James Conner returns, Pitt tops Villanova 28-7


James Conner stiff arms a defender in the second quarter to score the first points of the game. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

There aren’t many occasions for a stadium to give a standing ovation to a rush for a one-yard loss, but Pitt saw one of them on Saturday.

Because, after battling cancer, a torn MCL, chemotherapy and physical rehab, star running back James Conner was back. And he could have fumbled the ball into the end zone for all the fans in the Heinz Field crowd could care.

While the result of his first play wasn’t much better, Conner had a chance to soak in the noise of an entire city screaming support and admiration for the superstar after vaulting over that array of obstacles.

Conner returned to the field in game action or the first time since beating Hodgkin lymphoma, which doctors diagnosed him with in December. After a slow start, he scored two touchdowns in the second quarter to power Pitt to a 28-7 win over Villanova.

“I’m fortunate to be back on the field. Sept. 3, an awesome experience, one I’ll never forget,” Conner said. “I’m just thankful for my teammates, my hometown, Pittsburgh. Everybody who supported me throughout this whole journey. It just felt amazing getting back out on the field today.”

Conner wanted to maintain a level of normalcy throughout the contest, emphasizing that the game was not “James Conner versus Villanova.”

“It’s football as usual,” Narduzzi said. “He’s been returned for a long time.”

Before Conner entered the huddle, the game began with some trickery. Villanova faked a punt on fourth-and-3 from Pitt’s 45-yard line on their first possession, but Pitt sniffed it out.

James Conner (24) leads the team out of the tunnel prior to kickoff.  Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer
James Conner (24) leads the team out of the tunnel prior to kickoff. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Senior tight end Jaymar Parrish forced a fumble, and the Panthers recovered and took over at their own 41-yard line.

Pitt was unable to take advantage of the takeaway –– or any other opportunities in the first quarter — as both teams struggled to move the ball.

As senior kicker Chris Blewitt lined up for a 39-yard field goal, it appeared the Panthers would be the first to score. But the kick sailed wide right, and the score remained knotted at zero.

After a stalemate that lasted until midway through the second quarter, Conner eventually found the end zone. The running back ripped off one of his patented outside-run-and-stiff-arm combos, punishing safety Rob Rolle and diving inside the pylon.

Conner had told ESPN that he would spike that ball after his first score, but he ended up giving the ball to the official and celebrating with his teammates.

“I was just inside joking about [spiking it],” Conner said. “I’m not selfish like that, not gonna give us a penalty. That was just me being funny.”

Conner would score again in the closing minutes of the first half, giving Pitt a two-score lead by hauling in an 8-yard receiving touchdown in traffic to give the Panthers a 14-0 advantage.

He finished the game with an additional 17 rushes for 53 yards and a rushing touchdown while snagging three passes for 16 yards. Conner says that despite these scores, there’s still room for him to grow.

“Me, personally, I’ve got a lot of stuff to improve on,” Conner said. “I missed some reads, left a lot of yards on the field. I’m gonna go back, look at the film and correct it all.”

Pitt continued its momentum coming out of the locker room for the second half.

Sophomore wide receiver Quadree Henderson took the opening kickoff of the third quarter 96 yards for a score for his second career return touchdown along with his 100-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff of last year’s Military Bowl against Navy.

“I tell [my blockers] all the time: just give me a seam,” Henderson said. “That’s all I need.”

Unable to move the ball on offense against the Panthers, the Wildcats responded on defense.

Villanova linebacker Drew Wiley came off the edge unblocked and sacked Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman, causing a fumble that Rolle recovered and returned three yards for a touchdown to narrow the Panthers’ lead back to a two-touchdown margin.

The Wildcats held off Pitt until late in the fourth quarter but couldn’t cut into the deficit.

Then, with six minutes left, the Panthers found the end zone one more time. Villanova attacked with a blitz, and Peterman lofted a pass to wide receiver Jester Weah in the corner of the end zone to give Pitt a 28-7 lead and put the game away.

“[Jester] did a nice job, and Nathan did a nice job,” Narduzzi said. “We had worked that all week. That was one of those things where you kind of go, ‘That’s exactly what we wanted it to be.’”

The reception was Weah’s first career touchdown catch.

Pitt moved to 1-0 on the season, winning its opener for the third straight season. Its next game is the most anticipated of the season, as the Penn State Nittany Lions travel to Pittsburgh to renew the Keystone Classic. Kickoff is set for noon at Heinz Field Saturday, Sept. 10.