The good news about the slow and painful reconstruction of the Pitt football program is the well-stocked stable of running backs and offensive linemen.
That showed up Saturday at Heinz Field when Pitt recorded 445 total yards (256 rushing and 189 passing) while dominating Syracuse, which has the ACC’s fifth-ranked defense, 30-7.
The game started without sophomore offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty (foot injury), who usually plays tackle and guard. It ended without running back James Conner, the ACC’s leading rusher with 1,600 yards, who injured a hip in the second quarter and didn’t return after rushing for only 38 yards.
It was strange to see the Pitt stat sheet listing Conner below two runners — freshman Chris James and senior Isaac Bennett. James ran for 122 yards on 19 carries and Bennett, playing in his last game at Heinz Field, added 75 on 11. Together, they averaged 6.6 yards every time they touched the ball, and Bennett even added a 7-yard reception.
James displayed something that he hadn’t shown all season — patience for the hole to open up.
“That’s been something I’ve been working on all year,” he said. “Coach calls me Happy Feet in the backfield because I get the ball and just want to take off.”
Conner had company in the trainer’s room.
Defensive tackle Darryl Render suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter and was replaced by redshirt freshman Justin Moody. Backup linebacker Bam Bradley, who received a stinger while returning an interception late in the first half, did not come back.
Earlier in the week, Chryst said wide receiver Manasseh Garner was expected to return from his foot injury, but he did not play.
Chryst said he spoke to all three players who were injured Saturday, but he did not elaborate on the extent of their injuries. He said he will know more Sunday.
Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd teamed up to reach one of the most impressive milestones in Pitt history. Conner has 1,600 yards rushing and Boyd 1,077 receiving, marking only the third time in school history Pitt has had a player top 1,000 yards in each of the categories.
The prior occasions were in 2009 (running back Dion Lewis and wide receiver Jon Baldwin, with 1,799 and 1,111) and 2000 (Kevin Barlow and Antonio Bryant, with 1,167 and 1,457).
Boyd also went over 1,000 yards for the second time in his two-year career. Only Larry Fitzgerald (2002-2003) has done that at Pitt. Conner has 22 rushing touchdowns this season, an ACC record.
Four weeks after the return of the Pitt script to the helmets, it was made part of the midfield logo at Heinz Field. … Wide receiver Dontez Ford made his first career start when Chryst gave Tyler Boyd a breather after his 96-yard return of the opening kickoff was called back by a holding penalty. He had an 11-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. … Pitt has won 11 of its past 13 games against Syracuse.
— Jerry DiPaola