Football: Lewis happy with first game, ready to do more work

By Sergei Feldman

While most college freshmen are still trying to find their way to Clapp Hall, freshman running back Dion Lewis already found the end zone three times in his first weekend as a Pitt student.

His 129 yards on 20 attempts and two rushing touchdowns — his third touchdown was a reception — Saturday was just what the Panthers needed from him on Saturday after losing LeSean McCoy to the NFL over the summer.

The 5-foot-8 starting Pitt football running back helped propel the Panthers to a 38-3 season-opening throbbing of Youngstown State University and turned heads in the process.

“I thought [Lewis] made a lot of plays,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said.

Highlighting a four-play, 41-yard drive early in the first quarter, which put the Panthers up 7-0, was Lewis’ shake-and-bake clinic as he froze a Youngstown State Penguin for a 16-yard touchdown run after turning the outside corner.

So what was it like to have to wait a meager five minutes to score a first touchdown?

For Lewis, there were “no butterflies” and it just “felt good running in [the end zone].” It had to have felt better the second and third time he forced the panther to growl over the PA system, but most importantly, Lewis’ on-the-ground performance answered a question for the coaching staff, if it didn’t make an outright statement.

“Some of the areas that were a big concern for me going into the game, I feel a litte better about right now,” Wannstedt said after the game, referring to the team’s running back position.

Throughout training camp, Lewis and freshman running back Ray Graham shared time trying to impress coaches and solidify themselves as legitimate starters.

While Graham took great strides in developing himself as a real option on game day, it was Lewis’ experience with the team’s system that earned him the starting nod and the bulk of the running game duties.

Lewis enrolled at Pitt during the spring semester to start early workouts with the team. It paid off.

“[Lewis] had an entire spring practice that Graham did not have,” Wannstedt said. “He had an opportunity to jump in our program and go through the physical training and also the mental discipline. I think that’s what separated he and [Graham].”

Familiarity with a system and innate talent always make for an effective running back, but perhaps the bigger surprise Saturday afternoon was Lewis’ tenacious physicality.

With Pitt leading 7-3 in the second quarter, senior quarterback Bill Stull put the ball in Lewis’ hands and the rest was a man-among-boys exhibition of tough running and breaking tackles. Lewis penetrated a large hole without hesitation and was poised to run in for his second touchdown before a slew of YSU Penguins wrapped themselves around the running back.

Lewis feared not and instead carried the defenders with him for a 25-yard gain before falling just short of the goal line. He would pound his way in on the next play.

“He was a very powerful player coming in here,” Wannstedt said. “But I think the one thing that showed up today with [Lewis] — you knew he was fast — but what showed up was how strong he is. He will break tackles.”

And so he did, it seemed, every time he touched the ball.

Lewis found holes and hit them, broke tackles when wrapped up by defenders and made them miss when he had room. But that kind of success is a product of not only Lewis, but of the offensive line, too.

The freshman back acknowledged a collaborative effort as a catalyst for his individual prowess.

“Our offensive line did a great job, and they deserve all the credit,” he said.

Coach Wannstedt agreed to a great extent.

“Our offensive line did a very good job when we were running the ball,” he said, but expressed concern about the line’s pass protection effectiveness.

As for the game plan, Wannstedt kept things simple, as he mentioned the team called only about four types of running plays throughout the entire game.

The simple and straightforward run-first strategy of Wannstedt and the coaching staff was what stuck out for Lewis when considering schools during recruitment.

For the past few seasons, McCoy was asked to carry the team on his back. Asked if seeing a running back shoulder that kind of responsibility for a team helped in the decision to come to Pitt, Lewis acknowledged it “definitely” contributed.

At the end of the day, he thought he “made a good decision.”

One game, three touchdowns and more than 100 yards is always impressive.

For Lewis?

“There’s still a lot of work to do.”