Greg Schiano has turned Rutgers into the surprise team in the Big East Conference this year but understands he is facing a big challenge when Pittsburgh comes to town on Oct. 8, mostly because the Panthers bring along running back Ray Graham.
In another life, Schiano saw a back he likens to Ray Graham.
"When I was coaching for the Chicago Bears I got to see Barry Sanders and Graham reminds me of him," said Schiano, offering about as big a compliment as you can give a running back.
"He can stop on a dime and make you miss, then accelerate and get back up to full speed. We know him well. He's a Jersey kid. There's no mystery there."
Last week Graham did his Barry Sanders imitation to the tune of 226 yards and two touchdowns against South Florida on 26 carries. He also caught four passes for 42 yards.
Rest assured his coach, Todd Graham, has more of that in store for Rutgers.
"We want him to touch the ball 30 times a game. He's that kind of player. He's in that kind of condition," Graham said. "We're a team that wants to run the football. You play tailback here you are going to get a bunch of yards."
While Rutgers enters the game off a good defensive performance in an overtime victory over Syracuse, Pitt had its best game overall and is eager to get into this road affair.
"It was gratifying to see the guys execute. It was the first time we came together and played a complete game," Graham said.
--RB Ray Graham was named Walter Camp Football Foundation's National Offensive Player of the Week for his performance in the Panthers' 44-17 victory against South Florida. Graham rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries (8.7 average) and added four receptions for 42 yards.
--Pittsburgh leads the Big East and ranks 10th nationally in red zone efficiency, scoring on 20 of 21 trips inside the red zone.
--Senior LB Max Gruder is tied for the Big East lead in tackles with 44.
SERIES HISTORY: Pitt leads Rutgers, 21-7-0 (last meeting, 2010, 41-21 Pitt).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Coach Todd Graham brought a complex offense to Pittsburgh that was markedly different from what Dave Wannstedt had run, so the installation has been slow. However, when you have Ray Graham to run the ball, it hardly matters. Graham has become the most dangerous part of a dangerous offense, rushing last week for 227 yards to reach 734 yards faster than any rusher in Pitt's storied history. Able to go inside or out and a solid pass receiver, Graham takes a lot of pressure off QB Tino Sunseri, whose main job is to stay steady and avoid mistakes. The offensive line is questionable with both starting guards out this week.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Pitt's defense specializes in applying pressure to the passer and Rutgers' offensive line gave up five sacks last week. The Panthers average 2.6 sacks a game to rank 25th nationally and have had at least one sack in 17 straight games. The defense has showed marked improvement, limiting the last two opponents -- each with a dangerous offense -- to a combined 32 points, 15 by Notre Dame and 17 from South Florida. Pitt has been extremely tough early in games, outscoring opponents 39-7 in the first quarter, but had faded in the second half until shutting out USF in the second half last week. "I just felt for the first time all season we clicked as a defense," senior DT Chas Alecxih said. "We were able to do exactly what we wanted. There was nobody doing their own thing. We just came together."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's always hostile wherever you go. You can't focus on those type of things. You will focus on our discipline and not let that distract us." -- Coach Todd Graham, on facing a Big East team its own stadium as a lame duck in the league.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Pittsburgh at Rutgers, Oct. 8 -- Pitt comes into the game off its best effort, a 44-17 domination of South Florida while Rutgers went into overtime to beat Syracuse. The Scarlet Knights are the surprise team in the conference this season, many picking them to finish last. This is the 29th meeting between the two teams with Pitt holding a 21-7 advantage. However, since 2005 Rutgers is 4-2 against the Panthers.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Rutgers will obviously be keying on RB Ray Graham, so it could be that QB Tino Sunseri, who has been improving, will get a chance to throw the ball deep into one-on-one coverage. The Pitt line has been depleted by injury with both starting guards out, so Rutgers will try to press the advantage up front. Defensively, Pitt has moved forward in the past two games but will have to find a way to control wide receiver Mohamad Sanu, who has caught as many as 16 passes in a game this season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Tino Sunseri -- It seems that even though defenses key on RB Ray Graham, Pitt's success seems to come from the play of Sunseri. He has to be efficient running coach Todd Graham's offense to make the running game most effective. In that regard, he has thrown no interceptions in the past two games, an excellent sign that he is figuring this out. A second-year starter, Sunseri has completed 104 of 159 passes for 1,039 yards and has five TDs but four interceptions.
RB Ray Graham -- Graham has become the premier running back in the Big East, winning the latest Offensive Player of the Week Award after rushing for 226 yards and scoring a couple of TDs against South Florida in the conference opener. An elusive runner, through five games he has 734 rushing yards and eight TDs. His rushing total of 146.80 yards a game ranks third nationally and leads the Big East. No Pitt runner ever gained as many as 734 yards in the first five games of a season.
DE Brandon Lindsey -- Lindsey continues to be Pitt's key pass rusher as he is tied for the Big East lead and is 15th nationally with 0.80 sacks per game, a total of four in five games. He has 18 for his career and is a concern for every team that faces the Panthers. Lindsey has had at least one sack in 11 of his last 17 games and in four of this year's five games.
--Senior G Lucas Nix dodged a bullet when an MRI of his injured knee showed no significant damage. There is no timetable for his return. He was one of only two seniors in the Pitt starting offensive lineup.
--G Chris Jacobson, the other guard in the starting lineup, has undergone season-ending surgery on his knee.
--G Ryan Schlieper will be starting in Nix's place at least this week, maybe next. Schlieper played most of the game against South Florida after Nix went down in the first quarter.
--Senior DT Myles Caragein has been nominated as a candidate for a scholar athlete award presented by the National Football Foundation. Candidates for the award must be a senior or graduate student in their final year of eligibility, have a grade point average of at least 3.2 on a 4.0 scale, have outstanding football ability as a first-team player or significant contributor and have demonstrated strong leadership and citizenship.