Pitt coach Todd Graham has a playbook of 87 different formations and so many different plays that he can't count them.
But what he has discovered through the first five games of the season is that he should scrap most of them and go with one of two plays that always seem to work -- a handoff to Ray Graham or a pass to Ray Graham.
Those plays worked especially well Thursday night as Graham rushed 26 times for 226 yards and two touchdowns and led the Panthers to a 44-17 win against No. 16 South Florida in their Big East opener before a crowd of 40,025 at Heinz Field.
Pitt (3-2, 1-0 Big East) snapped a two-game losing streak with the win and also handed the Bulls (4-1, 0-1) their first loss this season.
It was Pitt's fourth consecutive win against South Florida.
Todd Graham said it was the first time the Panthers have played a complete game and a lot of people contributed a lot of big plays.
But he conceded he has a superstar in Ray Graham, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry and whose performance against the Bulls was something special.
"Ray has been phenomenal and he has been better than he has played," the coach said of his running back. "It was probably his best performance, tremendous extra efforts. He is a complete back and he continues to be a student, learning and studying, and he corrected a lot of things we wanted him to correct.
"This kid's competitiveness is off the chart. He runs all over the field, then he demanded he return the kickoff, and I just love how he has been competing."
South Florida coach Skip Holtz said Ray Graham was a big difference in the game, and the inability to deal with him led to the Bulls' demise.
"Once he [gets] in space, he makes you miss," Holtz said. "He's quick. He's quicker than he is fast and he's very elusive. He's got sideways lateral movement. He's got great vision. If he can get on the perimeter, he's going to hurt you.
"We did not keep the edge of our defense very well, and if he can get outside, circle the defense and get in open space, he is very dangerous. He was very impressive. He ran hard. This was an old-fashioned tail-whipping."
Graham also had four catches for 42 yards while putting on an impressive display of athleticism and power. He ran past, over and through South Florida defenders, often getting 4 or 5 yards after the initial hit.
He was a big part of the story -- the other was a Pitt defense that came into the game last in the Big East in a number of categories but pitched a second-half shutout and took control of the game by bottling up the Bulls offense.
The Bulls came into the game averaging 45.5 points per game -- albeit against mostly weak competition -- but against the Panthers they managed one long touchdown drive. Their other scoring drive came on a short drive after a Pitt fumble.
Pitt led, 20-17, at the half, but the defense set the tone for the second half on the first drive, stuffing the Bulls on three consecutive plays and forcing a punt.
The Panthers then took possession at their 31 and, nine plays later, extended the lead to 27-17 on a 12-yard pass from quarterback Tino Sunseri to tight end Hubie Graham.
South Florida's best chance to get back into the game came on the ensuing drive when the Bulls drove to the Panthers 49, but Pitt held on third-and-4 and forced another punt.
Sunseri and the Panthers went right back to work at their 34 and, nine plays later, extended their lead to 34-17 on Zach Brown's 2-yard run.
"We imposed our will," defensive end Chas Alecxih said. "I just thought for the first time all season we clicked as a defense. We did exactly what we wanted. Nobody did their own thing. We had two absolute ridiculous losses the past two weeks and came out and said we aren't letting this happen again.
"And [safety] Jarred Holley is Mr. Clutch back there for us. He made so many plays tonight, he was our MVP no doubt."
The Panthers' 17-point lead was a commanding one at that point, but as Alecxih said, the defense had blown fourth-quarter leads each of the past two games, so ...
Ray Graham eased those concerns a few series later when he scored on an 8-yard touchdown run to give the Panthers a 41-17 lead with 11:29 left.
For good measure, Holley, who had a spectacular game, forced a fumble. It was recovered by the Panthers at their 41, sealing the outcome.
NOTES -- Pitt suffered another key injury in the offensive line as guard Lucas Nix went down on the first series with an apparent knee injury. Nix will have an MRI today. Ryan Schlieper replaced him. The Panthers already had lost guard Chris Jacobson to a season-ending knee injury. ...Sunseri completed 7 of his first 10 passes -- and the three incompletions were dropped -- and finished 22 of 33 for 216 yards and a touchdown. ... Pitt tailback Zach Brown injured his arm early in the game and missed a few series, but returned. ...Former linebacker Troy Benson was the Panthers honorary captain.
First Published September 30, 2011 4:45 AM