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Pitt

Pitt rallies to defeat Florida International, stay undefeated

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, 4:27 p.m.
Pitt running back James Conner carries the ball against Florida International on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, in Miami.
Andrew Uloza | For the Miami Herald
Pitt running back James Conner carries the ball against Florida International on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, in Miami.
Florida International's Jonnu Smith plays against Pitt on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, in Miami.
Andrew Uloza | For the Miami Herald
Florida International's Jonnu Smith plays against Pitt on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, in Miami.
Florida International's Alex McGough (12) carries the ball against Pitt on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, in Miami.
Andrew Uloza | For the Miami Herald
Florida International's Alex McGough (12) carries the ball against Pitt on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, in Miami.

MIAMI — Temperatures hovered in the mid-80s Saturday at Ocean Bank Field, but Pitt's Chad Voytik and James Conner didn't mind turning up the heat even higher.

In the end, their words carried as much weight as their actions in a 42-25 victory against Florida International.

After FIU took a 16-0 lead in the first quarter, Pitt looked like its players needed lightning to strike — and it actually did, delaying the game 48 minutes in the third quarter.

But credit the quarterback and running back for taking a stand, shouldering the blame and helping prevent what would have been one of the most embarrassing moments in recent Pitt history.

“They came to play in the first half, and I guess we didn't,” Conner said. “We underestimated them. We can't do that no more.”

Pitt regrouped just in time to improve to 3-0 for only the third time since 1991, scoring in almost every way possible — five touchdowns, five extra points, a field goal and two safeties.

Before all that, however, Conner lost two fumbles inside the FIU 10-yard line in the first half. At halftime, he walked into the locker room and addressed his teammates.

“I said, ‘I take the blame for this. You'll see a new me in the second half.' ”

True to his word, Conner carried 15 times for 98 yards and touchdowns of 3, 41 and 11 after halftime. He finished with 31 attempts for 177 yards, breaking Tony Dorsett's Pitt record for the most rushing yards in the first three games (544). He is averaging 6.7 per carry.

“I love the way he approaches things and I love how he cares about this team and I love how he plays,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said.

Yet, Conner knows what's coming Sunday and the rest of the week when coaches review the video to determine what went wrong.

“I got too comfortable,” Conner said. “That's exactly what it was.”

Before Conner's locker room speech, Voytik looked at the scoreboard when FIU took its lead and noticed one important fact: It was still the first quarter.

At that point, he walked up and down the Pitt bench, giving everyone what he called “a little mental tap.”

“I didn't yell,” he said. “I just wanted to remind everyone it's still early. Stuff is going to happen. Stuff has happened to us recently early.”

Voytik didn't impress anyone with his arm (misfiring on eight of 17 attempts, collecting only 89 aerial yards and throwing an interception for the second consecutive week). But he had designed runs of 40, 32 (a touchdown) and 29 yards, officially finishing with 114 because he was sacked twice.

“Whenever you need me,” he said, indicating that was his message to Chryst, his play-caller.

“I took a few (hits), yeah,” he said. “That's part of it. I lifted hard and trained for it. I can take the hits if I have to.”

Voytik's only touchdown pass was an 18-yarder to Tyler Boyd near the end of the first half that cut FIU's lead to 16-14. Boyd used his 6-foot-2 frame and athleticism to box out cornerback Richard Leonard, who is 5 inches shorter, and win the jump ball.

“It was a sweet play, easy,” Voytik said. “Just throw it up to him. I probably could have done that more in the game.”

Chryst was in a good mood after the game, pleased with the way the start to the season looks in the won-lost column, but knowing there's plenty of work ahead.

“It was not how you want to draw it up, necessarily,” he said. “We overcame some adversity, self-inflicted, and some uncontrollable stuff. It was good the way we came out and got a victory. But there is certainly a lot of stuff we have to learn from.”

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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