CHARLOTTE – Nearly three minutes into Dave Wannstedt’s postgame press conference, Pittsburgh running back Dion Lewis tried to sneak in the side door unnoticed.
Sure, he’d be sitting on a raised stage directly next to his coach, but that didn’t stop the freshman tailback from almost tiptoeing inside – seemingly hoping to be unacknowledged.
His coach, though, was having none of it.
“He’s coming up here now,” Wannstedt announced about Lewis. “He had an easy day, compared to last week. How many carries you have today? Twenty-eight carries?
“You took a day off,” he continued, his chuckles becoming increasingly audible with every word.
Lewis merely shrugged his shoulders and smiled in response. Nothing more needed to be said about his performance.
For in a season filled with record-breaking showings, Lewis iced his campaign with another sensational outing. This time, North Carolina, with the ACC’s No. 1 ranked defense, fell victim.
And quite frankly, how could they not?
The shifty 5’8, 195-pound back had already drawn comparisons to past Panther greats like Tony Dorsett and Curtis Martin. And heck, even they hadn’t accomplished what Lewis did during his freshman season, as he set the Pitt first-year rushing record with 1,799 yards – including his 159-yard performance against UNC.
“He’s definitely the best back we’ve faced in my years of being here,” UNC cornerback Kendric Burney said of Lewis. “He’s definitely one of the best footwork guys. Bouncing things the way he needed to bounce them. In two or three years, he’s going to be something special. A high draft pick for someone.”
Right away, Lewis made sure the Tar Heels would get a taste of history, gaining 51 yards in the game’s first quarter. Albeit, with one blemish though.
On a third down from North Carolina’s 26-yard line, Lewis made a beautiful sweeping run to the goal line. But as he approached what seemed to be an eventual touchdown, UNC defensive end E.J. Wilson forced a fumble that resulted in a touchback.
"It was a costly turnover. It changed the game," Lewis said of his first lost fumble of the season.
It allowed North Carolina to stay within striking distance. But it also motivated Lewis to an even finer game.
Less than three minutes into the second quarter, with Pittsburgh trailing 7-3, Lewis single-handedly led Pitt on a scoring drive. A make-amends display of sorts. In three carries, the shifty running back gained 45 yards.
His first run was for nine yards. His second was a 25-yard scamper, as he started right, stopped on a dime and cut the entire field. And he finished with a seemingly inevitable 11-yard untouched stroll.
“He’s got the same explosiveness as a Clinton Portis,” North Carolina coach Butch Davis said of Lewis. “Because of his speed, because of his quickness, he doesn’t take a lot of blows.”
By halftime, Lewis amassed 101 yards on just 11 carries. He had accounted for nearly half his team’s total offense. And his touchdown run gave him a Pittsburgh freshman touchdown record.
Not too shabby for a three-star recruit, according to Rivals, who has blossomed as a replacement for LeSean McCoy – now of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Yet even so, Lewis wasn’t quite done yet.
With Pittsburgh trailing 17-16 with 9:39 remaining in the fourth quarter, Lewis spearheaded a mind-boggling 17-play, 79-yard drive that took 8:47 off the clock.
Of those 79 yards, the freshman tailed 63 – including two highlight-reel runs of 13 yards a piece.
“He’s a difference-maker,” Wannstedt said of Lewis. “You start talking about breaking records. You’re talking about great records. I know I’m embarrassing him because he’s such a humble, young man. What he accomplished this year. The great backs get stronger as the game goes on. The last series, there was no question that a lot of the yards he made, they weren’t easy. And that was the difference in the game.”
As Wannstedt left his postgame press conference – with Lewis now sitting silently beside him – the Pitt headman tried handing the game’s statistic sheet to his tailback, indicating the back's late-game prowess.
Lewis waved him off.
“You don’t care about that?” Wannstedt jokingly asked.
Lewis just smiled. Nothing more needed to be said.