There are many remarkable statistics that tell the tale of Pitt's dynamic freshman running backs, Dion Lewis and Ray Graham, but none suggest their maturity better than this one: In a combined 279 carries, they have fumbled only twice.
That is a remarkable statistic for any running back, but particularly two true freshmen who are the primary rushers in a pro-style offense built around the run game.
"That's day one teaching in terms of running backs learning how to protect the ball," said David Walker, Pitt's running backs coach. "They are working at it and, knock on wood, we haven't had any issues with it. And, hopefully, in the next two weeks we won't either. But that is just those two guys being conscientious about protecting the ball and trying to do things the right way."
Lewis has been solid protecting the football almost since the first day he stepped on campus, so it isn't a surprise that he hasn't had any issues with fumbles. Graham, however, fumbled a bunch early in camp and then fumbled twice in the first scrimmage.
But Graham has only fumbled once this season, and Walker said he continues to make that a point of emphasis each week.
Dave Wannstedt said the two young backs have earned the trust of the coaching staff and their teammates that they will protect the football.
"The biggest sign we have in the offensive team meeting room says 'Protect the Football.' But I have to give David Walker credit -- I don't know that I have ever been around anyone who has done as good of a job with young players as he has with those two backs," Wannstedt said. "And you have to give credit to the kids, they have to go out there and conscientiously hold onto it."
Pitt is off this week before playing Nov. 27 at West Virginia.
The Panthers obviously have fond memories of the most recent trip to Mountaineer Field -- a 13-9 upset that knocked the Mountaineers out of the national championship game.
While the West Virginia faithful are notoriously hostile to opposing fans and teams, the Panthers spoke fondly of their experience, with one caveat: It is imperative to keep your helmet on even on the sideline for protection from the coins, batteries, bottles and anything else not tied down that seems to rain down from the stands.
"It is a loud stadium, the fans down there yell at you, tell you that they hate you; there is no more you can ask for, it builds your emotions and gets you ready to play," said defensive end Jabaal Sheard. "I remember people throwing, quarters, dimes, other stuff at us when we were down on the field, it was kind of a scary environment, but at the same time it was a great environment to play in."
The Pitt-Cincinnati game will be a noon kickoff Dec. 5 on ABC. ... The freshmen and redshirt players who don't play regularly had a scrimmage Tuesday and Wannstedt said a few really stood out. "Carl Fleming and Shane Gordon both made plays, some of our defensive linemen, Jack Lippert and Tyrone Ezell ... and I really like our two young receivers, Ed Tinker and Devin Street. They both have size and they both have speed and they are playmakers. I guess if I keep talking I'd tell you I like that whole class." ... This is Pitt's second off week in four weeks but Wannstedt said that the schedule won't change. One thing he will do is try to minimize the talk about West Virginia until next week because he doesn't want the players to get too hyped too early.
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720.