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Pitt notebook: Running back Conner showing no signs of slowing down

Tribune-Review
| Sunday, November 16, 2014 6:54 p.m
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Pitt's James Conner (24) rushes for a 16-yard touchdown ahead of North Carolina's Des Lawrence (2) in the second quarter Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014, in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Pitt coach Paul Chryst is careful not to expect James Conner to be great.

“I think it is almost arrogant to expect it out of someone,” he said after the 40-35 loss at North Carolina on Saturday in which Conner was great, running for 220 yards.

But Chryst is fortunate that Conner is showing no signs of slowing down after carrying 68 times for 483 yards and seven touchdowns in the past two games.

Conner has been among the elite backs in the nation all season, standing third with 1,562 yards behind Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (1,909) and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman (1,678). Conner’s total is seventh all-time in the ACC. Presently, Conner leads the ACC by 219 over Miami’s Duke Johnson (1,343).

Gordon appears to be running away with the NCAA rushing title after setting an FBS record with 408 yards Saturday against Nebraska. Coleman had 307 in a loss to Rutgers.

Conner’s yardage total is impressive, but it’s only the sixth-best in Pitt history. He is behind Tony Dorsett (three times, including the school record of 2,150), Dion Lewis and Craig Heyward.

Conner passed LeSean McCoy’s best season (1,488 in 2008).

“It’s definitely an honor to break (McCoy’s) record,” he said.

Conner said he was inspired by former Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s decorated season last year.

“He said hard work pays off, and I worked hard in the offseason,” Conner said.

No late rallies

The loss was Pitt’s fourth by five points or fewer and the third in which the Panthers had a chance to win on their final possession of the game.

The fourth quarter of each of those three ended differently, with an interception (Iowa), missed field goal (Duke) and fumble (North Carolina).

“We know we are going to be in close games,” Chryst said, “and we just have to find a way to swing it our way.”

The Four Freshmen

Wide receiver Adonis Jennings made his first career start and caught two passes, both in the fourth quarter with the game on the line, for 27 yards.

Jennings is the fourth freshman to start for Pitt this season, joining cornerback Avonte Maddox, defensive end Rori Blair and safety Patrick Amara. Maddox led Pitt with three pass breakups against North Caolina.

In the past two years, Pitt has used 19 freshmen, and 12 of them started at least one game.

Notable

At one point, Chryst was 6-1 when his team totaled more than 500 yards of offense. But since then, the Panthers have surpassed that milestone in each of the past three games (526, 594 and 523) and lost all three. … Wide receiver Tyler Boyd is on the cusp of his second 1,000-yard season. He has 951 receiving yards and six touchdowns with two regular-season games remaining. Boyd has 57 catches, three more than the next four Pitt pass catchers combined. … Offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty limped off the field with an injury Saturday and returned before finishing the game on the sideline.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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