Pitt & Ray Graham Run Over USF

Posted Sep 29, 2011

Week 5 CFN Fearless Prediction & Game Story - USF at Pittsburgh

2011 Predictions & Game Story 

Week 5 - USF at Pitt

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Sept. 29 at Pitt 44 … South Florida 17
CFN Analysis: Pitt wasn't quite hitting on its down field throws early on, and the defense struggled a wee bit early on to stuff the USF offense, and then Ray Graham took over the defense turned its intensity up a few notches and the shocker was on. Call this a phenomenal gut-check moment for new head coach Todd Graham's program. After losing heartbreakers to Iowa and Notre Dame, the Panthers could've hung their head a little bit, but instead they came out focused, aggressive, and very, very, sharp. Ray Graham will get all the headlines after his amazing 226-yard, two score day, but Tino Sunieri had a strong game, too, completing 22-of-33 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown, while running 12 times for 35 yards and a score. The first part of the season might have been a disappointment, but Pitt is 1-0 in Big East play with a trip to Rutgers up next.

Where was the fire for USF? It was like the energy level was at 3 compared to the flying around, ultra-aggressive defense rocked over the first three weeks. The pass rush wasn't there, there were too many missed tackles, and the D couldn't get off the field as Pitt held on to the ball for 36:10. USF actually moved the ball a bit with a good, balanced day with Darrell Scott averaging 6.3 yards per carry and B.J. Daniels running for 43 yards and a score and throwing for 223 yards. The offense might not have been great, but it can't be blamed. This was on the defense that didn't bring it's a game, and it needs to be a much different story at UConn next week.

(AP) PITTSBURGH -- South Florida's national showcase turned into Ray Graham's coming out party.

The Pittsburgh running back rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns as the Panthers dominated the 16th-ranked Bulls 44-17 on Thursday night.

Graham's 13-yard touchdown gave Pitt (3-2, 1-0 Big East) the lead for good late in the first half and his 8-yard sprint up the middle early in the fourth quarter sealed it as the Panthers broke a five-game losing streak against ranked opponents.

"I thought it was his best performance," Pitt coach Todd Graham said. "He's a complete back."

The junior added four receptions for 42 yards and even returned kickoffs, a duty he insisted on after the Panthers struggled in the return game early.v

"The kid's competitiveness is off the charts," Todd Graham said.

Pitt kept USF's BJ Daniels under wraps all night. One of the nation's top duel-threat quarterbacks couldn't get it going with his arm or legs. Daniels ran for 43 yards -- almost all of it coming on a last-gasp drive -- and completed 18 of 36 passes for 223 mostly ineffective yards.

The Panthers hadn't beaten a ranked opponent since handling the then 10th-ranked Bulls in 2008. Five straight losses against quality competition followed, helping lead to former coach Dave Wannstedt's retirement at the end of last season.

Todd Graham came in promising to put together the kind of fireworks lacking during the end of the Wannstedt era. Graham has dubbed his system "high octane" and after a month of sputtering, the Panthers delivered a dynamic performance.

"I've said all along we've got a good football team," Graham said. "We made great strides tonight by playing a complete football game."

And doing it by completely manhandling the Bulls. Pitt held the ball for over 36 minutes, ran for 307 yards and converted 9 of 15 third downs.

"It was an old-fashioned tail whipping is what it was," USF coach Skip Holtz said.

Tino Sunseri threw for 216 yards and a score for the Panthers, who avoided a second-half meltdown for a third straight week and instead poured it on against the sloppy, inconsistent Bulls (4-1, 0-1).

USF came in off to their fourth 4-0 start in its last five seasons. All that September promise, however, dissolved in the fall. None of the previous hot starts ended with a Big East title and a Bowl Championship Series berth.

The Bulls were hoping this is the year they finally break through. They survived against Notre Dame in the season opener, taking advantage of five turnovers to stun the Fighting Irish in South Bend.

Romps over Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP followed. The Bulls viewed their trip to Heinz Field as a chance to show the nation they're a legit threat to perennial conference power West Virginia.

On Thursday, it was Pitt that looked like the real thing. The Panthers' ability to turn third downs into first downs eventually wore out South Florida's defense.

"Physically I don't know that we were ready to accept the challenge that we were dealt today," Holtz said.

The Panthers have flirted with respectability this season under Todd Graham. They led Iowa by 17 points in the second half and Notre Dame by five in the fourth quarter only to falter both times.

Todd Graham put the onus on his players, saying the problem with the offense is "they're just not running it." He quickly backtracked, taking responsibility for the lack of impact plays.

His solution? Give the ball to his do-everything running back.

Ray Graham did it all, even returning kicks for the first time this season. If he wasn't making something out of nothing behind an injury-ravaged offensive line then he was making one-handed grabs on passing routes.

Even LeBron James was impressed. The NBA star called Graham a "beast" on his Twitter feed.

Graham had some help from an unlikely place. Sunseri, chastised by his coach for holding onto the ball too long during last week's loss to Notre Dame, showed Daniels wasn't the only quarterback who could make plays with his legs. The junior ran for 47 yards in the first half, taking advantage when the Bulls keyed on his backfield mate.

The Panthers took a 20-17 lead into halftime and this time, there would be no meltdown.

Instead, Pitt did what Todd Graham has preached since taking over last January: it hit the gas.v The Panthers scored touchdowns on each of their first two possessions of the second half. Sunseri hit Hubie Graham for a 12-yard touchdown out of a funky formation that had offensive tackle Juantez Hollins lined up in the slot.

They took a more conventional path during a 66-yard drive capped by a 2-yard plunge by Zach Brown that put Pitt up 34-17.

This time, the big lead would stick.

USF could get nothing going, and Ray Graham finished the Bulls off with three big runs on Pitt's last touchdown drive that ended with him high-stepping up the middle in the rain.

"I feel like we're close," Todd Graham said. "It's just one game but all of us are really coming together."

South Florida (4-0) at Pittsburgh (2-2) Sept. 29, 8:00, ESPN

Here's The Deal … The Big East game of the week gets center stage in front of a national television audience on Thursday night. The league will be looking to put on an appropriate show, as will the two participants. Now that West Virginia has suffered a setback, South Florida is the conference's last remaining unbeaten squad, and the highest ranked one as well. Now up to No. 16 in the latest AP Poll, the Bulls have seemingly entered the witness protection program since stunning Notre Dame in South Bend on opening weekend. While they've rolled through their last three games, the opponents were Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP. Their task now is to get back on the road and stay hot as the level of competition improves.

Pittsburgh is in a bit of trouble after the first four games of the Todd Graham era, needing to turn things around in the worst way. The Panthers have lost back-to-back games that could have gone the other way with better execution and a break or two in the final quarter. Two weeks ago, they blew a huge lead at Iowa, and fell at home to Notre Dame, 15-12, last Saturday.

Why South Florida Might Win: The Pittsburgh offensive line is a sieve, a pressing issue that explains the offense's inconsistency. The Panthers have been whipped by everyone from Maine to Notre Dame, which does not bode well for this week's visit from the Bulls. South Florida is always flush with good athletes on defense, and this year is no different. It'll bring heat from every available angle, pressuring QB Tino Sunseri with linemen Julius Forte, Claude Davis and Keith McCaskill, and linebackers DeDe Lattimore and Sam Barrington. Only two schools, Vanderbilt and Cincinnati, have created more turnovers than the Bulls, which have shown a knack for stripping the ball and jumping routes.

Why Pittsburgh Might Win: While the Panthers have been measuring themselves against the likes of Iowa and Notre Dame, South Florida has been getting soft at the expense of lightweights. It could cost them at Heinz Field on Thursday night. Pitt will look to outmuscle the Bulls with a combination of Ray Graham's running and a rugged defense. The D is coming off its best game of the opening month, holding the Irish to just 15 points. The Panthers can be a handful at the point of attack, challenging opposing blockers with the speed of DE Brandon Lindsey and the interior toughness of tackles Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein.

What To Watch Out For: Is the South Florida offense for real? At long last, we'll start to get a few answers this week. The Bulls have been running as if it was Pamplona, scoring 159 points over the last three games. However, none of their opposing defenses will resemble a Big East unit. It'll be very interesting to see if RB Darrell Scott can continue to pile up the yards, and QB B.J. Daniels is able to operate at peak efficiency against the Panthers. If USF remains hot on offense in this game, go ahead and feel to label it a legitimate threat to finish 2011 in the top 10.

What Will Happen: Too much speed. South Florida harbors too many good athletes for Pittsburgh, a program that's still feeling its way through Graham's system and philosophy. No, the Bulls won't erupt the way they did over the past few weeks, but wherever the offense falls short, the defense will pick up the slack with a frenetic pace and a bunch of money plays. The visitors will torment Sunseri into forced throws and costly mistakes that snuff out hopes for a comeback bid. Once South Florida builds a little cushion and is able to pin its ears back on D, Pitt will be destined to drop its third consecutive game.

CFN Prediction: South Florida 30 … Pittsburgh 21
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