Notebook: Conner could see defensive snaps Thursday


After a week and a half off, the Pitt football team returns to action against Virginia Tech at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Heinz Field in a nationally-broadcastgame on ESPN.

While the team is on a three-game losing streak, sophomore running back James Conner says the season isn’t lost for the Panthers.

“[We’re] just 1-1 in ACC play, so our goal is still attainable. Our record doesn’t look too great right now,” Conner said. “But we still have a goal to achieve, and we’re going to try our best to do that.”

Conner also said he may take snaps at defensive end this week in addition to playing on offense. The team brought the possibility up before the season began, but Conner has only played at running back in games so far. He spent some of Monday’s practice working with the defensive group.

The game against Virginia Tech is the first Thursday night game for the Panthers since the 2012 season when they lost to Cincinnati 34-10, and the first home game of the sort since a 44-17 victory over South Florida in 2011.

Pitt head coach Paul Chryst is focused on the game.  

“I’m more concerned with how they’re preparing for Virginia Tech,” Chryst said. “But they’re aware of it, and I think that’s one of the reasons you come to a place like Pitt. In many ways, Thursday night football is [like] the Monday night of the NFL.”

Conner said the added pressures won’t distract from the team’s goal. 

“It’s nice that it’s primetime,” he said. “But we just wanna get back in the win column. These couple weeks have been ridiculous. So it doesn’t even matter if it’s on ESPN or not, we gotta get this. It’s a must win. We need the victory.”

Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Jaryd Jones-Smith finds the national stage exciting.

“In the locker room, everybody’s talking about it. Can’t wait,” Jones-Smith said. “Definitely looking forward to coming out Thursday night and kicking some butt.” 

Another offensive lineman, redshirt sophomore Adam Bisnowaty, will start against the Hokies (4-2 overall, 1-1 ACC) after serving a one-game suspension last Saturday against the University of Virginia for disciplinary reasons, according to head coach Paul Chryst..

The player running behind these linemen, Conner, leads the ACC and is fifth in the country in rushing yards with 874. The defense he’ll face this week is 16th in rushing defense, with 108.8 yards allowed per game. The Hokies also rank 21st in total defense.

“Pressure. Pressure. A lot of pressure, a lot of blitzes,” Jones-Smith said of the Hokies’ defense.

Chryst thinks the approach that longtime Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster will take will be similar to what the Panthers saw in a 19-9 loss last season in Blacksburg.

“It’s a pretty good formula. This week we’ve got to be able to handle it,” he said. “That was one thing, if you look back to last year’s game, we didn’t do a good job of handling Virginia Tech’s pressure. They have some very good guys on the back end and linebackers, so that’ll be part of the challenge.

Conner isn’t fazed and said he just needs to continue to trust the coaches and the offensive line.

“We know defenses are gonna try to key on me, with stacking the box and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “But I’ll just keep trying to execute and run hard.”

“They’re not going to try to trick us. We know what they’re going to come to do,” Conner said. “We’re ready for them.”

Penalties have caused the Panthers problems all season, but especially against Virginia, with seven penalties for 60 yards called in the first half alone. On Monday, Chryst pointed to the effect of miscues, stating that on three drives where pre-snap offensive penalties occurred for the Panthers, they had just two yards or less to go after that third down, killing the drive’s momentum.

“The negative plays set us off track quite a bit, and that’s something you’d like to, say, eliminate, but you’ve got to first minimize it,” he said.

He then explained how they’ve tried to go about decreasing those errors during the bye week.

“[Show] there’s consequences. Today, we jump offsides, move the ball back, sticks change. They’ve got to understand what they just did to our team. No one wants to [commit them],” he said. “Guys just see that it does matter.“

Of greater importance then is how players learn from it going forward.

“Really the ultimate thing is how you respond from it,” said Chryst. “That’s the same thing we’re talking about with our team right now: How are we going to respond?  It hasn’t gone exactly how we want it, how will we respond?”