By Dale Grdnic
Dion Lewis enrolled at Pitt in January, and the freshman tailback has been ahead of the game ever since.
As an early enrollee, Dion Lewis had a chance to learn the Pittsburgh offense in the spring, and he absorbed it. Lewis secured the starting tailback spot then and reenforced it during training camp. And he did nothing in the Panthers’ opening game to lose it.
Lewis ran for 132 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 first-half carries and added another score on a catch to lead Pitt past Youngstown State 38-3 Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field.
“We really were pretty simple with our running game,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “I think we ran maybe four different plays the whole game. So, this was a good game for our offensive line. … I thought our offensive line did a very good job running the ball, but I was not pleased with our protection.
“When we had to drop back and throw the ball … it was not crisp enough. (But) Dion ran the ball well. He was a powerful player when he got here, but he’s had a full offseason with Buddy Morris and is a lot stronger. He’ll break arm tackles, and that’s a big difference with him right now.”
Fifth-year senior quarterback Bill Stull was adequate, going 11-for-16 for 123 yards with two touchdowns and one poor interception, but the Panthers’ offensive line, Lewis and the defense were dominant at times. Lewis, in particular, was just spectacular to watch.
“He ran the ball hard, and we were able to make some holes for him,” redshirt junior left tackle Jason Pinkston said. “He’s a tough, little guy, maybe difficult to see, at times, but definitely difficult to tackle. He can run through a tackle just as easily as he can run around a guy. He’s going to be a real good back.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Tino Sunseri also played hitting 5 of 8 passes for 80 yards and one six-yard touchdown toss to redshirt sophomore Aundre Wright, as did frosh tailback Ray Graham with six carries for 22 yards.
But none were as scintillating as Lewis in the first half. He finished with 129 yards on 20 carries, the most by a freshman in an opener since
Tony Dorsett hit for 100 in against Georgia in 1973. Lewis’ 16-yard touchdown run to cap Pitt’s second series was slick. He hammered off left tackle behind Pinkston, dipped inside to fake out YSU sophomore cornerback Randy Louis and basically cruised into the end zone.
“I felt real good out there, but my line did a great job blocking today,” Lewis said. “They deserve a lot of credit. My first touchdown, I didn’t expect it to come so soon, but I was glad to get it. I just hit the hole and had a chance to bounce outside. I was one-on-one with the corner, and Coach Walker always says you have to make them miss in that situation. And that’s what I did.”
The Penguins marched to a field goal from late in the first to early in the second quarter, as they ran 16 plays in 8:27. Still, YSU needed a 48-yard field goal from junior Stephen Blose to get on the board. The Penguins also drove for 14 plays and 8:32 late in the game, but quarterback Brandon Summers was picked off in the end zone by Ricky Gary.
“I felt like my old self moving around out there,” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas said. “On defense, played solid Pitt football. We were good against the run, and we put pressure on the passer. They had two long drives, though, which we would have liked to get off the field a little earlier. But they did a good job with quick drops. Four and five steps back, and we hit him.”
After the YSU field goal, Pitt needed just five plays and 2:41 to move 63 yards for a score. Redshirt freshman Cameron Saddler returned the kickoff 37 yards, and Lewis had two big runs. He went for 33 to the YSU 21 and ran for 20 to the 1. Wannstedt let him finish the drive as well for his second score.
Two possessions later, Lewis scored again to give Pitt a 21-3 lead. Stull passed twice to Oderick Turner, but the second was ruled a lateral for a 10-yard gain. Then, it was all Lewis with consecutive runs for nine, eight, eight, 11 and three yards to the 3. That’s when Stull tossed a swing pass that Lewis caught and ran into the end zone. The play capped an eight-play, 61-yard drive in 3:08.
Redshirt junior Dan Hutchins, who kicked field goals and punted for Pitt, nailed a 26-yarder in the third quarter. And Stull passed to senior tight end Dorin Dickerson for 13 yards. Sunseri closed out the scoring with a 13-yard pass to redshirt sophomore wideout Aundre Wright.