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A case for Conner: Why Pitt’s RB should have been a Heisman finalist

James Conner smiles after scoring his third touchdown of the game against Syracuse. Steve Rotstein | Contributing Editor

James Conner smiles after scoring his third touchdown of the game against Syracuse. Steve Rotstein | Contributing Editor

James Conner smiles after scoring his third touchdown of the game against Syracuse. Steve Rotstein | Contributing Editor

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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If we’re going strictly by numbers, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson should win the Heisman Trophy.

If we allow wins and team performance to factor into the equation, then Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Dede Westbrook, Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson can make compelling cases as well.

The Heisman Trust revealed Jackson, Mayfield, Peppers, Watson and Westbrook as the 2016 Heisman finalists during Monday Night Countdown on ESPN. All five are star players on top-15 teams, and all are worthy of the trips to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

But if Heisman voters were abiding by the official criteria of the Heisman Trust Mission Statement, there’s one player they should not have overlooked when sending out the invitations — Pitt running back James Conner.

According to the mission statement, “the Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. The winners of the trophy epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance and hard work.”

Conner’s numbers aren’t enough to declare him winner right away — and certainly couldn’t beat Jackson’s stats on their own.

Jackson has racked up 1,538 yards and 21 scores on 234 carries, an average of 6.6 yards per rush. Those are otherworldly rushing statistics, superior to those of nearly every running back in the country — including Conner. Jackson, of course, is a quarterback who also has 3,390 passing yards and 30 touchdowns through the air.

Still, Conner’s season is worthy of making him part of the conversation.

Conner has run for 1,060 yards and 16 touchdowns in 12 games, while adding 299 yards receiving and four scores through the air. At first glance, it might seem like a drop-off from his stellar sophomore season in 2014 when he tallied 1,745 total yards and 24 total touchdowns in 12 regular season games.

But it’s important to remember Conner did all that damage on 277 carries as a sophomore compared to only 208 carries this season. Four times, he had at least 30 rushing attempts in a game in 2014. This year, he had at least 20 attempts only four times and never carried the ball more than 24 times in a game.

Conner’s average yards per carry dipped from 6.0 in 2014 to 5.1 in 2016, but he made up for it as a much-improved receiver out of the backfield. And while he started slow with only 53 yards on 17 carries in the season opener against Villanova, he got better as the season progressed and saved his best games for Pitt’s toughest opponents.

Against No. 5 Penn State in Week 2, Conner exploded for 146 total yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Panthers’ 42-39 win over their in-state rivals.

The next week, against No. 12 Oklahoma State, he totaled 171 yards and a score in a 45-38 loss. In a 39-36 defeat against No. 22 Virginia Tech in late October, he ran for 141 yards and three scores.

Then, facing No. 2 Clemson on the road Nov. 12, he put on his best performance of the season with 189 total yards and two touchdowns. His 20-yard scamper late in the fourth quarter pulled Pitt within two points in a 43-42 win over the eventual ACC champions.

But voting for the Heisman isn’t as simple as tallying up numbers — it’s only part of the equation.

It’s clear that both Jackson and Conner clear the “great ability” hurdle of the criteria. The real question then becomes who best combines that ability with diligence, perseverance and hard work to form into the most outstanding college football player of all.

In case anyone needs a refresher, Merriam-Webster defines diligence as “persevering application” and defines perseverance as “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure or opposition.”

Everyone knows Conner’s story of overcoming both a torn MCL and Hodgkin lymphoma since the start of last season. Not only did he successfully rehab the injury and beat cancer, he did so with a goal of returning for Pitt’s season opener.

Conner continued to train with the team during the offseason, even with a surgical mask over his face and a plastic port implanted in his chest for the grueling chemotherapy treatments he endured every two weeks. In doing so, he made sure his body was ready when the season started, and, perhaps even more remarkably, he never missed a game afterward.

So Jackson may have the more impressive numbers, but it’s hard to imagine him or any other Heisman contender “epitomizing great ability combined with diligence, perseverance and hard work” any more than Conner did this season.

Whether or not Conner deserves to win the trophy, he certainly deserved an invitation to the ceremony as a Heisman finalist, at the very least. If anyone’s earned it, it’s him.

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A case for Conner: Why Pitt’s RB should have been a Heisman finalist