SALT LAKE CITY — As if USC's Marc Tyler and Washington's Chris Polk weren't tough enough to defend, along comes another talented running back to test the Utah Utes' defense.
Pittsburgh junior Ray Graham enters Saturday's game against Utah as the national leader in total rush yards with 899. His six-game total is the best in school history, surpassing the pace Tony Dorsett (892) had in 1976 when he won the Heisman Trophy and the Panthers went 12-0 and claimed the national championship.
"I think it's phenomenal that he leads the country in rushing and we've had injuries to our two top offensive linemen," said Pitt coach Todd Graham. "... I think he's a great competitor. He finishes runs and makes people tackle him. I think he's made great progress in just about everything he does. I think he's done a good job."
Even so, the coach added, Ray Graham has "got a long way to go and a lot more improvement that he can make."
That's scary considering he's averaging 149.8 yards per game and tops the team in receiving as well with 27 receptions.
"It's a great opportunity we have. He's one of the best, if not the best, we've seen all season," said Utah linebacker Chaz Walker. "So we're going to have to corral him and definitely secure tackles."
It won't be easy.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledges that Graham has been a beast.
"He makes some cuts and some moves that are very impressive," Whittingham said. "So we've got our hands full with this guy."
Should Graham reach his rushing average, Whittingham admitted it won't look good for the Utes.
"So we've got to try to slow him down," he explained. "I don't think you're going to ever completely take a guy like that out of the game, but we got to try to slow him down a little bit."
Graham's speed is a concern, a big concern.
"I would say he takes quickness to a whole new level," said safety Brian Blechen. "He's real shifty and he runs strong."
Fortunately for the Utes, their run defense made great strides between losses to Washington and Arizona State. A week after giving up 185 yards on 42 carries against the Huskies, they allowed the Sun Devils only 74 yards on 38 rushes.
Utah ranks second in the Pac-12 and 19th nationally in rushing defense, allowing an average of 99.4 yards per game.
"Compared to Washington, we improved a lot and stepped up our game," said defensive tackle Dave Kruger. "So I don't think we'll have a huge problem with containing this running back, but we'll see."
EXTRA POINTS: Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri, a junior, has completed 118-of-187 passes for 1,166 yards this season. He has thrown seven interceptions and five touchdown passes . . . Senior linebacker Max Gruder leads the Panthers with 51 tackles . . . Pitt coach Todd Graham was hired in January after four years at Tulsa and one at Rice. His overall head coaching record is 46-26.
Defending the run
How opposing running backs have fared against the Utah Utes this season:
Player, school Carries Yards TDs
CHRIS POLK, Washington 29 189 0
MARC TYLER, Southern California 24 113 1
CODY KIRK, Montana State 9 48 0
CAMERON MARSHALL, Arizona State 21 47 1
J.J. DI LUIGI, Brigham Young 7 31 0
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company