Pitt can prove it’s ACC-ready against Irish

Posted Sept. 23, 2011, at 9:48 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 23, 2011, at 10:58 p.m.

PITTSBURGH — 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.”

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