Pitt football notebook: RB Conner takes spot on defense during last series
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — If you thought the James Conner two-way drama had ended, think again.
In the last defensive series of Pitt's 45-31 victory against Virginia on Saturday, Conner played two snaps on defense, putting pressure on quarterback Kurt Benkert on one play after he had rushed 20 times for 90 yards and two touchdowns from his tailback position.
It was all coach Pat Narduzzi's idea.
“Coach came to me so we just went with it,” Conner said.
Narduzzi was so pleased he was able to give opposing coaches something else to think about while they prepare to play Pitt, he had a little fun with the officials.
“Funny story,” he said after the game. “I told the head linesman, ‘(No.) 24 is in on defense. They can't block him. Could you go tell the center judge?'
“He goes and tells the center judge, which I didn't think he would: ‘Coach said they can't block him so watch for the holding.' “
After the game, the official approached Narduzzi and said, “Coach, you were right. He beat two people on that play.”
Conner played 10 snaps at defensive end in the last game of his sophomore season in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl after the 2013 season. Fans were hoping to see more, but he played only one defensive snap in '14 before he missed the entire '15 season with a knee injury.
Now, he is Pitt's marquee running back again, but Narduzzi isn't worried about overworking him, pointing out Conner was recruited as a defensive end.
When asked about his thought process in making the move, Narduzzi said, “Put a little speed at defensive end just to keep our guys fresh. We are always going to play our best football players.”
Pitt was a bit thin at defensive end at the end of the game, with Dewayne Hendrix (foot) out for the season and Ejuan Price missing most of the second half with an undisclosed injury.
Safety Jordan Whitehead was in the starting lineup on offense and defense, returning an interception for a touchdown and rushing three times for 28 yards, finishing second to Conner. He also recovered Virginia's onside kick in the fourth quarter.
Still some work to do
Conner said he still is working to complete his game — on both sides of the ball.
“I'm just trying to correct things and chip away and be the player I know I can be. I still feel like I left some yards out on the field.”
After completing 45 of 61 passes over the previous three games, quarterback Nathan Peterman was 11 of 21 for 137 yards against Virginia. It was Peterman's second-lowest yardage total of the season.
“He missed a couple of throws, every quarterback in the country does,” Narduzzi said. “In the run game and some of the things we ask him to do with his reads, he made some good calls out there.”
The victory was Narduzzi's 13th in his 20th game as Pitt's coach. That's more victories than any of the previous six head coaches had in their first 20 games. … Conner scored two touchdowns to move into a tie for fifth place all-time in the ACC with 43 career rushing touchdowns. He is tied with North Carolina's Leon Johnson (1993-1996) and Virginia's Wali Lundy (2002-2005). … Conner also moved into third place behind Tony Dorsett and kicker Chris Blewitt in career points (270) at Pitt. … Pitt's 346 yards of total offense represented its lowest total since the opener against Villanova.