Gorman: A Pitt great compliments Conner
TribLIVE Sports Videos
James Conner wasn't aware of the Pitt record for rushing yards in a bowl game, let alone that he was about to break it.
Then someone tapped him on the sideline at Ford Field in the fourth quarter of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and told him he was 7 yards shy.
“That kind of motivated me a little bit more,” Conner said Friday on my TribLIVE Radio show. “After I got the record, it felt great. It was a huge accomplishment.”
The 6-foot-2, 246-pound freshman tailback from Erie finished with 229 yards on 26 carries in Pitt's 30-27 victory over Bowling Green on Thursday in Detroit, breaking the mark of 202 yards set by Tony Dorsett against Georgia in the 1977 Sugar Bowl.
“I'm a big Tony Dorsett fan,” said Conner, who grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan. “I know he has a great legacy at the University of Pittsburgh, so it's a great feeling.”
Dorsett wasn't watching the game until he received a phone call from a friend informing him that a Pitt freshman was about to break his bowl rushing record.
“I said, ‘What?' ” Dorsett said by phone. “I was impressed with him. He's a big kid. I was like, ‘You go, boy!' That's what (records are) made for, to be broken. I'm happy for the young man.”
Dorsett wasn't kidding.
He has been gracious about watching his Pitt records fall one by one, from LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis breaking his freshman records to Conner eclipsing his bowl mark.
“It wasn't for the national championship, wasn't against the Georgia Bulldogs, but yards are yards,” said Dorsett, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1976 and led the Panthers to the national championship.
“They're not easy to come by. They don't just give them away. He had to earn 'em. Credit him. He broke a record that stood there for a long time. Good for him. That's special right there. I wish him the best. Tell him I said to go after that 6,000-yard one, too.”
That's where Conner's story takes a terrific twist. Even he's not sure which side of the ball his future is on, let alone whether he can run for 6,082 career yards the way Dorsett did in setting an NCAA record that stood until 1998.
For as good as Conner was carrying the ball against Bowling Green — and he won MVP honors, the Pizza Bowl's tastiest topping — he also played some snaps as a rush end on defense for the Panthers.
Conner wasn't credited with any tackles or sacks but drew a holding penalty after flushing Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson out of the pocket. Conner also was on the field for the Falcons' final possession, when seniors Aaron Donald and Tyrone Ezell recorded back-to-back sacks.
“It felt good to get back on the defensive side of the ball, especially to line up alongside Aaron Donald,” said Conner, who initially was recruited as a defensive end. “He got the sack at the end — I got a little piece of it — but he's an All-American, and it felt great to line up with him on defense.
“I always had the idea that it would be pretty cool to go both ways because it gets you a lot more recognition, but going both ways was sweet. It's pretty rare, so I feel pretty special.”
Conner has been a blessing in disguise for Pitt this season. His role was elevated upon the departure of Rushel Shell last spring.
Not only did Conner lead the Panthers in rushing with 799 yards and eight touchdowns on 146 carries, he put up better numbers than Shell did (641 yards and four touchdowns on 141 carries) in 2012.
Conner also exemplified the team-first mentality Paul Chryst demands, one that saw Shell quit during spring drills.
When Chryst approached Conner about practicing on defense, he didn't protest, although he knew it could come at the expense of carries.
And, even after his record rushing performance in the Pizza Bowl, Conner has been given no guarantee he will remain on offense.
“I've been playing running back ever since Little League, so I'd like to stay there,” Conner said. “But if coach says he wants me at defense, that's his call. I'll do anything to help my team win a game.”
As one Pitt great would say, that's special right there.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Rossi: At start, are Pens already finished?
- Morton, Pirates blank Red Sox in series opener
- Steelers’ Roethlisberger still hurting after hard hit from Ravens’ Upshaw
- Identical twins born at West Penn Hospital a rare medical marvel
- Steelers notebook: RT Gilbert not in danger of losing his job
- Vikings bar Peterson from all team activities
- City of Pittsburgh detective, 2 boys finalize adoption before judge
- Penguins notebook: Martin not concerned about expiring contract
- Gorman: Quitting not the answer
- Big break in trooper ambush probe: suspect’s abandoned SUV
- Western Pa. colleges to emphasize curricula for energy, industrial fields