Committee rules: Pitt backs run for 258 yards in win over Syracuse


Teammates have praised Conner as a hard worker and a great personality in the locker room. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

Chris James has become more patient as a runner throughout the football season, but the change hasn’t come easily.

“That’s been something that I’ve been working on all year. Coach [John] Settle calls me ‘Happy Feet’ in the backfield ‘cause I get the ball and just want to take off,” James, a freshman, said. “I tell myself ‘Just be patient. It’s gonna be there.’”

James’ growth as a runner was necessary for Pitt on Saturday at Heinz Field. 

Needing a win to keep the possibility of bowl eligibility — and, by connection, its season — alive, Pitt rode a career day by the young player to a 30-7 victory over Syracuse on Senior Day.

“We needed him,” head coach Paul Chryst said.

Pitt’s ability to effectively run the ball wasn’t a surprise. The team ranked 15th nationally in rushing offense before this weekend and averaged 253 yards a game — and it did so largely without starter James Conner.

In the first quarter, Conner scored the first points on a one-yard rushing touchdown and, in the process, set an ACC record for most rushing touchdowns in a season (22), tying Tony Dorsett’s school record for the same statistic.

After a play midway through the second quarter, the sophomore didn’t receive the ball again. It was announced at the beginning of the second half that he had a hip injury and wouldn’t return for the rest of the contest.

Other than the points from a now-sidelined player, Pitt had managed just 14 yards on nine carries in the opening period.

Although the Panthers (5-6 overall, 3-4 ACC) struggled initially against the No. 24 rush defense in the country, they eventually had success, something Chryst said patience and persistence allowed.

In Conner’s absence, James received the bulk of the carries and made good use of them, collecting 122 yards on 19 carries, both career highs.

“I knew eventually, at some point this season, I’m gonna have my chance,” he said. “As soon as he went down, James came over and told me ‘Hey, it’s your time to shine.’”

The key to his and others’ success, James said, was the play of the offensive line, which did well despite starting left tackle Adam Bisnowaty missing the game due to injury. In his place was redshirt freshman Jaryd Jones-Smith, making his second start of the year.

This was the second time this season following a Conner injury that other running backs stepped in and made positive contributions. During a portion of the loss last month to Georgia Tech, James gained 23 yards on five carries. Rachid Ibrahim finished that game with 66 yards rushing on three attempts.

This week, senior Isaac Bennett finished with 77 yards on 11 touches, his best output of the season. After, receiver Tyler Boyd spoke on the offense’s ability, through depth, to maintain consistency.

“If any guys go down, we have guys ready to come in and pick them up and finish their job for them,” Boyd said.

The team finished with 256 rushing yards, 129 more than the Orange (3-8,1-6 ACC) allowed on average and the most Syracuse had given up all season. That ability allowed Pitt to keep possession for the majority of the game — 38:42 to SU’s 21:18 — and limit chances the Orange had to make any attempt at a comeback.

The Panthers will need that sort of shared production with or without Conner — about whom Chryst didn’t provide an update postgame — against Miami on Nov. 29. The Hurricanes have a strong rush defense, ranked 30th, that holds opponents to 136 yards on average.