How the amazing comeback of James Conner is fueling Pitt’s solid year

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Over the weekend, I included Pitt star James Conner in my latest Heisman Top 5. I know other running backs have gaudier stats, but I felt like the big running back deserves special consideration after setting the ACC career record for touchdowns with 53. He did so in a game where he ran for 101 yards (on just 14 carries) and two touchdowns in a 56-14 blowout of Duke. On the season, he's got 1,200 total yards and 17 TDs. Very impressive stuff especially when you consider the guy has battled back from a shredded knee and beating Hodgkin's lymphoma. And, Conner’s impact on people is a lot bigger than just the game of football as you can see here:

“He is incredible,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi told FOX Sports Monday morning. “He’s an emotional charge for us. He’s something special, not only as a football player but as a person.”

But I don’t think people realize just how good he’s been on the field this year. Conner has been at his best in Pitt’s biggest games. He’s averaging 120 rushing yards against ranked opponents. Of running backs who have faced more than one ranked team, only three other backs are going for more. Conner shined two weeks ago in their huge win at Clemson, running for 132 yards and picking up another 57 receiving.

“That’s the other thing with James is that he’s getting better and better,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t know what chemo actually does to your body but it’s been like ‘Whoa, he’s coming on (in spite of it),'” Narduzzi said, adding that Conner had been clocked in games on Pitt’s GPS tracking system at 18 MPH for much of the season, but in the past few weeks, he’s now up to 20 MPH.

Pitt has had a very interesting season. The Panthers are 7-4 and have one of the most impressive wins of the season when they knocked off Clemson in Death Valley. They beat a second team in the top 8 — Penn State — and they had a close loss against No. 10 Oklahoma State. In those three games, Conner is averaging about 170 yards from scrimmage. They also lost to 8-3 UNC in the final seconds, and to Virginia Tech by three. Only Miami really handled them.

Even though Narduzzi is known for defense (the Panthers are No. 4 in the nation in rushing D), it’s been their offense that has been a revelation. Sparked by Conner, they are No. 15 in scoring at 39 ppg, setting a school record, and are No. 1 in red zone touchdown percentage at 81 percent, up from No. 53 in 2015 (63 percent). In addition, the Panthers are up 11 ppg from last season, when Conner missed almost all of it.

First-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada also deserves plenty of credit. Canada’s offenses, if you include his work at NC State last year, have scored 11 TDs in the past two meetings against very talented Clemson defenses.

“He does a nice job and is very creative,” Narduzzi said of Canada. “He did it when he was at Wisconsin and ran for 500 yards (539 actually) on Bo Pelini’s defense (in a 70-31 win) in the (2012) Big Ten title game. I like what he does. I think it puts defenses in a bind.”

One of Canada’s wrinkles, a twist on a jet sweep that showed up over the weekend in the NFL when the Lions burned the Jaguars with TE Eric Ebron scoring a TD. In the preseason, Josh McDaniels, likely after observing it from NC State film study, ran it with Canada’s old QB, Jacoby Brissett, and gashed a few opponents with it.

Senior QB Nathan Peterman quietly has put together a terrific year with a 22-5 TD-INT ratio. In Pitt’s three games against ranked opponents, it’s a sterling 9-2.

“I think he’ll play in the NFL somewhere,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a Kirk Cousins and Brian Hoyer type. He’s smart, manages the game well, and is very accurate. The guy also knows how to scramble. He’s been very good in the pocket, which he wasn’t a year ago, and he makes all the checks in the run game.”

RANDOM STUFF

*Best-kept secret in college football? How about South Florida QB Quinton Flowers. He’s accounted for 25 TDs (14 passing, 11 running) and just three INTs in the past seven games for a team that is 9-2. The 6-foot, 210-pounder from Miami has thrown for 2,400 yards, run for almost 1,300 morem and has 35 total TDs this season. New Bulls quarterbacks coach Shaun King has done a nice job developing the dual-threat talent.

“He has started to really understand why he should make this decision vs. this certain (defensive) look,” King told me. “His timing and balance are night and day from last year too. He also has a truly awesome story. The kid has overcome so much in his personal life [Flowers' father was shot and killed during a drive-by shooting when he was seven years old and his mom died from cancer when he was a junior in high school] and is a truly a joy to coach.”

*Stat of the Day: A few weeks ago I wrote about Sam Houston State’s prolific offense and offensive coordinator Phil Longo. SHSU is still No. 1 in FCS and rolling. The Bearkats have a chance this season to have three 1,000-yard receivers, two 1,000-yard rushers and a 5,000-yard passer. Their QB, former UAB Blazer Jeremiah Briscoe, now has a 52-7 TD-INT ratio this season. He is just six TD passes from tying Colt Brennan’s Division I record for most in a season.

*Stat of the Day, Take II: Utah DE Hunter Dimick continues to tear up Pac-12 offenses. He now has half as many sacks in his last two games (seven plus 8.5 TFLs) as 15 teams have this whole season.