Football: Ray Graham leads Pitt’s offensive attack

By Greg Trietley

If Ray Graham’s 201 yards against Buffalo last month was the opening act, Thursday’s… If Ray Graham’s 201 yards against Buffalo last month was the opening act, Thursday’s performance against the South Florida Bulls was the main event.

Graham accounted for over half of Pitt’s total offense in Thursday night’s 44-17 win over No. 16 South Florida, rushing for 226 yards, gaining 42 more on four receptions and returning two kicks for 35.

Needless to say, Pitt head coach Todd Graham found the primary weapon for his up-tempo offense.

“He runs all over the field, and then he comes over and he’s cheering on the kickoff team,” Todd Graham said in a press conference after the game. “He demanded that he return the kickoffs.”

In a playbook that features quarterbacks punting and receiving and receivers rushing and passing, Todd Graham said there’s only one constant in his offensive scheme: Give the ball to Ray.

“To be real honest with you in how we plan, we want so many times for the ball to be touched by No. 1 [Ray Graham], and then everybody else we’re dispersing it based on what they give us,” he said.

The junior from Elizabeth, N.J., has had between 28 and 33 touches rushing and receiving in every game this year.

That game plan, though, didn’t have him returning kicks until he told the coaching staff he wanted that duty, too.

“Coach [Graham] kept saying that he needs somebody out there that’s good at it and can do it, and I told him I’d do it,” Ray Graham said after the game. “Anything I can do to help the team win, I’ll do it.”

After five weeks of play, Graham leads the nation with 734 rushing yards, 57 more than South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and 235 more than any other Big East back. His total on the ground is the most for any Panther in history after five games.

It’s tough to imagine, but Todd Graham said that Ray Graham has improved since his 200-yard season-opening performance against Buffalo.

“He actually played better [against South Florida] than he has played,” he said. “He did a lot of the things that we were trying to get him to correct. Sometimes great players, they’re not really coachable. They just play. This kid’s competitiveness is off the charts.”

In one impressive play on a third down and 7 in the second quarter against South Florida, Graham spun off three defenders and dragged another to the first-down marker. On a third down earlier that quarter, he made a one-handed catch as he pulled in a ball thrown behind him.

Led by Graham, Pitt’s offense didn’t punt until the third quarter against South Florida, pinning the Bulls defense on the field and wearing it out with a lethal combination of quick snaps and downhill running.

“It seemed like every time we got them in somewhat of a manageable defensive situation, a long-yardage situation, they would make a play,” South Florida head coach Skip Holtz said after the game.

Holtz said his defense, 10th in the nation in points allowed per game before Thursday, couldn’t contain Graham, who is both powerful inside the tackles and explosive on the edge.

“If he can get on the perimeter, he is going to hurt you,” Holtz said. “They do a great job getting their running backs space, and once he got space he would make you miss.”-

The Panthers tore apart the South Florida defense without guard Chris Jacobson, who is out for the season with a left-knee injury. In addition, guard Lucas Nix left in the first quarter of Thursday’s game with a knee injury, although an MRI Friday showed no major damage.

Redshirt sophomore Ryan Schlieper, on the third team two weeks ago, played in Nix’s place. Schlieper’s pull block in the fourth quarter helped spring Graham for a 31-yard gain that set up his second of two touchdowns.

“Ray makes us look good,” Schlieper said after the game. “When you’ve got him, they don’t really concentrate on the linemen. They kind of wait for Ray and they don’t even see it happen.”

Even basketball star LeBron James noticed Graham Thursday, tweeting that he was “a beast out there.”

“I’m going to go tweet at him as soon as I leave y’all,” Ray Graham said at the post-game press conference.

The key now, Todd Graham said, is to build off the marquee win, Pitt’s first victory over a ranked team since a Thursday night 26-21 win over then-No. 10 South Florida in 2008. Rutgers, the Panthers’ next opponent, features a Big East-best 16.5 points-against average per game.

“We’ve done it once,” Todd Graham said. “Now the challenge is to go do it again.”