James Conner, Ryan Lewis earn national honors for week two efforts

On top of being selected ACC defensive back of the week, Ryan Lewis (38) was named the best defensive back in the nation after last week’s games. John Hamilton / Staff Photographer.

After battling both injury and cancer over the past year before coming back to score a pair of touchdowns against Penn State last Saturday, Pitt running back James Conner was recognized this week for his courage.

On Wednesday, the redshirt junior became the first weekly nominee for the 2016 Capital One Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award, the requirements for which include overcoming an injury or physical handicap, preventing a disaster or living through hardship.

Meanwhile, redshirt senior cornerback Ryan Lewis was named the Jim Thorpe Player of the Week as the best defensive back in the nation after last week’s games. The recognition comes just two days after Lewis was selected ACC defensive back of the week for week two.

Conner, who overcame a torn MCL and Hodgkin’s lymphoma since last September to return to the field for the Panthers in week one, has quickly reestablished himself as one of the best running backs in the country.

After a slow start in his first game, Conner finished with only 53 yards rushing, though he did score two touchdowns in Pitt’s 28-7 win over Villanova. Conner told ESPN he was “embarrassed” with his performance when he reviewed the film after the game.

In week two, his fortunes changed. Conner rumbled for 117 yards on 22 carries while scoring two more touchdowns in the Panthers’ back-and-forth victory over in-state rival Penn State.

In just the second start of his career, Lewis made a game-sealing interception on a deep ball in the end zone by Penn State redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley. The Nittany Lions had driven within range of a game-tying field goal, but McSorley instead went for a go-ahead touchdown, leading to the biggest play of Lewis’ career.

“During the play, all the receivers were running deep, and I see the quarterback with his eyes downfield looking like he was going to throw the ball deep,” Lewis said in a Pitt LiveWire video. “So, I just read his eyes, ran down when the ball was in the air, jumped up and made the play.”

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