Panthers set individual records in season-saving win over Syracuse

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Panthers set individual records in season-saving win over Syracuse

By Chris Puzia / Sports Editor

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In addition to helping the team stay in the conversation to play for a postseason bowl game, several Pitt players set individual records on Saturday.

Running back James Conner’s first quarter touchdown tied Tony Dorsett’s 1976 Pitt single-season rushing touchdowns record with his 22nd, and set an ACC single-season record for rushing touchdowns in a season.

He and Tyler Boyd– who surpassed 1,000 receiving yards this season in the game– led Pitt (5-6, 3-4 ACC) to a 30-7 victory over Syracuse (3-8, 1-6 ACC) at Heinz Field in the team’s final home game of the season.

“Every time my number is called, I want to go out there and just make plays,” Boyd said. “I don’t ask too much about what my stats are during the game…I just go out there and compete and do my job.”

But Pitt squandered several early opportunities in the game, as a holding penalty called back Boyd’s opening-kick touchdown return, and his second long return ended in a missed 26-yard field goal by kicker Chris Blewitt.

Syracuse, a team that allowed 127 rushing yards per game entering the contest, held Conner to just 13 rushing yards in the first quarter.

But one of those yards came on Conner’s one-yard rush with 5:11 remaining in the first quarter to give Pitt a 7-0 lead and tie Dorsett’s record.

However, Conner left the game in the second quarter with a hip injury and did not return. He finished the game with 11 carries for 38 yards and one touchdown.

On the defensive side, Darryl Render and Bam Bradley also left with injuries and did not return.

Freshman Chris James became the principal ball-carrier after Conner left the game, finishing with 19 carries for 122 yards for the first 100-yard game of his career.

“You certainly don’t want [an injury] to happen,” Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said. “It was good for [Chris James]. We needed him.”

James said he was ready for the opportunity and increased production.

“As soon as he went down, James [Conner] came over and told me, ‘it’s your time to shine,’ so I just went out there and did my best,” James said. “The offensive line dominated today.”

When Syracuse quarterback AJ Long went for the end zone on the next drive, Pitt junior cornerback Lafayette Pitts made an acrobatic play to intercept the ball in the corner of the end zone to give Pitt possession.

Later, Blewitt made his third field goal attempt, a 46-yard kick that elicited loud cheers from around the stadium.

“[Blewitt] kind of fought through it,” Chryst said. “I don’t think that position is any different from any other position. When you’re struggling, you have to go back to your fundamentals and go back to trusting yourself, and I thought he worked through that today.”

The Orange almost scored a touchdown in the second quarter when Ben Lewis appeared wide open in the end zone, but safety Ray Vinopal rushed toward the play to break it up.

Syracuse settled for a 34-yard field goal attempt, which freshman kicker Cole Murphy missed wide.

Following the miss, Voytik looked for Boyd on the left sideline, drawing a pass interference penalty. Voytik made the same throw on the next play, which Boyd caught while leaping backwards.

With the catch, Boyd passed 1,000 receiving yards for the second straight season. He became the second Pitt wide receiver to pass 1,000 yards twice– Larry Fitzgerald was the first.

“I feel like everything is opening up, with the run and the pass,” Boyd said. “All that’s on my mind is winning or making a huge play for the team to put them in a position to win the game.”

Later in the drive, Voytik hit receiver Dontez Ford for a touchdown on a crossing route.

Ford– a transfer from Syracuse– scored his first career touchdown against his former team. The touchdown capped off an 80-yard drive that took only 51 seconds and gave Pitt a 17-0 halftime lead.

Long reentered the game for Syracuse and promptly completed a 46-yard pass to Steve Ishmael at the start of the second half. The play set up a Syracuse touchdown on a one-yard run by defensive end Ron Thompson.

Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer said that they had practiced the play that led to Thompson’s score.

“Ron is a very good athlete,” Shafer said. “It was a good call and a good play by Ron. It showed some athleticism.”

Boyd opened up the fourth quarter by catching a short Voytik pass and sprinting 49 yards for a Pitt touchdown to extend Pitt’s lead to 27-7. The sophomore finished with seven catches for 126 yards and one touchdown.

Pitt’s final regular season game comes on Nov. 29 when the Panthers travel to Miami. Pitt must win the game to become bowl-eligible.

“All that mattered was Syracuse this week, and that’s the same thing next week, it’s all about Miami,” Chryst said. “The focus has got to be on playing good football.”

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