Conner takes down another record with 24th rushing touchdown of the year

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Conner takes down another record with 24th rushing touchdown of the year

By Chris Puzia / Sports Editor

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James Conner broke another record on Saturday night.

With his 23rd touchdown run of the season during Pitt’s opening drive at Miami, the sophomore running back broke Tony Dorsett’s 1976 school record for rushing touchdowns in a season and, with his next touchdown later in the game, he broke Dorsett’s total touchdown record.

A week earlier, Conner also set an ACC single-season rushing touchdown record in the team’s win against Syracuse.

Needless to say, this season — despite being yet another 6-6 campaign — will be memorable for Pitt fans. The group of three sophomores at the offensive skill positions highlighted the team’s season, and, while many would have thought that standout wide receiver Tyler Boyd would be the offensive focal point entering the season, Boyd shared that responsibility with Conner.

Maybe Pitt fans should have predicted this when Conner busted out for 229 yards and a touchdown in Pitt’s bowl game last year against Bowling Green.

But either way, it is still an unexpectedly good year when Conner had Dorsett himself tweeting praise at him.

Where does this individual season stack up in relation to other recent Pitt running back seasons, though?

Despite being a notably mediocre team as of late — three straight 6-6 finishes will earn that reputation — Pitt has done well in recruiting running backs during the last two decades.

Curtis Martin’s 1993 season may have begun this trend, when the future NFL Hall-of-Famer ran for 1,045 yards in 10 games during his junior season.

In 2008, LeSean McCoy rushed for 21 touchdowns during his sophomore campaign, and — while he and Conner have strikingly different running styles — their sophomore numbers were somewhat similar. McCoy topped 1,500 total yards in each of his first two seasons at Pitt before entering the NFL draft.

Pitt’s running backs did not miss a step, as lightly recruited back Dion Lewis filled in and scored 17 touchdowns the next season. He, too, entered the draft after his sophomore season and was Pitt’s second-straight starting running back to be selected in the NFL draft.

Next, Ray Graham stepped in. As a sophomore in 2010, Graham rushed for 922 yards, including a career-high 277 yards against Florida International.

After Graham entered the 2013 NFL draft, but was not selected, Pitt’s running game needed a new feature back. After five years of quality backs, the question became whether junior Isaac Bennett or Conner, a true freshman, would assume the starting role in 2013.

While Bennett started for the majority of the season, the freshman began to gain more attention later in the season, earning him the starting role for 2014.

Then the record happened.

In short, Conner made his name known to a fanbase spoiled by LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis and Ray Graham all in the last 10 years.

But he did it differently. The former running backs were known more as being shifty, speedy and elusive, while Conner preferred more to run over defenders than around them.

He earned more comparisons to the Seattle Seahawks bruiser back Marshawn Lynch, who actually called Conner before Pitt’s game against Virginia Tech on Oct. 16. 

Conner’s breakout 2014 regular season culminated with two record-breaking touchdown runs against Miami. The plays not only had personal significance but also helped the Panthers earn bowl eligibility for the seventh straight season — something they needed to defeat Miami to accomplish. Pitt (6-6, 4-4 ACC) went on to win the game 35-23.

Conner added 78 yards on 16 carries in the game to give him 1,675 yards for the season. That number can still improve if Pitt is selected for a bowl game.

Either way, for a team that finished with the same .500 record as it did in each of the previous two seasons, there is still an intriguing storyline carrying into next year — can Conner do it again?


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