Originally written on Pitt Blather  |  Last updated 10/3/11

Amazing how a win can change the outlook.

The reigning national offensive player of the week, and Big East Offensive Player of the week — for the second time in five weeks. Ray Graham is doing things not seen before from a Pitt RB.

Ray Graham’s 734 yards rushing represent the best five-game start to a season in Pitt history.

Consider that for a moment.

Curtis Martin didn’t do it. LeSean McCoy fell short; so did Dion Lewis. Not even Tony Dorsett could match it.

Dorsett held the best numbers with 717 yards in five games of 1973. I wish I knew what stretch that was so there could be a better comparison of competition, but I’m not going to go looking for 38 year-old box scores for a side note. Read the rest of the article for a bit on his high school days and recruitment. One more NJ player we can say thank you to Jeff Hafley.

But it is amusing to see the attitude shift. Why, there’s affection for Tino Sunseri. There’s credit to the kid, not just blame.

Sunseri had been taking all manner of grief, probably even while carrying his books to his next class. He was the weak link, the soft-armed, slow-footed quarterback who was killing the Panthers. Never mind how much of the criticism was true and still might be in the future. It stings. It cuts to the core. It can distract, and it can demoralize.

I asked Sunseri how much he let it get to him, and he laughed.

“Well, no one’s a tougher critic than my father,” he said, referring to former Pitt linebacker Sal Sunseri, “so it’s not like getting any kind of break by calling home. But honestly, I felt better every week. I really did. I really felt like this offense was right there. And the best part of everything, for me, is that my teammates were with me. They let me know they believed in me every single day.”

Worse than any of the criticism, it had become clear that his coach was losing faith.

Hopefully this is a game where Sunseri turned the corner. He isn’t fleet of foot, by any stretch, but when he was recruited one of the positives was that he had some mobility. Able to roll out and move around a bit. I was glad to see him use it much more in the USF game. It caught the Bulls off-guard.

By some standards, the biggest star on the offensive side was back-up guard Ryan Schlieper. Forced to play virtually the entire game when Lucas Nix hurt his knee on the second play, the redshirt sophomore and the rest of the O-line had what could be considered their best performance of the season.

The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Schlieper estimated he played “about eight snaps” all of last year. Pressed into action, the former all-state lineman from North Allegheny said quarterback Tino Sunseri, right tackle Jordan Gibbs and Nix, who watched from the sideline, all gave him valuable advice.

“Every time I came off the field Lucas was in my ear,” Schlieper said. ” ‘Keep going out there, give it everything you got. You are doing good.’ It was a great feeling.”

Schlieper is a punishing run blocker. His downfield pull block in the fourth quarter helped spring Graham’s game-high 31-yard run and set up a 41-17 lead with 11:29 to play.

Said Ray Graham, “Schlieper did a great job. He came in and took that opportunity and never looked back with it.”

In a great puff piece on Schlieper, there is this heart-warming portion.

Maybe the biggest news happened after the game, in an emotional Pitt locker room, when Ray Graham didn’t get one of the game balls.

“Coach told Ray, ‘I give you a game ball every week; let’s share the wealth,’ ” Schlieper recalled with a laugh.

So guess who got one? Teammates mauled the kid as Coach Graham flipped him a football and said, “You stepped up, got your chance and proved something!”

There is no timetable for Lucas Nix’s return — the MRI came back showing no damage to the knee. Yet the 2-deep that is out right now for this weekend’s Rutgers’ game (PDF, pg. 4)has Nix as the starter.

Quick tangent for the new 2-deep, Chris Peak notes some changes on the defensive side; including Ejuan Price starting at the Panther (outside) LB spot. Todd Thomas is the starter at Spur (the other OLB). Clearly the coaches are going with the speed and raw talent at the OLB spot, and will live with some mistakes. I can live with that.

As well as the offense played, the defense took a huge step forward with a second straight strong game. Even better, they picked it up in the second half.

Pitt was more physical with the Bulls than they had been with earlier opponents, but safety Jarred Holley explained that the Panthers were a lot more organized before the snap. That led to players being in position to make plays. “It really is as simple as we communicated things a lot better,” Holley said.

“From getting the calls from the sideline quicker, to us making the calls and getting everyone lined up, it was a lot smoother of an operation and it showed.

“We really focused on trying to get lined up right and making sure everyone is on the same page before each snap. It makes a huge difference.”

Holley said communication flow is extremely important because Pitt is learning a new system and also because there are a number of freshmen and other young players on the field.

“Once we got things organized, it worked out well,” he said.

The defense definitely played a much better game, and you could see the growing confidence in the second half — when they actually played much better than in the first half. That said, there is still a long way to go. Pitt still had to burn more than half their timeouts on the defensive side. That has to change.

After the first couple of games of the seasons, I was really bothered by how little an impact the safeties were having in the defense. They were playing too deep to make much of an impact, with opponents focusing on underneath passes and shorter stuff over the middle to take advantage of the linebackers. The USF game, really was a change with Jason Hendricks — but especially Jared Holley getting a lot more opportunity to attack closer to the line of scrimmage.

Holley is soft-spoken and modest, so it was no surprise that he said all his teammates deserve credit for his performance.

“I really think the credit goes to the coaches and a lot of our players, not just me,” Holley said. “I thought [Keith] Patterson did a great job calling defenses, and [Todd] Graham and [Tony] Gibson both did a great job of getting the secondary guys in the right place. And our [outside] linebackers really played great.

“I just think it was a combination of things, but, most importantly, we understood what we needed to do and, as a unit, we were able to do it. I think it showed what we can do when we close out games.”

Holley’s performance included 10 tackles (two for losses), a sack, a forced fumble, at least one touchdown-saving tackle, another tackle that prevented a first down and a great job of putting teammates in the correct positions.

“In a big game like that, I’m just trying to be successful for my team and I’m just glad to win,” Holley said. “I just have a lot of fun with those guys out there and I feel like as long as we have fun and work hard, we can be very dangerous as a defense.”

And he’s got the modesty, team cliches down pat.

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