"We started the season knowing we had to win a lot of close games and we've lost every close game we've been in," Graham said on this week's Big East Conference coaches call, his season dangling by a thread at 4-5 after a three-point loss to league-leader Cincinnati. "It's not been what our goals and aspirations were but we have battled very hard, faced a lot of adversity and come up short ... but it's very, very short."
Indeed, as the Panthers were readying themselves to go on the road to face a surprising Louisville team that has won three straight games, they have suffered a lot of bad fortune in close games. They dropped games to Iowa, 31-27; Notre Dame, 15-12, and then Cincinnati, 26-23.
If they had found a way to win those games they would be 7-2 and battling for the conference championship.
"It's heartbreaking," Graham said, thinking mostly of the seniors he inherited. "My heart goes out to them. I don't believe we're a 4-5 football team."
Not only have they lost close games, but they have lost far too many players to injury during the season to turn it around, five offensive players alone out of the year including Ray Graham, the nation's second leading rusher when injured.
The burden is falling on the defense as they face an improving Louisville team with an exciting freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who is coming off a victory at West Virginia, and with the best defense in the Big East.
--Pitt is first in the Big East and ranked sixth nationally in red zone efficiency. The Panthers have converted on 29 of 31 trips into the red zone, scoring 23 touchdowns and six field goals. The two times they did not convert were on missed field goals.
--The Pitt offense has had two games with more than 500 yards in total offense, getting 529 against Connecticut and 523 against South Florida. It is the first time the Panthers have had a pair of 500-yard games since the 2000 season when they also had two.
--Last year Louisville was averaging 442 yards a game when it faced Pitt and was held to a season-low 185 yards, just 74 in the second half. UL's Bilal Powell entered as the Big East's top rusher and No. 4 nationally at 143.3 yards a game but managed only 64 on 11 carries before leaving in the third quarter with an injury.
SERIES HISTORY: Pittsburgh and Louisville tied, 7-7 (last meeting in 2010, 20-3, Pittsburgh).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Pitt offense changed dramatically with the injury to star RB Ray Graham. Zach Brown, a transfer from Wisconsin, filled in adequately and has rushed for 183 yards and four TD on 52 carries for the year while showing an ability to catch passes. More of a burden to move the ball was put on QB Tino Sunseri, especially on the ground. Against Cincinnati he was the leading rusher and gained 90 yards if you don't consider the yardage lost in sacks. Sunseri has to get rid of a turnover problem that has haunted the Panthers. A patchwork offensive line has held up pretty well and hopes to get RG Lucas Nix back this week. WR Devin Street has become the most dangerous receiver with a pair of 100-yard games to his credit.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Panthers have an attacking defense that has been particularly effective on third down. They lead the Big East and rank 18th in third-down efficiency, opponents converting just 32.4 percent. Against Cincinnati, the team leading the Big East in third-down efficiency at 48 percent, they were magnificent, holding the Bearcats to just two of 13. The pass rush is a big part of that, ranking sixth nationally and first in the Big East with 3.22 sacks per game. Sophomore DE Aaron Donald is 13th nationally and second in the Big East with 0.78 sacks per game and has gotten five of his seven in the past three games. The Panthers will try to use the pressure to rattle freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The guys have to understand they have a lot to play for right now. You never know what is going to happen in this league." -- Coach Todd Graham on the Panthers' approach down the stretch.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Pittsburgh at Louisville, Nov. 12 -- Pittsburgh comes in off a heartbreaking loss to Cincinnati when a field goal to tie missed late. Louisville, on the other hand, has been the feel-good story in the Big East. Picked to finish far down the pack, it has but one conference loss to stand second behind Cincinnati and is coming into the game off an upset win at West Virginia.
That was Louisville's third straight victory. The game is critical to Pitt, which needs two victories in its final three games to become bowl eligible. Pitt has yet to win on the road this year at 0-2. The Cardinals have been playing solid defense, leading the Big East in total defense by allowing 322 yards a game and point allowed, just 18.3. The Panthers have won the last three games with Louisville but are 1-3 all-time there.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Pittsburgh is going to have cut back on its turnovers, having given up 13 points via turnovers against Cincinnati in a three-point defeat. The Panthers are facing a confident team in Louisville that is coming off a huge road win at West Virginia engineered by true freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
"It's a young, young team with a lot of confidence. The quarterback is growing up and going to be special. You can tell this team is going to be special," Pitt coach Todd Graham said.
West Virginia was able to throw the ball against Louisville and Pitt will try to do the same, especially since they don't have their star running back Ray Graham. The Louisville pass rush is tough to deal with, though, especially with a patchwork o-line. Pitt's defense will try to attack QB Bridgewater and confuse the young player.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Tino Sunseri -- The offense revolves around Sunseri, who is both passing and running for the Panthers. Last week he was the leading rusher against Cincinnati, the previous week he threw for 409 yards. Sunseri has had a propensity for turning the football over, however, and until he gets that under control he becomes a high-risk proposition.
RB Zach Brown -- Pitt wants to the run the ball and did so as well as anyone in the country when Ray Graham was healthy. But Graham is out for the year with a knee injury, making Brown the man. In a lot of ways Coach Todd Graham is lucky he's with him, having transferred from Wisconsin with one year of eligibility left. He has to balance what Sunseri does through the air.
WR Devin Street -- Street has become the go-to receiver for QB Tino Sunseri. Against Cincinnati he had a career high eight catches for 118 yards, second 100 yard game of the year. He also rushed the ball once for 19 yards. His ability to make plays has eased some the loss of WR Cameron Saddler.
--For the second week in a row, DE Aaron Donald is expected to start with DE Brandon Lindley moving into the Panther linebacker position, which is like a hybrid defensive end.
--RB Lucas Nix is listed as the starter this week after missing last week's game with a knee injury. He has actually missed the last four games, except for two plays.
--The Pitt offense has been ravaged by season-ending injuries to five contributors this season: RB Ray Graham (knee), OL Chris Jacobson (knee), WR Cameron Saddler (sternum), OL Matt Rotheram (ankle), WR Salath Williams (shoulder).