Senior running back helps Pitt overcome loss of star
MORGANTOWN - Pitt will play its third game without junior running back Ray Graham when the Panthers refresh the "Backyard Brawl" against West Virginia at Mountaineer Field on Friday night at 7 (ESPN).
Graham was the nation's No. 2 rusher at 134.14 yards per game before he tore the ACL in his right knee on the fourth play against Connecticut on Oct. 26. Zach Brown, a senior transfer from Wisconsin, is replacing Graham. He's has rushed for 30, 54 and 86 yards in the past three games.
"There's no replacing Ray," Pitt Coach Todd Graham said. "Ray was really something special, but Zach has been unbelievable. A lot of people thought that we would lose a lot, and we did, but Zach has been stellar and he's gotten better each week."
Graham, 42 rushing yards shy of 1,000 when he was hurt, had accounted for 85 percent of the team's rushing yards, 48 percent of its total offense and 31 percent of its scoring. He's an inch shorter, 25 pounds lighter and much different from Brown.
The Panthers (5-5, 3-2 Big East) have compensated and quarterback Tino Sunseri has helped.
The junior has 73, 90 and 54 yards rushing the past three games - he's lost 33, 26 and 23 because of sacks - and one rushing touchdown in every one. He's also completed 60 of 102 pass attempts for 833 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception.
"You don't replace Ray Graham," WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "He was one of the better backs in the entire country, a fantastic player. Now Tino's elevated his game since Ray went out and he's played better.
"He's kind of taken the team on his shoulders and been the leader on offense. He's a guy that understands the game, a coach's kid and all the rest. You don't replace Ray Graham, but schematically, they do a lot of the same things."
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PITT'S OFFENSIVE coordinator is Calvin Magee, who was WVU's running backs coach from 2001-07 and offensive coordinator the final three seasons. Pitt's secondary coach is Tony Gibson, who was WVU's defensive backs coach from 2001-07.
Both know WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and Casteel's 3-3-5 stack system quite well, which is perhaps an added advantage to Graham's familiarity with Holgorsen's offense.
Graham and Holgorsen have coached against each other the past three seasons and Holgorsen was at one time convinced Graham's Tulsa teams were trying to decipher Holgorsen's signals.
Pitt's knowledge of the Mountaineers might be a benefit, although Holgorsen isn't sure whom it helps.
"It could help them, but they may over-think it, too," Holgorsen said. "If they're trying to figure out exactly what you do, you've only got 20 seconds, 25 seconds in between plays. You've got to get things communicated quickly.
"I encourage them to try to pick out our signals. That means they're probably focused on the wrong things. We're not going to pick out their signals. We'll line up and try to play football."
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WVU (7-3, 3-2) started preparations for Pitt in the middle of the off (last) week, and then returned to practice Sunday, a day earlier than normal. It couldn't hurt for a team that hasn't led at the start of the second quarter since Oct. 1 and has been outscored 84-68 in the first quarter this season.
The Panthers are at their best on offense and defense in the first quarter, where they outscore opponents 80-19 and have allowed just one touchdown. They didn't allow a first-quarter point in the first four games and have shut the opponent out in the first 15 minutes four times.
"The good news is I probably don't have to do as much to get the kids ready to play." Holgorsen said. "It's probably harder to get guys ready to play when they're not familiar with the team than it is in a rivalry game."
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HOLGORSEN'S FIRST Backyard Brawl is one people have been preparing him for since he was hired as the WVU offensive coordinator in December.
"I've heard about a few - one in particular," he said, referring to Pitt's 13-9 upset here in 2007.
"With me, it's more about what happened last week and what we had to do to beat Cincinnati," he said. "Now the coin switches to Pitt, which, to me, when I think of Pitt, it's one of those things that the longer I'm here, the better I'll have a feel for it."
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THE PANTHERS are No. 7 nationally in red zone offense. They've scored 32 times in 35 possessions (91 percent). Pitt has 26 touchdowns and just six field goals. The only times Pitt hasn't scored in the red zone have been on missed field goals.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.