MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — At one point Saturday night, Miami linebacker Denzel Perryman tugged repeatedly on the right leg that was attached to Pitt running back James Conner’s sore hip.
A few times, Conner jogged slowly to the Pitt bench, saving that hip for when it really mattered.
Finally it did, and Conner — with help from Pitt’s stable of runners, quarterback Chad Voytik and a defense that rose to the occasion — ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Panthers to a 35-23 victory over Miami before a crowd of 61,106 at Sun Life Stadium.
“I knew he was going to give it a go all week,” coach Paul Chryst said. “I appreciate the way he prepared for this. I didn’t know how much he would get.”
In the process, Conner broke three Pitt records set by Tony Dorsett during the 1976 national championship season: rushing touchdowns and overall touchdowns (24) and points (144) in a season.
Then the final crowning achievement: Conner accepted a call from Dorsett in the locker room after the game.
“He told me congratulations,” Conner said. “He told me records were made to be broken.”
The victory made Pitt (6-6, 4-4 ACC) bowl eligible for the seventh consecutive season, while Miami fell to 6-6, 4-4. It also was Pitt’s first victory in Miami since 1963 and broke the Hurricanes’ eight-game winning streak in the series.
“There wasn’t a lot of bowl talk (leading up to the game),” Chryst said. “That doesn’t mean anything. Now we can make plans.”
The key to the game might have been the way Conner and Voytik, who played despite a stomach virus that hit him Friday night, motivated their teammates while playing through adversity. Conner said Voytik’s eyes were swollen, his nose was bleeding, and he had a headache before the game.
Asked how he felt, Voytik said: “Not that great, I’ll be honest with you. But I knew I was going to go. I didn’t have a choice. I just had to ride with it.”
“That let you know how much we wanted to win this,” said wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who scored a touchdown for the third consecutive game. “It was all or nothing. If you lose, you sit around and watch other people play. We didn’t want to do that.”
With Pitt leading the Hurricanes, 28-23, and 13:13 left in the fourth quarter, the Panthers faced fourth down with the tip of the football nearly touching the Miami goal line.
Chryst called a quarterback sneak, Voytik gained the required inches for the touchdown, and Pitt took its 12-point lead.
Voytik was one of four Pitt players not named Conner who combined to total 155 yards rushing on 29 carries. The leader of that group was freshman Chris James, who carried 11 times for 58 yards and scored on a 15-yard run in the third quarter.
“The offense did a good job of matching scores with scores,” Chryst said. “The guys did a nice job of keeping in the moment.
“The thing I love about (Conner) is he knows there are a lot of people helping him, but yet he did it, too.”
Voytik attempted only 12 passes, completing eight for 134 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown to Boyd in the first quarter.
Even Conner caught a 40-yard reception on the third snap of the game — only his fifth reception of the season — and scored his first touchdown one play later on a 13-yard run. Pitt scored touchdowns on three of its first four possessions en route to a 21-13 halftime lead.
Pitt’s defense was far from perfect, allowing 421 yards, but it forced Miami to settle for three field goals. To punctuate the victory, Pitt stopped Miami’s last scoring threat at the Panthers 5-yard line.
“They played hard,” Chryst said of his defense. “(Miami) has a lot of good players, but we kept playing, and we just competed.”
Miami’s only touchdowns were passes by freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya — 51 yards to wide receiver Phillip Dorsett and 17 yards to Duke Johnson.
Senior safety Ray Vinopal said the victory meant a lot to the team but especially to the 11 seniors.
“No one of us was ready to be done with the season,” he said. “I felt everyone was locked in.
“You could tell at the hotel (Friday night). There wasn’t much fooling around.”
The defense faced its share of critics, but Vinopal said no one paid any attention to them.
“I don’t think anyone was listening to anything going on outside,” he said.