NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Corralling Ray Graham could hardly have gotten off to a worse start.
The Pittsburgh running back snapped off the longest run against No. 4 Notre Dame this season on the Panthers’ first offensive play, a 55-yard sprint that resulted in a 39-yard Kevin Harper field goal. Before the first half ended Graham had seven carries for 77 yards and a touchdown.
Pittsburgh built a 10-6 lead on the strength of that rushing attack with Graham’s 16-yard score coming at the end of a six-play, 58-yard drive in the second quarter.
“It’s hard to stop a running back like Ray Graham,” Irish linebacker Manti Te’o said. “He’ll hit wherever he wants to hit. He’ll stop, jump cut. The thing at first, especially, we were just trying to do too much. We weren’t playing our type of defense and we weren’t playing to the caliber, we weren’t living up to the expectations that we have for ourselves.”
Notre Dame got back to that when it mattered most.
Before then Graham broke a 48-yard run, moving his total to 15 carries for 151 yards and a touchdown after the third quarter. Graham joined Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor as the only running backs to crack the 100-yard barrier against the Irish this season.
Taylor had 102 yards on 28 carries in an overtime loss. Graham had more success but in a different manner.
“There was a lot of misdirection,” Te’o said. “A lot of stuff. A lot of overloaded formations and guys getting caught up in all the mess. We just had to get back to the basics, Day One, fall camp.”
Head coach Brian Kelly credited Pittsburgh but also noticed some sketchy fundamentals on defense that helped turn Graham loose more often than not in the first three quarters.
“We missed tackles uncharacteristically but he’s a great back too,” Kelly said. “But certainly I thought he ran extremely well. We tackled subpar for us in terms of our defense. I know coach (Bob) Diaco would not be happy right now. But they found a way to shut him down in the second half.
“That’s the key. We shut him down in overtime. We took him and really were able to control him late in the game.”
Graham went quiet as Notre Dame rallied from a 14-point deficit to capture a 29-26 victory in three overtimes.
While quarterback Everett Golson rallied the Irish offense, the defense hemmed Graham in. He accumulated just 21 yards on nine carries during the remainder of the game. No run went longer than seven yards; Notre Dame dropped Graham for a loss once and no gain another time.
“We have to give credit to Ray Graham,” Te’o said. “He’s a great back. But in the end we all just really focused down and said, ‘Everybody, do your job. You never know where Ray’s gonna go but at least you know he’s not gonna go where you’re at. If everybody does their job, we should be fine.’”