Pitt can prove its ACC-ready against Irish
Pittsburgh’s future is set now that the Panthers are heading to
the ACC in 2014.
The present, however, could use some work.
The stunning news Pitt and Syracuse are bolting the Big East for
the super-sized ACC overshadowed the Panthers’ painful collapse
against Iowa, when a commanding 21-point second-half lead
evaporated into a 31-27 loss.
The pain wasn’t limited to the scoreboard. Coach Todd Graham
pulled his hamstring while sprinting 30 yards to call a timeout
early in the fourth quarter. Graham joked he’s ”questionable” for
Saturday’s game against Notre Dame (1-2), though he’s not
questioning his commitment to the ”high octane” attack he
promised to bring to the Panthers.
The engine hummed smoothly for 45 minutes against the Hawkeyes
before things started to rattle. The Panthers couldn’t run it well
enough late to milk the clock, not that they were trying anyway.
Pitt regularly snapped the ball with 15-20 seconds left on the
clock in the second half despite the sizable lead.
Graham chalked the nightmarish fourth quarter up to mistakes on
both sides of the ball, not poor clock mismanagement.
”We wouldn’t have changed anything about our tempo in that
game,” he said. ”That’s not why we lost the game. We lost the
game because we turned the football over and made too many mental
Not exactly the best way to impress the new neighbors.
Graham believes the Panthers can compete in the ACC. He’s got
two more seasons to refine the product. He hopes he doesn’t have to
wait that long. The first-year coach points out the Panthers
dominated the Hawkeyes for long stretches, proof his system is
starting to work.
”We made tremendous progress,” he said. ”It’s the first time
(the offense) resembled what we’re trying to make it do.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly understands Graham’s frustration.
He suffered through an up-and-down season last fall after taking
over for Charlie Weis. He understands how difficult it can to be
introduce such a drastic change to a bunch of 18-to-22
”It’s the natural process of bringing in a system that’s so
different, because (Graham) didn’t recruit those guys for that kind
of situation,” Kelly said. ”I feel for him in that sense. But
they’re playing pretty good football. They had Iowa down, so I’m
not feeling too bad for them.”
Besides, Notre Dame is one of the reasons Graham is coaching at
Pitt. A year ago Graham led Tulsa into South Bend and upended the
Irish for one of the greatest upsets in the school’s history. It
cemented Graham’s reputation as an innovator and gave him a very
shiny bullet point on his resume.
Doing it in consecutive years at different schools would be
impressive and give a skeptical fanbase reason to believe, though
Graham is more focused on whatever skeptics remain in his locker
”What I want to do is create a memory for these seniors,”
Graham said. ”I was able to do that last year (at Tulsa), and I
want to do that for these seniors this year … I want our seniors
to leave this program with a victory over Notre Dame.”
The Panthers have won two of the last three in the series,
including a 27-22 victory at Heinz Field in 2009. Yet that was
under former coach Dave Wannstedt, whose plodding attack and
underachieving teams eventually paved the way to his exit.
Graham knows his job is to take the Panthers to the next level.
He didn’t anticipate the ACC being part of the equation, but he’s
doing his best to block out the distraction.
The truth is only the current freshmen on the team will still be
around when the move become official. There are plenty of games to
win and statements between now and 2014.
”I guess people get excited because they’re an independent
school,” Pitt running back Ray Graham said. ”They always have
tough games, so everybody wants to play them. And Notre Dame has a
great tradition. So, playing against them is a good thing, but
getting a win against them makes it that much better.”
Pitt is just in year one of its makeover. The Irish are in year
two and appear to be hitting their stride under freshman
quarterback Tommy Rees, who played efficiently against the Spartans
last week and hung in there despite getting knocked around.
”He’s not scared to take hits,” said wide receiver Michael
Floyd. ”He knows what he’s doing, and if he has something to say
to you, or if you’re not running a route or not getting that block,
he’ll tell you. He has that kind of swagger about him, you know,
that not too many people have, but when he says something, you
The Panthers are hoping to earn some respect themselves. Graham
has repeatedly called this group the best team he’s ever inherited.
Yet after ho-hum wins over Buffalo and Maine and a meltdown against
Iowa, it still hasn’t acted like it, not for 60 minutes anyway.
”We just have to finish,” said defensive lineman Chas Alecxih.
”We took our foot off their throat, and we can’t do that if we
want to be successful. So, we’re not going to do that any