Trietley: Graham brings high-octane football but be patient

By Greg Trietley

A larger-than-life billboard of football coach Todd Graham stands 10 feet from my apartment…. A larger-than-life billboard of football coach Todd Graham stands 10 feet from my apartment. “High-octane” has been slapped on bus shelters and flashed on television. Student tickets, when separated, are an eight-piece Graham puzzle, and it’s not Ray.

There has never been more hype surrounding an early season opponent, known in the politically incorrect sports world as a warm-up game, as Buffalo has provided for the Pitt football team this Saturday.

For the number of mentions the simple (yet lacking in appropriate synonyms) phrase “high-octane” has received, nobody is quite sure what Saturday will bring.

Since his hire in January, Graham’s scheme has teased the masses. He mentioned the idea of running a reverse per quarter. “Explosive touchdowns week in and week out” were promised when he addressed the Oakland Zoo. At a practice that was open to the media last Wednesday, quarterbacks Tino Sunseri and Trey Anderson spent much of the practice punting. Punting. And they’re pretty good at it.

But Graham is the first to admit that pages of his octane-scorching playbook have been shuffled, filed, purged and added. In his fourth year at Tulsa, with players he recruited and fostered from the start, he had 87 formations. I don’t think math allows any more than that.

The leading rusher on that team was G.J. Kinne, which sounds like a pleasant enough name. Kinne was (and still is) the quarterback of the Golden Hurricane. Of course, Sunseri can’t do what Kinne can, and he won’t attempt to.

Pitt’s “high-octane” offense won’t be Tulsa’s, not that it should be. Graham said last Wednesday after practice that about “60 percent” of Tulsa’s offense appears in Pitt’s new strategy. Call it the Golden Hurricane ratio.

At Pitt’s practices, 18 seconds between plays has been the standard. Tulsa peaked at 15 seconds. For the Panthers, it’s better to go slow (comparatively) and tailor the offense for Ray Graham, Mike Shanahan and Sunseri than to shove a square peg in a round hole, or to tell that square peg it better memorize 87 round-hole formations by fall.

On one hand, billboards, commercials and, I can only assume, airplane-tethered banners have promoted the living daylights out of Graham’s scheme. On the other hand, Graham himself would probably add a footnote to the ad campaign: “Please be patient.”

It will take months before this roster fully understands the system and years before the roster truly fits it.

Graham built his scheme on risk-taking and believing that the benefits outweigh the occasional loss. Think Troy Polamalu — but from Texas. There will be downsides — if not during Saturday’s game against Buffalo, then certainly soon.

What’s the dream outcome for a Pitt fan this Saturday? Perfection — translated in the sports world as one of those Big 12 v. “formerly Division I-AA” romps in which the highlights consist of one player outrunning 11 for six points on several occasions before the first quarter ends.

A far more likely scenario: Pitt defeats Buffalo by three touchdowns, Sunseri throws an interception, the defense has a pick or two of its own, but it also gives up a few big plays on miscalculated risks. Every fan leaves with some degree of mixed emotions, and a select few probably clamor for Anderson to start against Maine.

“High-octane” is almost mythical. It’s presented as if it’s football like we’ve never seen it before, as if the Wildcat formation and Madden glitches reared a child. Cornerbacks take snaps under center. In punt formation, the opposition suspects everything except for a punt. Something called a spur linebacker exists.

All these things sound incredible. There hasn’t been this kind of buzz — and sheer curiosity — in years. But these things also take time. They call it midseason form for a reason. That’s also why they have warm-up games.