Freshmen lead way in Pitt rout of New Mexico
At the vulnerable age of 18, Pitt freshman running back James Conner can fall victim to almost anything — on and off the field.
An eager linebacker. His own inexperience. Even grief over the death of a friend.
All three came rushing toward Conner on Saturday at Heinz Field, but he stared down every demon and joined several classmates in leading Pitt (1-1) to a 49-27 victory over New Mexico.
Conner led all rushers with 119 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries only nine days after Alyssa O'Neill, a close friend from Erie McDowell, died Sept. 4 of an epileptic seizure.
“I give it my all every game,” Conner said, “but getting in the end zone made it special, I'll say that.”
Conner said he spoke to O'Neill the day of the Florida State game (Sept. 2), his first as a collegian.
“She told me, ‘Congratulations, good game, I want to come out and visit you.' That was the last time (we spoke). Two days after that she died. She was almost like a sister to me.”
Conner, who spun away from one defender and stiff-armed another during a 38-yard touchdown run, played passionately. He pumped his arms and legs wildly after a 14-yard run that set up a touchdown in the second quarter.
But Pitt also played under control when it counted most.
First, the fundamentally sound defense corralled New Mexico's triple-option offense, holding running back Kasey Carrier, who was leading the nation in rushing (172.5 yards per game), to 22 on seven carries. The key to Pitt dominating the first half was allowing the Lobos no points and a field goal on first-quarter possessions that started on the Panthers' 29- and 18-yard lines.
“We are capable of being pretty good (on defense) if everyone does their job and plays to the most of their ability,” coach Paul Chryst said.
The effort was marred, however, by New Mexico's three touchdowns after halftime.
“I felt like we got a little too relaxed,” said defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who was an annoyance to the New Mexico offense in the first half with two sacks and two other tackles for a loss.
Not to be minimized is the incredible body control displayed by freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who led all pass catchers with six receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown. He also scored on a 33-yard sweep around right end, a play Chryst has called successfully five times this season. Boyd said New Mexico defenders were warning each other of the play even when Pitt didn't run it.
Then, on the last play of the half, Boyd leaped for the ball, then kept his feet inside the back line of the end zone for 34-yard score and a 35-6 lead.
“I've learned to not be surprised by Tyler,” Chryst said. “The thing that is exciting is he can be better.”
The game belonged to the freshmen — five of them, actually — with Conner and Boyd joined by tight end Scott Orndoff (a 4-yard touchdown reception), kicker Chris Blewitt (seven extra points) and safety Terrish Webb (a fumble recovery that was New Mexico's only turnover).
But junior Isaac Bennett had a career-high 101 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. And senior quarterback Tom Savage completed 13 of 17 passes for 236 yards and two scores.
Chryst was pleased but not excessively, pointing out Pitt's three turnovers, including Conner's fumble on the Pitt 29 that led to a New Mexico score and two more interceptions by Savage (that makes four, one more than Tino Sunseri had in 13 games last season).
“Each guy still has a list of things that they can do to be the best they can be,” Chryst said. “That's the fun part of this job, the grind of it.”