Pitt notebook: Conner's inactivity part of learning curve

Jerry DiPaola
| Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, 9:24 p.m.

Don't accuse Pitt coach Paul Chryst of punishing James Conner for his fumble in the second quarter of the loss to Navy.

Conner, a freshman running back, didn't play after losing the football on a 2-yard gain early in the second quarter. Navy immediately responded with its only touchdown of the first half.

Chryst said Conner's subsequent absence was because of several factors.

“We're not going to fire anybody and permanently put them on ice,” he said. “We have to help these guys grow, help them get through those things.”

One of the most important factors that worked against Conner's participation was the coaches' wishes to keep starting running back Isaac Bennett involved.

“What gets lost is Isaac had a pretty good week the week before (240 yards against Old Dominion),” Chryst said. “I liked the way James was running, but I wanted to make sure Isaac had enough kicks at the can.”

The other factor is that Pitt's offense almost totally shut down in the second half, getting only three first downs — all on one fourth-quarter drive. That limited the running game — Bennett had only six carries after halftime — while Pitt tried to rally from a 14-13 deficit.

That doesn't mean Conner is immune from constructive criticism.

“We have to keep hammering through to him taking care of the ball,” Chryst said. “He was swinging (the football) a little bit.”

Conner lost a fumble in the third quarter of the New Mexico game, but he returned in the fourth to rush for 28 yards on three carries. The following week, he carried 26 times for 173 yards, without fumbling, against Duke.

Interception or not?

Chryst questioned game officials four snaps into Navy's 16-play, 91-yard touchdown drive in the second half after safety Ray Vinopal appeared to intercept a pass. His feet were ruled out of bounds, but Vinopal thought it was a legal interception and watching video the next day confirmed his belief, he said.

Chryst said he asked the officials if they were in contact with the replay booth, but no review was ordered.

He suggested he could have used a timeout to “make sure they were looking at it.”

“I thought (Vinopal) got it down. I thought he had it. I thought it was a heckuva play by Ray.”

Learning curve

Pitt is 1-4 in games decided by a single-digit margin during Chryst's first two seasons. The only victory was against Duke this season, and Pitt lost by one, three, seven and three points to Syracuse, Notre Dame, Connecticut and Navy.

“You do need to learn how to win,” he said. “At least you gain authentic confidence when you've been in a situation before.”

Chryst said he hopes he is learning how to react in those close games.

“I would hope that every game I'm growing and getting better,” he said. “It would be pretty hypocritical if I'm asking the players to do it and I don't.”

All five of those games were on the road. Pitt hasn't played a close game at Heinz Field since a 15-12 loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 24, 2011.

Injury update

Middle linebacker Shane Gordon has a collarbone injury suffered in the Navy game, but Chryst said there is no structural damage.

“It's just a matter of how much he can get movement and tolerate with it,” Chryst said. “So, we'll see (about Gordon's participation Saturday at Georgia Tech).”

Freshman linebacker Matt Galambos replaced Gordon and was second on the team with seven tackles.

Also questionable is guard Cory King, who didn't play because of a back injury.

“He said it felt better,” Chryst said. “We'll see how it goes this week. I don't know what that week will bring, whether he can go at all.”

King was replaced by Ryan Schlieper.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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