One hundred-yard rushing games were easy to come by last season for Pitt running back Dion Lewis. He rushed for 129 yards in his first game as a college player in the opener against Youngstown State and had nine more en route to 1,799 yards and the most-prolific freshman season for a running back in school history.
In the offseason, there had been talk of a Heisman Trophy campaign and the possibility that Lewis might leave Pitt after this season to pursue a career in the NFL. Those scenarios existed only two months ago, but it seems like the distant past after the first six games of his sophomore season failed to produce a 100-yard game.
Lewis turned the page on his uninspiring first half and opened the second looking like his old self in a 41-21 victory against Rutgers last week at Heinz Field. Lewis had his first 100-yard rushing game of the season, running for 130 yards on 17 carries after being held to 78 or fewer in each of the first six contests.
"Even when I was struggling, I had confidence," Lewis said Tuesday afternoon. "I knew it would come sooner or later. It was just a matter of time. I was bottled up early. I kept staying patient, knowing something good would happen. Every week, I'm getting closer. I'm going to keep staying confident and try to make plays for my team."
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said Lewis looked like "the old Dion" against the Scarlet Knights and sounded hopeful that his sophomore slump had come to an end.
"We're going to need Dion to continue to progress, and last week was a good start," Wannstedt said.
Lewis has rushed for season highs in each of the past two games. He ran for 78 yards in Pitt's 45-14 victory at Syracuse. One common theme in those games was feeding Lewis the ball early.
"Against Syracuse, I was able to find some room, and it continued on to Rutgers," he said. "It's just getting into the groove. I feel pretty good right now. I have to keep working hard in practice and get better for this week.
"I was getting in a rhythm early, so that was good. If you have success early, you feel more comfortable and you know you can do things. That's the way it happened."
Lewis' emergence has coincided with a dramatic improvement in Pitt's passing game. First-year quarterback Tino Sunseri is coming into his own, passing for 307 and 266 yards in the past two games. Pitt's ability to make plays in the passing game has opened up new running lanes for the backs.
The Panthers rushed for 206 yards against Rutgers, with Ray Graham rushing for an additional 56.
"The past two weeks, Tino has had pretty good games," Lewis said. "That's helping the running game. It's keeping defenses honest. They're not loading up to stop the run all the time. Most teams come in wanting to stop the run, and, once you open up the pass, they kind of [step] back. And that's when we're able to find some running room."
Lewis and Graham will continue to share carries. Graham is third in the Big East with 645 yards; Lewis is seventh with 414. Graham rushed for 277 yards against Florida International when Lewis sat out with an injury.
Lewis said it is more difficult for a running back to be effective when he is sharing carries, but he knows the coaches will continue to use Graham because he has been an effective weapon.
"It's tough to get into a flow when you go in and out," he said. "But, at the same time, we just have to stay into the game and watch what the other guy is doing. We have to keep [being] into the game and know what the defense is doing. If you do that, you should be fine."
Lewis might be capable of another big game Saturday against Louisville. The Cardinals rank seventh among eight teams in the Big East in rush defense, allowing 143.9 yards per game. They have allowed three running backs to rush for more than 100 yards. Two weeks ago, Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead rushed for 145 yards.
NOTE -- Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett did not sound optimistic that senior defensive end Greg Romeus would return to play against Louisville. Romeus has missed the past six games after back surgery. "I'll be honest with you, it's sort of like asking that girl to the prom that you haven't asked yet," he said. "You keep holding off and holding off. The prom's getting closer, and you say, 'Heck I don't even know if I'm going to go.' I can't even think about it. My dream is let's get through this game, and, when he says, 'Coach I'm ready to go.'... When we make the final push, it would be very exciting to have him there. Until then, we're going to go with the ones we're practicing with."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com or 412-263-1230