It’s late in the second quarter and Pitt has the ball on its own 36-yard line. Tom Savage drops back after the snap, looking for an open target. University of North Carolina’s Malik Simmons charges Savage, nipping his ankles in an attempt to sack him.
Stumbling, Savage somehow manages to escape, but not before another UNC defender tackles him. After the scuffle, Savage limps off the field, cueing the end of the second quarter.
With Pitt trailing UNC by 21 points at the half, and a starting quarterback unsure of his injuries, the Panthers needed to change the momentum of the game, and they needed to do so fast.
As Pitt took the field to start the third quarter, the Panthers were determined to make a comeback, and it was going to be led by running back James Conner.
“He ran hard,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “He’s earning his keep.”
Conner, a true freshman, rushed for a total 102 yards, racking up 71 yards in the second half alone. While the efforts of Conner and the Panthers fell short in a 34-27 loss, Pitt managed to score 24 unanswered points behind his performance.
To start the fourth quarter, Pitt called a play for Conner to rush the ball. This play ultimately led them to a touchdown by Isaac Bennett, cutting the deficit to 10 points.
It was plays like that one that enabled Pitt to move down the field in an attempt to tie the game.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” Conner said. “I knew if I was going to get [the touchdown], it wasn’t going to be by that much.”
The Panthers scored that touchdown.
Conner rushed for 2 yards to tie the game with less than nine minutes left of playing time.
“I was happy to tie it up,” Conner said. “There was still some time left, so basically I was just thinking, ‘It’s not over.’”
With Conner taking charge of the offense, the team fed off his energy, rallying for a comeback, which UNC noticed.
“Once they settled in they started running the ball a bit more effectively with that Conner kid,” North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said. “It made it tougher for us.”
But praise and attention has been consistent with Conner of late.
The week before, in the win over Notre Dame, Conner scored two touchdowns and rushed for a total of 36 yards while averaging 3 1/2 yards on each play.
“I just wanted to do what I could for the team,” Conner said.
Conner clearly contributed to the Notre Dame win, and what he did against UNC has made him a standout player.
With a Pitt team full of injuries (senior Devin Street was seen limping off the field late in the fourth quarter ), Conner stepped up as the go-to guy on the offense. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry with his longest carry going for 22 yards.
Conner seemed to be the only thing clicking with the offense, with nearly every Pitt play in the second half being fed to him so he could barrel through the UNC defense.
This represents quite a turnaround from his past performances.
From the beginning of his career, starting against Florida State University to the present, Conner averaged less than 3 yards per carry in all but this game.
What changed for the freshman? Experience and opportunity.
With this being the 10th game of the season, Conner chose to seize the opportunity against UNC to show his worth.
Unfortunately, the team’s valiant effort was not enough for a Panther win. The Tar Heels secured their victory with a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown.
“We still have two more games left,” Conner said. “We’re not going to dwell on this.”
As for Pitt’s next opponent, Syracuse, Conner intends to give the Orange the same treatment as every other team he’s faced this season.
“I’m just going to run hard,” Conner said. “No matter what.”