For Ray Graham and the Pitt offense, finding running room against Syracuse last Friday wasn't as easy as the previous game against Gardner-Webb.
By Sam Werner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In Pitt's back-to-back wins against Virginia Tech and Gardner-Webb, the Panthers ruthlessly pounded the ball up and down the field on the ground. They rushed for 483 yards combined in those two games.
That runaway train, though, was stopped Friday night in the Carrier Dome.
Pitt ran for just 27 yards against the Orange, by far its lowest output of the season, in a 14-13 loss.
"They were just lining up in different defenses, different positions where we have to adjust," left guard Chris Jacobson said. "They did a good job at it, but that's no excuse either."
While Jacobson didn't want to offer excuses, there are plenty of legitimate reasons the Panthers rushing attack struggled Friday.
First, they were mostly without freshman Rushel Shell, who played only a handful of snaps and registered just one carry for 2 yards. Shell missed a good chunk of practice leading up to the game with a flare-up of back spasms that have been bothering him since training camp.
In the three games that Shell and Graham both played before Friday, Graham accounted for 38 percent of Pitt's team rushing attempts, while Shell had 33 percent of the carries.
Shell said his back felt fine Friday, but a week of missed practice left him behind in terms of game preparation.
Game: Pitt (2-3) vs. No. 18 Louisville (5-0), Heinz Field.
When: 11 a.m. Saturday.
TV, radio: ESPNU.
The skinny: Pitt has a four-game winning streak against the Cardinals.
"Physically, I was ready, but mentally I wasn't," Shell said.
With Shell sidelined, Graham had 24 carries, Shell had one and Isaac Bennett got three.
"It felt like every yard was worked for," Graham said. "I think [Syracuse] did a good job. Their game plan was good, but after that we still could've came out and won."
With quarterback Tino Sunseri on his way to another 300-yard day through the air, Pitt coach Paul Chryst said Syracuse wasn't able to stack the box against the run. Still, they were able to, by and large, take Graham out of the game.
Despite the early struggles on the ground, Chryst didn't abandon the run as the game progressed. This strategy is true to Chryst's pro-style, run-first nature, but he said it also mattered that it was a close game, and Pitt's defense was shutting down the Orange offense.
"Certainly it's your philosophy but I think it also depends on what is happening around you," Chryst said. "How many possessions are you up or down? What are the problems when the running game is not hitting and why is it not hitting? Is it schematically? Is it numbers? Is it a guy missing his block?"
Chryst's faith in the run did start to pay off near the end of the game. On Pitt's next-to-last drive, Graham ripped off runs of 5, 9 and 10 yards before a false start penalty and a sack knocked the Panthers out of scoring range.
"I just thought that we started getting them on their heels, and it started to work," Graham said. "Some of our plays started to dial up as the game went on."
As a running back, Graham said he appreciated that the coaching staff would stay faithful to the running game, even if it wasn't clicking on all cylinders from the get-go.
"They've still got confidence in the running game, and I think our running game from here on out is going to be much better," Graham said. "We've seen what could happen if we're not physical or we don't come ready to play."