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October 3, 2011If recent history is any indication, Pitt junior running back Ray Graham might want to develop a taste for cheesesteaks.
After all, the last two Panther backs to perform like Graham has in his career at Pitt are now lining up with the Philadelphia Eagles. And after the show he put on at Heinz Field Thursday night, Graham just might be the best of the three.
In Pitt's 44-17 win over South Florida on Thursday, Graham was the superlative. He rushed 26 times for 226 yards - an eye-popping 8.7 yards per carry - and caught four passes for 42 yards. And he was explosive from start to finish, registering a run or a reception of at least 10 yards on eight of the 12 drives he participated in.
In total, Graham had eight carries of at least 10 yards (including three that topped 20 yards) and two receptions that grabbed double-digit yardage. For his efforts, Graham was named the National Offensive Player of the Week by the Walter Camp Football Foundation and the Big East Offensive Player of the Week.
"Ray has been phenomenal," head coach Todd Graham said in his post-game press conference. "I thought it was probably his best performance. He's a complete back, and he continues to be a student, learning and studying; he did a lot of the things that we were trying to get him to correct."
Graham's outburst on Thursday night wasn't his first 200-yard performance. He also put on a 201-yard/three-touchdown show in the season opener against Buffalo, and he rushed for 277 yards against Florida International last season.
With Thursday night's 226, Graham now has a season total of 734 rushing yards, more than any other player in the nation has amassed through the first five weeks of the season. Graham's average of 146.8 yards per game ranks third in the nation.
734 rushing yards are also the most a Pitt player has gained in the first five games all-time.
Graham also has 171 receiving yards and 35 yards on kickoff returns, giving him an average of 188 all-purpose yards per season, good for seventh-best nationally.
On Thursday night, Graham made Pitt's offense go. His jump-cuts left South Florida clutching at air, his spin moves turned defenders around, With South Florida struggling to stop the junior running back, the Panthers found consistency in the passing game and set season highs in total offense, first downs and, most importantly, points.
"Ray Graham is a special player," Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "He was a special player last year, he's a special player this year. And what Ray does is really make sure a defense can't key into a lot of different things."
Graham has now made seven starts in his career (five in 2011, two in 2010); in those seven starts, he has rushed 169 times for 1,067 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns, while clearing the 200-yard rushing mark three times. Graham also has 29 receptions for 207 yards and 161 kick return yards in those seven starts, which gives him a total of 1,435 all-purpose yards in seven career starts for an average of 205 all-purpose yards per start.
In 2010, Graham rushed for 958 yards and eight touchdowns as the backup to Dion Lewis, who was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. Lewis took over for LeSean McCoy, who had two spectacular seasons for Pitt before the Eagles drafted him in the second round of the 2009 draft.
Now Graham would appear to be the next Pitt running back to hit the NFL. But first there's the matter of the 2011 season. With the win over South Florida, the Panthers are 3-2 overall but 1-0 in the Big East, and the decisive nature of the victory served notice to the rest of the conference that Todd Graham's system is catching on with the players.
And that's Ray Graham's priority.
"We're improving every game and getting better every game. We're building so much trust as the days go on and feeling more confident. I think Tino's feeling more confident, I'm feeling more confident; I think we're starting to get it down now."