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Notebook: Conner continues run into national prominence

By Ryan Bertonaschi / Senior Staff Writer

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Led by running back James Conner, Pitt succeeded in its first three games of the 2014 season because of a powerful ground attack.

During Saturday’s 24-20 loss to Iowa, the Panthers suffered because of the predictability of their reliance on that aspect of the offense. 

They went to Conner a lot in the first half — 17 times for 100 yards, to be exact. But Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff, with their team trailing 17-7 at halftime, made defensive adjustments. The Hawkeyes only yielded 57 second-half yards to Conner, who said Monday that he could’ve helped Pitt’s offense move the ball with more fluidity in the second half if he had run vertically more instead of trying to break several runs to the outside.

Pitt’s coaching staff has called running plays on roughly 70 percent of offensive downs this season, while the ball is thrown on just 30 percent of plays. Pitt head coach Paul Chryst is aware of these numbers, and at Pitt’s South Side practice facility Monday, he said that ratio isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

“I’d rather be 70-30 run-pass than 30-70 (pass-run) right now,” Chryst said.

Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik threw 19 passes for 29 yards against the Hawkeyes, including a two of seven streak to close the game. He threw 10 complete passes to Tyler Boyd, another five that fell incomplete to Boyd and one intended for him that was intercepted.

“I thought there were a couple [passes to Boyd] where the ball could have gone to someone else, but it also gave him a chance,” Chryst said. “[Voytik] would probably be the first to admit that he’s not where he wants to be, but he is making some progress, I think.”

Conner still at the top

It may be overkill, but Conner is making an individual push for national recognition as Pitt’s week five game against Akron approaches.

The sophomore from Erie, Pa., leads the nation in total rushing yards (699) and is tied for the national lead in rushing touchdowns (nine). He is also ranked fourth nationally in scoring, averaging 13.5 points per contest.

“If I’m leading the nation at the end of the season, that’s when I’ll be satisfied,” Conner said. “I haven’t gained any rushing yards against Akron yet, so that’s what I’m focused on.”

Conner’s 699 rushing yards are the most by a single player in the opening four games of a Pitt season. Tony Dorsett held the previous record, racking up 564 yards through his first four games in 1973.

In 1976, when Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy and led Pitt to national championship, he only needed seven games to collect 1,000 yards. Conner is on pace to reach that milestone through six games.

At the beginning of the season, Chryst said Conner would also play third downs at defensive end. It’s yet to happen, partly because Conner doesn’t have the lung capacity. He has received a Division I-leading 110 carries on the season. The next-closest running back has netted 98 carries.

“It’s hard, but when I’m getting a lot of carries, I do need to get my breath back. But I stay fresh, and when my number is called to go on defense, I’ll be ready for that,” Conner said.

Durham’s status

Redshirt senior defensive end David Durham is slowly working his way back into regularly practicing after sustaining a shoulder injury before Pitt played at Florida International.

Durham, who began the season as a starter, entered the game Saturday on a handful of third downs as a reserve. He did not record a tackle.

“Tuesday and Wednesday [at practice], we’ll get an idea of what he can handle,” Chryst said.

Did you know?

Jerome Lane, who played basketball at Pitt in the 1980s, has a son, also named Jerome, who plays for Akron’s football team.

Lane’s son, a redshirt freshman linebacker, has played in all three of the Zips’ games this season, so be on the lookout for No. 14.

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Notebook: Conner continues run into national prominence