When Todd Graham was head coach at Rice and Tulsa from 2006-2010, his teams were 1-7 against BCS opponents. The one victory was Tulsa’s 28-27 decision against Notre Dame last year.
Yet, you can’t compare those games to Pitt’s visit to Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Ia., Saturday. The opponent comes from a BCS conference – we get that. But the difference is that Graham – finally — has a big-boy conference team to call his own.
And, please, no jokes about the Big East. (Not now, anyway.)
“Here, it is different, because it’s a lot more equal (than it was at Rice and Tulsa),” Graham said. “We are not getting out-personneled.”
In his first and only season at Rice (2006), Graham was forced to open the season with this gauntlet of opponents – Houston, UCLA, Texas and Florida State.
He lost ‘em all, but recovered to finish 7-6 and earn Rice its first bowl berth in 45 years. One of the victories that year was a 41-38 overtime decision against Tulsa, which hired Graham not long after the season ended.
The odds were stacked against Graham in those eight BCS games, and he lost by scores of 65-28 (Oklahoma State), 62-21 and 45-0 (Oklahoma), 52-7 (Texas) and 55-7 (Florida State).
Still, he remained hopeful before each one.
“I always felt good going into those games,” said Graham, noting his teams practiced harder in the days leading up to kickoff. “We were kind of the small guy going up against the big giants.”
In fact, what Graham said may be instructive and encouraging for Pitt fans hoping the Panthers go into Iowa City and are at least competitive:
“I’ve never been to a game that I didn’t feel like we could win and I never went into a game feeling like we are an underdog,” he said. “I don’t think you are ever successful being that way.
“I am never going to say, `Tell me it’s OK to lose. Oh, poor us.’ We have to go out and we have to win and we are going to figure out a way to do it. And we have a lot of confidence and belief in our kids.
“I am excited about this game because this is Iowa. I can remember going against (eventual national runner-up) Miami in 2002 (as an assistant at West Virginia). That was a big game (even if the Mountaineers lost, 40-23, at home). That’s what you coach for. That’s what you work for.”
–Pitt probably won’t win if it can’t improve its average turnover ratio (minus-1), which is 93rd in nation.
“We can’t do that and expect to win big games,” Graham said.
I went to the NCAA Website to check on Pitt’s turnover margin and uncovered this little gem:
Three Big East teams — Rutgers, Cincinnati and South Florida — have the best turnover ratios in the country (plus 4, 3.5 and 3).
— The NCAA Website also reveals another troubling fact about the Panthers – they are 74th in the nation in total defense, allowing an average of 387 yards per game.
“We have been really inconsistent on defense for what our potential is,” Graham said.
He might have added (but did not), “… for the quality of the opposition.”
Graham is not unhappy with the defense, pointing out that cornerbacks K’Waun Williams, Antwaun Reed and free safety Jarred Holley have played well.
“Jason (Hendricks, bandit safety) has played well at times. He needs to play more consistently and not let up.”
But he pointed an accusing finger at the underneath coverage and soft coverage on the outside.
“I have seen more quick-game passes than I have ever seen in my life and I think you are seeing that because we have been pretty loose up underneath with our (linebackers). We have worked hard on tightening that up.
“You play defense. That’s how you win big games. Every big game I have been a part of winning is because we played outstanding defense.”
— You won’t see it all the time, but when defensive coordinator Keith Patterson lines up Ejuan Price at outside linebacker, Brandon Lindsey at defensive end and Aaron Donald at his more natural position of nose tackle, Graham’s face lights up.
“I like that lineup,” he said of the three former WPIAL stars (Woodland Hills, Aliquippa and Penn Hills, respectively).
— Here’s how confident Graham is about his team:
“I told them we’re 2-0, let’s go get three, we’re nine away. That sounds pretty close to me.”
— The last word today comes from Pitt quarterbacks coach Todd Dodge (through my pal John Grupp). It seems Dodge has a score to settle.
Dodge has some ugly memories of playing against Iowa. In the 1984 Freedom Bowl, Dodge was the quarterback for Texas in a 55-17 loss to the Hawkeyes at Anaheim Stadium.
“I have not told my players that I do have a little history with Iowa,” Dodge said. “Not great memories. This is my chance.”
Iowa’s Chuck Long threw for 461 yards and six touchdowns. Dodge was 16 of 32 for 180 yards and two touchdowns
“The one thing I remember is Chuck Long at the end of the game. He had a little bit of mud on his socks. I had an all-white Texas uniform and they had a big flag (painted on the grass) at midfield. It looked like my uniform was tie-died. I’d been knocked around so much.”