PITTSBURGH – A season after no Pitt opponent stopped running back Dion Lewis, one of the nation's leading returning rushers can't seem to get started.
Lewis, who ended last season by gaining at least 152 yards in each of Pittsburgh's final four games, found himself on the bench during nearly all of the second half of Pitt's 38-16 victory over New Hampshire on Saturday. The sophomore was held to a career-low 27 yards on 10 carries by the FCS-ranked Wildcats and has gained 102 yards in two games — 217 yards fewer than he had last season.
A year removed from the best season by any Panthers running back except for Tony Dorsett, Lewis is only the team's second-best rusher. Ray Graham ran for 115 yards on nine carries while playing nearly the entire second half against New Hampshire.
Asked what's wrong with Lewis, coach Dave Wannstedt's answer was simple: Nothing. However, Wannstedt said Graham is going to get his carries, which means Lewis might not come close to matching the 1,799 yards he gained in 2009. That's the second-highest total at Pitt behind Heisman Trophy winner Dorsett's 2,150 in 1976.
"It's a little bit a combination of three new offensive linemen, a new tight end, defenses zeroing in on him," Wannstedt said of Lewis' slow start. "It's not going to be easy any week. It's not going to be different."
Last season, Lewis had the advantage of playing in an offense that had an experienced line, two tight ends who landed in the NFL (Dorin Dickerson and Nate Byham) and a third-year starting quarterback, Bill Stull. Pitt was as equally proficient throwing the ball as it was running it, the kind of balance that helped Lewis run for 150 yards or more seven times.
While the Panthers (1-1) were the preseason Big East Conference favorite, some problems are showing up early this season. An offensive line that has new starters at both guard positions and center hasn't yet found its footing, there's been no production at tight end and quarterback Tino Sunseri is learning on the job.
"Last year, with having a more veteran quarterback in Billy Stull ... having more of a veteran passing team, teams respected Dion," Wannstedt said. "They honored him. But I don't think they were ready to sell out and say, 'We'll stop the run, and if you can beat us throwing the ball, go ahead.' I think we've gotten a little more of that early because of the inexperience."
The Panthers saw that during their season-opening 27-24 overtime loss at Utah, which repeatedly played man-to-man coverage on Pitt's receivers and stacked the line of scrimmage to control Lewis. He needed 25 carries to gain 75 yards and, to date, is averaging 2.9 yards per carry — down from 5.5 a year ago.
"Teams are keying on Dion so, when I get my opportunity, I want to make something happen," Graham said.
Graham, also a sophomore, was expected to share the job last season but wound up getting only 61 carries. Lewis not only won the starting job, but was chosen as a second team All-American. Graham is about 15 pounds heavier this season, and his offseason conditioning work may be a factor in him getting more carries.
"He had a great week of practice last week, and the plan was to get him in," Wannstedt said. "As the game went on, physically, New Hampshire probably got a little tired. I think that made a difference. Any time you're rotating fresh players, that's going to make a difference."
Pitt doesn't play again until facing No. 17 Miami (1-1) on Sept. 23 at Heinz Field, but Lewis has already promised Wannstedt he'll be ready to go. Lewis has not talked to reporters since before the New Hampshire game.
"That's what separates Dion Lewis from most players — he is such a high-character, solid individual," Wannstedt said. "He is looking forward to a good week. He's ready to go. He's focused on what he has to do, and what he needs to accomplish and improve on. I think that's what makes him a special guy."