Conner stars in return from cancer, Pitt tops Villanova 28-7
PITTSBURGH (AP) — James Conner caught one touchdown and ran for another in his return from a battle with cancer to lead Pittsburgh to a 28-7 win over Villanova on Saturday.
The 2014 ACC Player of the Year sprinted onto the Heinz Field turf in front of a crowd that included his family, the doctors that treated him during his seven-month tussle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and more than 300 friends and family from his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania.
Conner’s first official carry in 364 days lost a yard but was met by a standing ovation. He eventually found his footing to help the shaky Panthers avoid an upset at the hands of the Wildcats, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision.
“It’s not my first game,” Conner said. “I know it’s a comeback game but it’s felt like a regular season football camp really. My battle was already won. Beating cancer, everything else was a reward.”
Conner raced around the left end for a 3-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter then added a 9-yard touchdown catch, a difficult grab in traffic across the middle. He finished with 53 yards on 17 carries and caught three passes for 16 yards as Pitt avoided an embarrassing slip-up a week before a highly anticipated showdown with Penn State.
Quadree Henderson returned the second-half kickoff 96 yards for a score to break things open. Nate Peterman completed 19 of 32 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns, including a pretty 16-yard lob to Jester Weah with six minutes to go. Still, the Panthers managed just 211 total yards.
“I’m not worried because I know we’re going to make improvements,” coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Things just got to get cleaned up. Some guys like to push the panic button but I’m not worried. We’re smooth.”
The Wildcats controlled play for portions of the first half, but three straight drives into Pitt territory failed to produce any points, giving the Panthers time to get going. Rob Rolle returned a Peterman fumble 3 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter for Villanova’s only score.
Villanova: Coach Andy Tally said entering his 32nd and final season the Wildcats will have to rely heavily on their defense. There’s reason for optimism as Villanova stayed within striking distance, keeping Pitt’s running game in check for the most part and preventing big plays. Pitt’s longest game from scrimmage as a pair of 19-yard passes.
Pitt: The Panthers will need the passing game to develop quickly if they want to make noise in the crowded ACC Coastal Division. Villanova stacked the line of scrimmage and dared Peterman to throw it, which he did with only middling success.
Villanova: host Lehigh in their home opener.
Pitt: Resumes its rivalry with Penn State after a 15-year hiatus when the Nittany Lions visit Heinz Field.
AP College Football site: www.collegefootball.ap.org