Todd Graham's Monday press conference was more of an extended postgame press conference from the Rutgers game. The head coach tried to move on from the loss to Rutgers on Saturday, looking ahead to Utah. There were still questions from the Rutgers game. Those questions will likely follow the team all the way up until Saturday, when Pitt finally gets to take the field again.
Graham did address the status of Lucas Nix and Todd Thomas. Nix went down on the second play of the game against USF. He was replaced in the lineup by Ryan Schlieper in that game. Schlieper then made his first career start on Saturday at Rutgers. Pitt needs Nix back as soon as possible, based on Saturday's performance from the line. Though Thomas might not have single-handedly won the game for Pitt, he had been one of Pitt's biggest playmakers on defense in the two games prior to Rutgers.
"We need to get (Nix) back sooner than later," Graham said. "It's day-to-day. I'm hoping to have him back this week. Todd is in the same boat. That was another loss that hurt us. Todd was playing well, and makes things happen."
The line played well in that USF game, but did not play well on Saturday. Somehow, Ray Graham was able to coast his way to 165 yards on the ground, which leaves him only 101 yards from capping 1,000 yards for the season. Earlier in the week, Graham drew comparison to Barry Sanders from Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano. Sanders ran for a lot of yards behind an average offensive line during his days with the Detroit Lions. Perhaps that's a reason why Schiano made the comparisons to Graham.
"I think the pressure element and the inexperience up front was a contributing factor," Todd Graham added. "The number-one factor in that game; we didn't have our guys ready to play hard like they should."
It leads me to wonder, as I said after the game on Saturday—with Graham doing so well, why not just give him the ball every play. It sounds unrealistic, because he's already carried the ball 150 times. Of the top ten rushers in the country—which Graham ranks second behind Oregon's LaMichael James—Graham has the most carries of all those running backs. South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore is closest to Graham in number of carries, with 146.
At the same time, you would think that opposing defenses would key in on Graham so much, that they'd forget about the passing game. Yet, Graham is still able to produce big numbers. Ideally, the passing game should be able to take advantage of all the attention on Graham, catching opposing defenses off-guard. That certainly wasn't the case Saturday. Rutgers blitzed every time—something the Pitt offense wasn't prepared for. They sacked quarterback Tino Sunseri six times, which also led to Sunseri completing 14-of-27 passes with three interceptions and no touchdown passes.
Mike Shanahan touched on that subject a little bit.
"A lot of teams have been keying in on (Graham), yet he's been able to find creases and make big plays and big runs for us," Shanahan said. "We know that it starts with the run. Once we establish that, pretty much everything else opens up."
Only it didn't open up. Even with the game against USF, Sunseri completed 22-of-33 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown. That wasn't a dominant passing performance, but good enough to win, and clearly good enough in the shadows of the 226-yard performance that Graham had in that game. It is interesting to note that in Pitt's three wins, Graham has carried the ball at least 26 times. In the three losses, Graham has had 24 carries or fewer. He's leading the nation in number of carries, and performing at a high level. If he truly is the only offensive player that can play at a high level, why not just let him have the ball every time. Either that, or the passing game should be able to sneak in at least a few gamebreaking plays. It is hard to explain. Most offenses either use the run to set up the pass or vice-versa. Pitt has such a strong component in Graham, that it's inexplicable why the passing game can't come up with anything to supplement that.
"The key to our offense is taking what the defense gives you," Todd Graham said.
If that's the case, if the defense isn't stopping the run—as it didn't Saturday—that either means keep giving Graham the ball, or look to catch them off-guard by getting the passing game active.
In any event, Graham did clarify that Tino Sunseri is his starting quarterback.
"Our starting quarterback is Tino, and I've said that all along," Graham said. "He knows what he needs to do to get better, and we know what we need to do to get better as an offense."
At the same time, Graham admitted his reason for starting the second half with Trey Anderson was to give the offense a spark. At the time, Pitt was down 6-3, with neither team's offense providing much of anything. Anderson took a total of five snaps, which included an interception by Steve Beauharnais that setup Rutgers' first touchdown of the game, which made it a 13-3 game. Graham defended his decision to put Anderson in the game at that time.
"We don't ever (second-guess)," Graham said. "Our whole deal was, we were trying to create some type of spark. We felt like his ability to be more mobile would help us."
He also addressed where Mark Myers stands, and if he has a chance to enter the game at some point.
"Mark is basically our third quarterback, and is our backup punter," Graham said. "We're not going to play musical quarterbacks. We can't do that and be ready to play a football game. He's definitely a guy that we've looked at. It's not like he's the third guy. He is a guy that's in the equation as he progresses."