Pitt's Zach Brown dives into the end zone for a touchdown against Connecticut at Heinz Field.
By Paul Zeise Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Although a season-ending injury to one of his best friends was not the way that Pitt senior Zach Brown had hoped he would get an opportunity to be a starting running back, the fact remains that Brown's time is here and he intends to make the most of it.
Brown will step into the starting lineup and replace Ray Graham for the remainder of the season because Graham had knee surgery last week to repair a torn ligament.
He said he was sad for Graham but is excited for this opportunity to start, especially since the opportunity to play was a big reason he chose Pitt over Miami earlier this year when he was looking to transfer from Wisconsin.
But that won't change his approach leading up to a huge Big East Conference home game Saturday against No. 23 Cincinnati (6-1, 2-0) because he has prepared for every game this year as if he was going to be the starter.
"I am approaching it just like every week," Brown said. "In the past [at Wisconsin], I haven't been the starter, but being in this game for a few years, I just know that a man could go down just like what happened [with Graham], and when he goes down you still have to be ready.
"I am just looking at this week like I have done every week and be ready to go."
Brown transferred to Pitt (4-4, 2-1) after a three-year career at Wisconsin because the Badgers had a crowded backfield. He said he would have been the odd man out, and he was eligible to play immediately at Pitt because he had completed his bachelor's degree and enrolled as a graduate student.
He is an excellent student -- he was a two-time academic All-Big Ten selection -- and he is pursuing his master's degree in education, but for the next month, his focus will be to help the Panthers win the Big East championship.
"It is a great feeling [for Pitt to be in contention for the Big East title], especially what we've been through this season," Brown said. "To still know that everything we wanted is still in our hands. It's great, it's a good feeling. We can't look in the future too much. Just look at Cincinnati and take care of business there.
"I know I'm in a rare situation. But I thank God for putting me in this situation and giving me this opportunity, and I have full confidence in myself that I am going to take advantage of it."
Brown, who is from Royal Palm Beach, Fla., has rushed 41 times this year for 136 yards and four touchdowns. He also has caught 16 passes for 136 yards.
Pitt coach Todd Graham said Monday at his weekly news conference that there is no way to replace a player as talented as Ray Graham, but the Panthers are fortunate to have a backup with Brown's experience and talent ready to go.
He said Brown's experience at Wisconsin -- he appeared in 36 games for the Badgers, started nine and rushed for 1,152 yards and 11 touchdowns -- will be a huge asset when he takes the field Saturday because he isn't likely to be nervous.
But beyond Brown, the Panthers have three freshman to fill Brown's old role as the backup. Given that two of them -- Malcolm Crockett and Isaac Bennett-- have yet to play, one of them is likely to lose his redshirt.
Graham said that is not the ideal situation this late in the year but is extremely confident that Brown and some combination of the freshmen can handle the job.
"You can't stand up and talk about replacing a player as good as Ray Graham," Todd Graham said. "You cannot replace a player like that, but in the same breath, Zach Brown did a tremendous job in coming in and being productive. We will have one of our freshmen come in and play the role that Zach played.
"I am very confident in all three of those [freshmen]. I'm also pleased with Ray and Zach and how their relationship has developed and how they have mentored those young kids. It will be important for those freshmen to step up and play. People will be surprised at how well these young guys can play."
Brown said that his relationship with Ray Graham has made this opportunity bittersweet but it has been eased by the fact that Graham has been his biggest supporter and has encouraged him and the team every day since he got hurt.
"I think a big thing for us is we want to go out there and play for him because that can happen to anybody," Brown said "But for a great player like him, we just want to go out there and show that nothing is going to be lost. We are just going to go out and play and just win."
NOTES -- The Pitt-Louisville game Nov. 12 at Papa Johns Stadium will be a noon kickoff and has been designated as the "Big East Game of the Week" so it will air on WTAE. ... Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri was named the Big East offensive player of the week as well as one of eight players nationally recognized by the Manning Award as a "Star of the Week" for his performance against Connecticut. He completed 29 of 42 passes for a Heinz Field collegiate record of 419 yards and two touchdowns. ... Todd Graham said Lucas Nix (knee) and Anthony Gonzalez (shoulder) should be available Saturday. ... Two representatives from one of Pitt's student organizations, Jordan Shoup and Eric Haybarger, spoke at Graham's news conference to promote "Turn it Blue" night Saturday when the Panthers play Cincinnati. "We are excited about that and our student section does a tremendous job," Graham said. "We are going to need everyone out there filling the stadium and turning it blue to support our team this Saturday."