Cracking Graham

Sept. 16, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Heisman Trophy-winner Tony Dorsett was the last Pittsburgh running back to top the nation in rushing yards, and that was 35 years ago. The University of Iowa defense is aiming to do its part to keep it that way tomorrow.

Ray Graham leads the Panthers into Kinnick Stadium after back-to-back rushing totals of 201 yards (against Buffalo) and 121 yards (against Maine). The junior’s 161-yard per-game average is best among any Football Bowl Subdivision player.

“This is a challenge, and it’s a challenge that we look forward to,” UI senior defensive end Lebron Daniel said.

After two games, the Hawkeyes have allowed an average of 384.5 yards per game, with 167 coming on the ground. Pittsburgh averages 395.5 yards per game — 218 through the air and 177.5 on the ground. The Panthers operate a similar offense as Iowa’s first two opponents, Tennessee Tech and Iowa State.

“We’re excited to take on this challenge,” UI junior cornerback Greg Castillo said.

The Hawkeyes have a pretty decent runner in their offensive backfield as well. Sophomore Marcus Coker carried the ball 35 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns last Saturday at Iowa State. Coker is driven by the fact Graham is currently sitting No. 1 — a position where he desires to dwell.

“It’s a big motivation boost for us,” said Coker, who is tied for 41st in the nation at 90.5 yards per game. “He’s a great running back, and we have to step up to his level. He’s leading the country and that’s what I want to do, so I’ll have to step my game up.”

UI head coach Kirk Ferentz was a graduate assistant at Pittsburgh in 1980, working with offensive lineman like Mark May, Russ Grimm and Jimbo Covert, who opened holes for running back Randy McMillan, a first-round draft pick. Ferentz knows a good back when he sees one, and Graham fits the bill.

“He’s a strong runner; an aggressive-type guy, so you know you’re going to have to tackle him,” Ferentz said. “He’s got good vision, like most backs do. But he’s a guy you really have to tackle. He’s a good football player.”

Hawkeye linebacker Christian Kirksey, who compiled 13 tackles, two for a loss and a forced fumble a week ago, is also looking forward to the test of facing the nation’s No. 1 rusher.

“It will bring more intensity to the defense,” Kirksey said. “We’ll have to remain focused, play sound and keep a proper mindset.”

While there are similarities between Pittsburgh and Iowa’s first two opponents, Ferentz says there will be an even closer resemblance to past Michigan Wolverine teams. There are three former Michigan assistants on Pittsburgh’s staff, including Calvin Magee (assistant head coach, co-offensive coordinator, running backs) and Tony Dews (tight ends).

“You’re going to see the quarterback option attack, throwing the football, a lot of plays, fast paced, all that type of thing,” Ferentz said. “We’ll see (the quarterback) run the ball, we’ll see him throw it, and they’ve got an excellent running back, too. I’m sure everybody is aware of that. They have a good offensive line, they’ve got good skill guys out wide.”

For the Panthers, tomorrow’s visit will be their first to Iowa in 60 years (a 34-17 Iowa victory). Pittsburgh won the last meeting between the schools, 21-20, in 2008 at Heinz Field.