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

errors.”

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

year-olds.

”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

room.

”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

respect him.”

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

more.”