Conner leads way, as Pitt wins ACC opener


By Jasper Wilson / Sports Editor

Chestnut Hill, Mass. –  It seemed as though the public address announcer in Boston College’s press box kept saying the same thing over and over throughout Pitt’s game here.

“Conner with the carry,” the emotionless voice would intone over the speakers inside Alumni Stadium.

Other times it wasn’t that exact phrase,  but it just was a different sentence with the same message.

James Conner, Pitt’s sophomore running back, ran a lot on Friday.

His output of 130 yards in the opening half, which came on just 15 carries, put him over the century mark for the third consecutive game, going back to the team’s bowl game at the end of last season.

He would finish with 213 yards, on 35 carries — a career high, and one touchdown, averaging 6.1 yards per touch.

“I got tired a couple times,” Conner said. “But I just stuck it out.”

Not that he minded the workload.

“I like when I keep getting my name called because then I feel like coach is building trust in me if he keeps calling my number,” he said.

The efficient first half by Conner, coupled with two touchdown connections between quarterback Chad Voytik and receiver Tyler Boyd, allowed the Panthers to secure a 20-7 halftime advantage. They would lead for the rest of the contest, winning their ACC opener 30-20 in the suburbs of Boston.

According to Boyd, Conner’s success rubs off on the offense as a whole.

“It makes us feel like we can’t be stopped,” Boyd, who finished with five catches for 72 yards,  said. “We’re built like a running offense. If the offense is flowing, if the running back is going and not being able to be stopped, then that’s giving us a huge confidence level to keep pushing and driving the ball on them.”

Pitt’s eventual control of the game wasn’t evident from its first offensive drive, which stopped and started with a number of short runs and was punctuated by a 23-yard scramble by Voytik and 14-yard carry by Conner before eventually halting.

Sophomore kicker Chris Blewitt made a career-long 49-yard field goal to salvage something positive from the series.

He would go on to convert two more kicks from 41 and 42 yards, respectively.

BC’s quarterback Tyler Murphy, who came into the matchup leading his team in both passing and rushing yards, used his athleticism to get 12 yards with his legs on his team’s first play of the game. Two plays later, he broke off a 51-yard sprint for a near touchdown that set up a one-yard touchdown run by Tyler Rouse on the next play.

But that score and the resulting point after attempt were the only points the Eagles (1-1 overall, 0-1 ACC) would manage in the first half.

Pitt (2-0 overall, 1-0 ACC) would go on to score 24 unanswered points.

For the game, Pitt’s defense held the hosts to 276 yards of total offense: 134 passing and 142 rushing.

With just more than two minutes remaining in the first quarter, Steven Daniels intercepted a Voytik pass to Boyd, returning the ball to Pitt’s 29-yard line. But the Panther defense held, and an attempted field goal missed its mark.

The first touchdown of the Pitt scoring run came when Voytik linked up with Boyd in the back of the end zone, the receiver elevating as only he can to snag the throw.

Later in the period, a 22-yard pass down the sideline from Voytik to Manasseh Garner resulted in a first and goal from the five.

On the next play, Voytik found Boyd right in front of him as the wide receiver ran back across the endzone, firing an accurate throw for his second, and final, touchdown of the night, right before the end of the half.  

The offensive struggles continued for the home team after the break when, on the opening drive, Pitt safety Ray Vinopal intercepted a Murphy pass in the BC half of the field and returned it 13 yards.

Despite beginning at the BC 42, the offense couldn’t take advantage of the field position, punting after three downs.

The next time it got the ball, it quickly moved to add to its advantage, moving 71 yards on five plays  in just under two and a half minutes. The highlight play of which was yet another Voytik to Boyd combination for 41 yards.

Conner would run in from nine yards out with Blewitt adding an extra point to increase the lead to 20 — Pitt’s biggest of the game.

BC would attempt a comeback, getting the deficit down to 10 with under a minute to play and recovering an onside kick after that. But the damage was done, much of it by Pitt’s bruising back.

“It’s hard to get him down. He breaks tackles left and right,” Voytik said. “James has been awesome.”

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