Gorman: A Pitt great compliments Conner
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 email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.