PITTSBURGH — James Conner became an instant inspiration in and around the sporting world after defeating cancer and returning to the football field. However, on a cold late-afternoon against the Duke Blue Devils, one in which Pitt would dominate 56-14, Conner etched yet another chapter to his already illustrious story. Two Atlantic Coast Conference records would soon be in Conner’s hands.
At age 23, Conner, a redshirt junior from Erie, PA, has been through the ringer and back. After earning ACC player of the year honors and beginning 2015 with NFL-like expectations, stomach-turning news of a season-ending injury (MCL) held the Pitt running back to just one play against Youngstown State in the opener.
But his problems didn’t end there.
Just mere months into his rehabilitation, Conner called for a press conference — and no, it didn’t pertain to the status of his knee. Instead, Pitt fans, coaches, players and sports fans across the country were unawares, dumbfounded by the bombshell dropped… James Conner was with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” Conner said in that fateful presser.
The young man, stronger than an ox, vowed to fight and beat cancer. He held his end of the deal, to say the least.
On September 3, 2016, the newly designated captain and cancer survivor trotted onto the Heinz Field turf versus Villanova, capturing two touchdowns in the process.
Tonight, Conner added two more touchdowns to his résumé, which would forever place him ACC football lore.
The first of Conner’s two-touchdown performance tied former NC State running back Ted Brown’s career rushing touchdown total and former Virginia running back Wali Lundy’s touchdown record. Though both prized ACC records wouldn’t stand any longer.
With under three minutes left in third quarter and Pitt on the one-yard line, Conner easily scampered to the end zone for career touchdown number 53 and rushing touchdown number 50. Both prestigious all-time records were in one man’s possession.
Here are all 53 touchdowns in Conner’s Pitt career, as presented by Pitt football’s official Twitter account.
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) November 19, 2016
“I tried not to think about it, certainly aware of it though,” Conner said in the post-game presser. “I’ll be forever grateful to the University of Pittsburgh for giving me a scholarship and giving me an opportunity. For that, I really owe it all to the university.”
Overall, Conner rushed for 103 yards and averaged 7.2 yards a carry, making the offensive line, led by Brian O’Neill, an unsung hero.
Nevertheless, Conner wasn’t a one-man show tonight, every facet of Pitt’s team showed up tonight.
Oluwaseun Idowu forced a fumble early for the Panthers, Ejuan Price and the defensive line caused havoc for Duke quarterback Daniel Jones all day, Avonte Maddux, Reggie Mitchell and others in the secondary actually showed up today, and Quadree Henderson burned Duke on multiple occasions.
And you can’t forget about Nate Peterman, who played another conservative but strong game, connecting on three touchdown passes through the air. Other than a poor read near the end of the first half resulting in an interception return by Byron Fields, strong game calling prevailed for Peterman. In fact, answering the pick, Peterman connected with Jester Weah on a 56-yard touchdown pass the next drive.
Final: Pitt (7-4) 56, Duke (4-7) 14
Pitt will play host to the Syracuse Orange next week.
Conner is certainly ready for next week, “We want to win out, win a bowl game and start fresh.”
- Henderson went 65 yards to take a Danny Stilts punt to the house, now giving him four kick returned touchdowns on the year (three on kickoffs, one via punt return). Watch out, he could be your NCAA returner of the year.
- Ejuan Price continues to show up for the Panthers. Two sacks tonight brings him to 11 for the year, which makes it back-to-back years with over ten sacks.
- Mitchell has played well in consecutive weeks. A booming hit to T.J. Rahming knocked the ball out of the running back’s hands and to the turf, preventing Duke from another score before the half. 28-14 is a lot more commanding than 28-21 — huge play. Maddux did the same minutes later, because Pitt scored so quickly, holding the Blue Devils to a field goal attempt that AJ Reed, who kicked a game-winner against Notre Dame earlier in the year, missed regardless.
- Two Pitt QBs saw the field in the last six minutes — senior Manny Stocker and redshirt freshman Ben DiNucci, who could takeover next year.
- Each and every time Pitt sports these throwback uniforms, folks call upon the university to make them official jerseys. However, Pat Narduzzi shuts down the rumors and believes they should be worn on special occasions.
Joe Cinello covers Pirates material for Pittsburgh Sports Castle. Connect with him on Facebook (Joey Cinello), Linkedin (Joseph Cinello) and Twitter (jcin13).