Florida International U

FIU Panthers must come up big vs. Pittsburgh RB James Conner

The first Pittsburgh player FIU must stop to have a shot in Saturday’s duel in the sun is sophomore running back James Conner. The prime adjective for Conner: big.

Conner’s big as the word’s normally applied. He arrived at Pitt in 2013 at 6-2, 250. He’s still 6-2, 250 but, he says, with more muscle tone, less body fat this year.

Conner’s big as far as yardage. He’s second in the nation in rushing with 367 yards in Pitt’s first two games, averaging 7.34 yards per carry and has five touchdown runs. Granted, Pitt opened with Delaware and Boston College, but find a team that’s played two tough opponents out of the gate that’s not a paid whipping boy (i.e., FAU).

“The offensive line has been going great,” Conner said. “I’ve been more patient and with some experience, I’ve gotten better on my reads.”

FIU coach Ron Turner said, “Everybody’s talking about him and they should because he’s really, really good. He’s a big back. That offensive line is outstanding. Big and physical.”

Conner’s big on modesty. When giving a speech in his hometown of Erie, Pa., he self-edited a joke about a two-touchdown game against Notre Dame when he found out Notre Dame Heisman Trophy legend Paul Hornung would be in attendance.

Asked if he could jump in and give some snaps at defensive end if the need arose, Conner said, “Oh, for sure. I practice with the defensive ends, too.”

How’s that modest? Because he didn’t mention that late in last year’s Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl against Bowling Green, he played several snaps at defensive end when Pittsburgh found itself short at the position. Conner drew a holding call. And rushed for 229 yards, breaking the school bowl rushing record held by Pitt’s contribution to the Heisman Trophy fraternity, Tony Dorsett.

The school extended its scholarship offer to Conner as a defensive end before his senior year at Erie McDowell High, almost two hours from Pittsburgh. That penalty flag and every yard probably inflamed Bowling Green’s pain of one that got away. Other than Pitt, only Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan and Toledo offered Conner scholarships, he said.

“Pitt was the best school and up at my high school the most often,” Conner said.

He said by the time he got to Pitt, he knew he’d be a running back. You have to ask him what changed the school’s mind to get, “I think it was just the production of my senior year.”

Yeah, 1,680 yards, 21 touchdowns and 10.8 yards per rush will do that.

Conner’s also big on friendship.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, in high school, another friend who loved watching the sun set over Lake Erie couldn’t do so from her hospital bed where she was getting kidney treatments. So during one of his visits after football practice, Conner scooped her out of her bed, carried her to a window-side chair and placed her in a front row seat for the sunset.

When another friend died of an epileptic seizure last season, the Trib-Review reported, he served as a pallbearer. Then, with her initials on his wristband, he scored two touchdowns against New Mexico that he dedicated to her.

That’s how you remain big in memories no matter how big your numbers wind up being.

Freshman McGough to start at quarterback

Coach Ron Turner said he would start freshman Alex McGough at quarterback Saturday against Pittsburgh, but junior E.J. Hilliard definitely would get into the game at some point. “After that, we’ll see how it goes, see where we are,” Turner said.

Turner also said the Panthers came out of last Saturday’s win against Wagner with no injuries.

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