Tailback Ray Graham was the star for Pitt in its 44-17 win Thursday against South Florida, but one defensive player was every bit as good as Graham, if not better.
That was redshirt junior safety Jarred Holley, who was in on so many plays -- all over the field and seemingly at the same time -- that some of his teammates joked that they thought he had been cloned.
One of his teammates, Chas Alecxih, said Holley has earned a new nickname -- "Mr. Clutch" -- because he seems to make big plays at key times every week.
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."
Even though Holley wouldn't talk about his performance or how he has developed into perhaps the best safety in the Big East, his teammates and coach were happy to oblige.
Holley, one of the Panthers captains, is one of the most respected and liked players on the team because of his work ethic, humility and willingness to teach younger players such as safety/linebacker Todd Thomas.
"He's 'Mr. Clutch,' that's what I call him, because, when we need a play, he seems like the guy who always makes it," Alecxih said.
"He is someone I really look up to. He is our most reliable player, he is always calm, he is always ready to go. He never gets flustered by anything and he erases a lot of mistakes other guys make but never takes credit.
"That's what a leader does."
Coach Todd Graham said Holley is like a coach on the field and has helped players like Thomas and freshman linebacker Ejuan Price greatly by working with them at practice and helping them get lined up properly before each play.
He said Holley's performance Thursday against the Bulls was on of the best games he has seen from a safety in a long time.
"Jarred Holley got a game ball," Graham said. "Every week, he is the quarterback of our defense and he is one of the smartest football players I've ever worked with -- he could actually coach the secondary. He is smart, he actually comes to me and says, 'Coach, I think we are doing too much of this,' or 'Coach, we might want to try this.'
"I mean, he is a smart kid.
"And he is a great tackler, he made some big-time tackles, forced a big-time turnover on the one tackle that he made. He's been solid all year. He has played really, really well and I was very proud of him."
NOTES -- Pitt offensive guard Lucas Nix was knocked out of the South Florida game with a knee injury, but an MRI Friday showed no damage. His status for Pitt's game next Saturday at Rutgers is unknown. "We received very positive feedback on Lucas Nix today from our medical staff as his MRI did not reveal any significant damage," Graham said in a statement. "Lucas will undergo an intense rehabilitation program, and we are hopeful he will be back in action soon." Ryan Schlieper filled in for Nix against the Bulls and would likely start against Rutgers if Nix can't play. ... H-back Anthony Gonzalez did not dress Thursday with a minor shoulder injury. He is day to day.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise. First Published October 1, 2011 4:00 AM