PITTSBURGH — Ray Graham topped everyone’s expectations but his own in Pittsburgh’s season-opening 35-16 win against Buffalo, running for 201 yards and three touchdowns as the Panthers pulled away in the second half.
It was enough to earn him offensive Big East Player of the Week honors and high praise from coach Todd Graham. It just wasn’t enough to please the junior running back.
The way he looks at it, his numbers could have been even more impressive if he’d cut one way instead of the other a few times.
“I think we left a few more yards out there that we could have had, but I expect us to get better every week,” Graham said. “As a running back, you really don’t see yourself getting tired out there. So, you don’t want to come out.”
Still, the Panthers are hopeful their workhorse has his helmet and shoulder pads by the time the fourth quarter comes around on Saturday against Maine.
It’s not that Todd Graham doesn’t want to rely on his budding star, he’d just rather the outcome be well in hand by then so the most vital part of Pitt’s offense can start resting up for a trip to Iowa on Sept. 17.
Getting a little bit more out of the passing game would help. Todd Graham wasn’t displeased with the way Tino Sunseri performed against Buffalo, noting he did throw a touchdown while avoiding any big mistakes. Still, it’s not exactly the “high octane” performance Graham has been trumpeting since his arrival in January.
The coach chalks many of the missed opportunities to first-game jitters and the growth process that comes with learning an entirely new system.
On the days his players tell them they think they’re starting to get it down, he simply shakes his head. Graham reminded the Panthers this week they’re still “infants” when it comes to figuring out how to play his uptempo style and should expect
“We’re working toward knowledge but it takes time, it takes studying,” Graham said. “They’ve been great students, one of the best group of guys I’ve been around. We just need to spend more time studying what we’re doing. We’re fighting time and trying to install all the new stuff.”
Getting a handle on the system and executing it the way Graham wants will likely take an entire season. The Panthers don’t have that kind of time if they turn a season of solid expectations into a season of great ones.
Iowa is the start of a three-game in 12-day stretch for Pitt that includes home dates with Notre Dame and No. 22 South Florida. Yet Graham cautions it’s unwise to overlook the Black Bears, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision.
Maine and coach Jack Cosgrove beat Mississippi State 9-7 in 2004 and played Syracuse tough well into the second half a year ago. In case that doesn’t get his players’ attention, Graham says he’ll point to Sacramento State’s upset of Oregon State last weekend.
“I told’em, ‘You better get prepared,’” Graham said.
The Panthers hope the preparation leads to a faster start than the one they got off to against Buffalo when they managed just one touchdown despite snapping the ball 43 times, a stat Graham jokingly called “a record” of futility for one of his offenses.
No matter how it looks, Graham will take a victory. The style points can come later. Sooner, however, would be preferable.
“I feel good where we’re at,” Graham said, “but we’ve got to get better in a hurry.”