Pitt's offense remains unsettled at tailback
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH - Pitt's offense is built around running the football, so the Panthers' dilemma wouldn't seem to be much of a problem at all.

They have two running backs capable of reeling off 100-yard games. Dion Lewis did it enough times last season that he was chosen as a second-team All-American. Ray Graham has done it three times in the Panthers' last four games.

Still, Pitt is learning that having two effective runners doesn't necessarily guarantee offensive continuity or success.

The Panthers (2-3) often spend the first half sorting out which running back is on that day, an issue that never got resolved during a 23-17 loss at Notre Dame on Saturday - a 14-point deficit forced them to throw more than usual during the second half.

Lewis ran for 63 yards on 13 carries, the most yards he's had since gaining 75 in the opener against Utah. Graham had 44 yards on eight carries following three consecutive 100-yard games.

Coach Dave Wannstedt said the two-back system won't be altered as the Panthers exit non-conference play to begin their Big East Conference schedule Saturday at Syracuse (4-1, 1-0) because neither back deserves to sit.

"Dion did some good things in the game," Wannstedt said. "Ray Graham is playing really well; he's probably made a few more plays than Dion. We're going to need them both. The plan is to use them both."

Graham and Lewis have 60 carries each, but Graham has a 536-206 edge in yardage. Graham also is averaging 8.9 yards per carry to Lewis' 3.4.

Lewis is far below his pace of last season, when he had 580 yards through five games before ending the season with eight consecutive 100-yard games and 1,799 yards overall. Only Tony Dorsett (2,150 yards in 1976) ran for more yards at Pitt in a single season.

Pitt's No. 15 preseason ranking resulted in part from expectations Lewis would have a similarly big season.

"The way everything has evolved, I see us using them both," Wannstedt said. "To sit here and say that we're going to play one guy most of the game, I don't see that happening."

Graham's yardage is inflated by his 277-yard game against Florida International, but he has been the more effective runner to date.

"It's a little frustrating, but it's not that big of a deal," Graham said of sharing the job. "I would definitely say that double-digit (carries) is what you need to get going. ... Just one series, that's tough. It could be a three-and-out, and then we make a change."

No matter which running back gets more carries at Syracuse, Pitt is happy to be returning to conference play. The Big East is struggling from top to bottom - only No. 25 West Virginia is ranked - and that means a team that has been disappointing to date has time to salvage its season.

Wannstedt considered posting a new, seven-game schedule on the team bulletin board. But with a relatively young team that is figuring out what it takes to win, he decided that wasn't the right approach.

"I thought of wiping the slate clean," Wannstedt said. "I've been in these meetings, and I've done it before where you put a drape up over the first half of the season. I've done all of that stuff. I'm not sure that's where we're at right now. ... I think if you have a real mature team you can just paint it over and say 'OK, guys, that's not us. Let's move on.' We're not there right now."

If the Panthers beat Syracuse for the sixth consecutive season and the eight time in nine seasons, they have a chance to build a modest winning streak with Rutgers (3-2, 1-0) and Louisville (3-2, 0-0) following at home the next two weeks. Pitt then plays Connecticut (3-3, 0-1) and South Florida (3-2, 0-1) on the road.