In a sport where the study of game tape is an obsession, one coaching maxim is, Video doesn't lie. But in the case of Pitt running back Dion Lewis, some coaches weren't willing to believe their eyes. Two years ago, after rushing for 979 yards and 14 touchdowns on only 79 carries as a junior at Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J., Lewis sent copies of his highlight tape to several Division I-A programs, including nearby Rutgers. The response was underwhelming. Only Pitt assistant coach Jeff Hafley paid him a visit, and he immediately began working to get Lewis's commitment. "I'd run into other coaches who were recruiting one of the seniors [at Blair]," says Hafley, who liked the way the 5'8", 195-pound Lewis broke tackles and accelerated through holes. "They thought he was too small, and I'd lie and say, 'Yeah, he's real small.' But he's short, not small. He's built like a truck."
This is an article from the Oct. 26, 2009 issue
Just seven games into his freshman season, Lewis is making good on all the promise Hafley saw on video. In No. 20 Pitt's 24--17 victory at Rutgers last Friday night, Lewis rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns, including one on a 58-yard burst during which he started to the inside, slipped a tackle and outran the Scarlet Knights' secondary down the right sideline. He is the third-leading rusher in the country, averaging 131.1 yards a game, and has alleviated the concern among Panthers fans as to how their team would replace LeSean McCoy, who rushed for 2,816 yards over two seasons before bolting to the NFL last spring.
Lewis enrolled at Pitt last January, in time for spring practice, and he immediately impressed coaches with his work ethic. "He was always watching film on his own," says Hafley. "It was like he'd been here three years." Lewis attributes his businesslike approach to the fact that he'd already been living away from home for two years. A native of Albany, N.Y., he transferred to Blair after his junior season to increase his exposure to recruiters. Blair asked Lewis, who was due to graduate at 17, to commit to playing two seasons, so he repeated his junior year. "It was good for him physically," says his mother, Linda. "And it really helped him learn how to study."
Fifth-year coach Dave Wannstedt believes that this Pitt team might be the most balanced he has had. Quarterback Bill Stull is a fifth-year senior who has thrown for 14 touchdowns with only three interceptions. The veteran line, in addition to clearing the way for Lewis, is allowing less than one sack per game. Defensively, end Greg Romeus has seven sacks, and the Panthers rank third in Division I-A with 4.0 sacks a game.
Starting with South Florida this Saturday, the Panthers (6--1, 3--0 in the Big East) are entering the toughest part of their schedule, facing Notre Dame and then nationally ranked West Virginia and Cincinnati down the stretch. They will need Lewis out in front, showing the way.
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Boise State (seeded sixth in the SI Playoff Bracket, page 15) is the Division I-A program in the Gem State that gets most of the headlines, but fellow WAC member Idaho is quietly putting together its best season in years. By virtue of their 35--23 victory over Hawaii last Saturday, the Vandals (6--1, 3--0) are bowl-eligible for the first time since 1998. Coach Robb Akey, for eight years a defensive assistant at Washington State, was 1--11 and 2--10 in his first two seasons, but Idaho has turned things around with a defense that ranks 14th in the country against the run. Junior quarterback Nathan Enderle (below) is 18th in the country in pass efficiency. A Nov. 14 trip to Boise looms. The Broncos have won 10 straight in the series, outscoring their in-state rival by an average of 39 points on the blue turf.