes for 200 receiving yards. Graham is a do-it-all back that will likely return for his senior season and has a great shot to surpass these numbers in Paul Chryst's offense if the offensive line can make any strides under his watch.
Honorable mentions: Hubie Graham, TE, Zach Brown, RB
Defensive MVP: Aaron Donald, DE/DT
The spotlight was on Brandon Lindsey from the beginning of fall camp, but just like last season with Lindsey, Donald emerged as a force on the defense. With most coaches designing schemes to block Lindsey, Donald took advantage and led the team in sacks and tackles for loss with 11 and 15, respectively. I'm looking forward to at least one more season of Donald tearing through opposing offenses and for the next standout to emerge on this defense.
Offensive Newcomer to Watch: Isaac Bennett, RB
True, the only reason Bennett even saw the field in the first place was because of Ray Graham's injury, but in his limited amount of playing time, you had to come away impressed with him. Splitting time with Zach Brown, he rushed for more than 200 yards over the final six games of the season with strong performances against pretty good defenses in Louisville and West Virginia. And with Bennett, Graham, and top prospect Rushel Shell in the backfield next season, this unit will continue to be one of the best. Also keep an eye out for Ronald Jones, who played well as a Wildcat QB. He is also a small, yet speedy receiver that Pitt needs in the future.
Honorable mention: Ronald Jones, WR
Defensive Newcomer to Watch: Todd Thomas, LB
Once conference play started, Thomas seemed to be so dominant on defense and by the end of the season, was arguably one of the better players on an often criticized unit. Since Scott McKillop was roaming the middle of the defense, I don't think Pitt has had a linebacker quite like Thomas. He's strong and aggressive on defense and while his coverage skills could be better, I'm intrigued to see how he progresses moving forward with Max Gruder moving on. Juan Price is another name to watch, but he seemed to fade a bit towards the end of the season after having a strong start.
Honorable mention: Juan Price, DE/LB
Best Panther to Follow on Twitter: Devin Street, WR
The departure of Fraud was really hard on everyone - especially the players, who felt lied to and betrayed. Many took their feelings to the social media, including Street. You want to listen to a guy that really was hurt by the move (and really let Graham have it once he left), just read through some of his Twitter posts.