Saturday was that game. In the days since Saturday‘s victory, both Dave Wannstedt and Dion Lewis have agreed. From Wannstedt's perspective, as a coach, sometimes you make decisions based on gut reaction. For him, he knew Lewis--based on what he did his freshman season--was going to have a breakout game sooner or later this season.
"I said this, and it might sound like a strange comment, but standing on the sidelines you just had this feeling in your stomach that when Dion was getting the ball, it was the old Dion," Wannstedt said. "Every play he had the chance of breaking. He was in sync and he was into it. He was making cuts. He was making reads that he's capable of making. It was nice to get him the yards, but I also think that he probably walked off the field Saturday feeling the best that he's felt all year."
Coming off a 277-yard performance against Florida International, it was hard to argue for anyone other than Ray Graham taking snaps at running back. Though it wasn't a conference game, nor was it Pitt's most challenging opponent, Pitt had played numerous opponents over the years in the same class as Florida International. Only one other running back in school history had a performance better outing than Graham did that day.
However, there was a concern about why Dion Lewis' production had faltered. Despite Graham stealing the show, and what looked like him taking away Lewis' starting job, there was still a hope from the coaching staff that Lewis' production would return. Ironically, it all started after that Florida International game. Lewis started off the season with 25-carry, 75-yard performance at Utah. That performance was far from his 2009 production. In his freshman year, Lewis did not average anything below 4.1 yards a carry in any one game.
The next two games, Lewis ran for 27 yards against New Hampshire, on 10 carries, and 41 yards on 12 carries against Miami. Lewis sat out the Florida International game, as he was not feeling 100 percent. Lewis didn't use the excuse of being banged up for his slow start. He did say that getting in a rhythm has been challenging this year; something that's been ongoing with both he and Graham. Though he didn't refer to sitting out the entire Florida International game as helpful, Lewis did say watching from the sidelines in between series and watching and keeping a close ear in the huddle even if he's not out there, has helped. It's tough getting in the groove, he says, but watching and being in the huddle was the first step, to him turning his season around.
"It's tough to get in the flow when you're going in (every other series)," Lewis said. "At the same time, you just got to stay into the game and watch all the guys in there to keep you into the game and know what the defense is doing. As long as you do that, you should be fine."
After sitting out the Florida International game, Lewis came back with 63 yards on 13 carries at Notre Dame--his second-best output of the season, but his best game in term of yards per carry (4.8). Seven or eight more carries would have given him 100 yards with that average. He was starting to get his swagger back.
"I knew it was going to come soon," Lewis said. "It was just a matter of time. I was bottled up early. I just kept staying patient; knowing that something was going to happen. Every week was going to get closer."
Then came last week's Syracuse game where he ran for 78 yards on 14 carries (5.6 avg), and got his first touchdown since the New Hampshire game. It was also the same game that opened with a 79-yard touchdown pass from Tino Sunseri to Devin Street, in addition to 281-yard, four-touchdown performance for Sunseri. Sunseri followed that with a 300-yard performance against Rutgers this past week.
The watching from the sidelines, being healthy and staying confident needed one more ingredient to bring Lewis' swagger back. That final ingredient was a more potent passing game.
Though Pitt has needed both the running and passing game to offset and free up the other to produce, both Sunseri and Lewis have shown over the last two games, what it does to a defense when the run game and pass game set up each other.
"The past two weeks, you can tell we've had pretty good (passing) games," Lewis said. "That's helping the running game to keep the defense honest. Most teams come in wanting to stop the run, then we open up with the pass. They kind of get back a little bit. That's when we're able to find some running room."
This past week against Rutgers, it was Lewis at his finest. Looking to close out the game, Lewis carried the ball four times on a seven play drive, gaining 52 yards, including the 22-yard touchdown run to cap the drive. It was Lewis carrying the ball multiple times late in the game. It was Lewis gaining positive yardage on each play. It was Lewis breaking off a big run for a touchdown, extending a fourth-quarter lead, taking even more steam out of a defense with each carry.
"It was great to see Dion have a big day," Wannstedt said. "Dion ran hard (against Rutgers). He looked strong. He ran between the tackles. He's been working so hard. It's great to see him have a good day."