Pitt's Freshman Sensations

Since he arrived at Pitt some five years ago, veteran coach Dave Wannstedt has tried to mold the Panthers into a power running team that could control the ball, steadily wear down an opposing defense and pound it into submission.

With the Pittsburgh offensive line playing so well together, the Panthers appear to finally have dominant running game with freshman tailbacks Dion Lewis and Raymond Graham sharing the spotlight.

Lewis has been sensational so far in his rookie season to lead the Big East with 580 yards rushing on 107 attempts (5.4 average) and seven touchdowns. He also has 12 catches for 82 yards and another score. But after a breakout game this past Friday night at Louisville, Graham must be reckoned with as well.

Graham has 123 yards on 24 carries (5.1) and three touchdowns. Against the Cardinals, Graham ran 12 times for 75 yards and a score, primarily in the fourth quarter to seal the 35-10 win.

"We were down at halftime, but we knew that we had to keep playing hard to get it turned around,'' Lewis said. "So, we really turned things up in the second half and took control. We executed much better in the second half, compared to the N.C. State game. And we played the way that we knew we could.

"Some great plays were called, and we were able to execute them in our running game. We should have been doing this all along. ... (But) it's good to know that defenses can't key on a certain style of running. They can't just prepare for one of us. We're going to be a deadly combo.''

Graham, for some reason, is off-limits for media interviews this week. But he spoke after the Louisville game about his performance.

"I've wanted to get out there real bad,'' Graham said. "I was playing hard and having fun. I just kept pushing to get that first down (in the fourth quarter). Then, I told the guys in the huddle if they just give me a block, I'd get into the end zone. I trusted the guys, and they trusted me.''

Wannstedt certainly trusts him a lot more now.

"The biggest thing that happened, coming out of last week's game with reference to Ray Graham, would be that I feel better about him being in the football game and being able to handle the ups and downs and things that happen during the course of a game,'' Wannstedt said. "Until now, it was all based on potential, what we saw in practice.

"And it's what we think he might be able to do. There's no way to get that experience without being out there, and last week probably was a big boost for him and a shot in the arm -- not necessarily with how he played -- but just from a standpoint that he is capable of going into a game. My coaches trust me, and my teammates trust me. And, if called upon, I'll be ready.''

Graham clearly was Pitt's best running back from the second scrimmage through the end of training camp, but Lewis already had built a lead in the battle for the starting tailback spot primarily due to a strong performance during the spring while Graham was still in high school.

Also, Lewis took care of the ball, no fumbles, and he didn't miss many assignments. Graham put the ball on the ground repeatedly during camp, and that did not help his standing with the coaches and his teammates.

"We've seen him perform well during practices and scrimmages,'' Wannstedt said, "but there's a very fine line -- particularly with a freshman -- when you see them practicing good, but now you have to put them in a game on national TV and have confidence that they'll play good football.

"We did that, and I give a lot of credit to David Walker, our running backs coach, who convinced me that Ray was ready for the next step. I was a little bit nervous and skeptical about it at that point, to be honest with you, but I feel 100 percent better right now. He got in there and ... performed well.

"(So), I think he proved that -- he hasn't arrived, yet -- but he proved that he's capable of going into a game and getting 10-15 carries and performing at a high level and helping the team win,'' Wannstedt added. "I've never been a split-time kind of coach, but I think because they're both young kids, it helps that they're learning. So, we're going to play them both.''

Before Graham got to the fourth quarter where his talent and conditioning overwhelmed the Louisville defense, he fumbled again. He caught a screen pass and ran to the Louisville 8, but fumbled with the game tied, 7-7. He left the field dejected, but got a smack on the back from Lewis along with encouragement from Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti.

"That was interesting,'' Wannstedt said, "because we've all seen players, after something happens like that where they get a little bit passive or over-protective, and they don't function effectively. But Ray didn't have that problem.''

And after opening the season with questions at running back, Pitt doesn't have any problems there, either.

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