When Pitt took the field for their Season Opener against Villanova at Heinz Field, we knew that it was going to be a special game no matter how you looked at it. Regardless of how they did on the field, the fact that it was the return of RB James Conner made it special. The redshirt senior not only missed the majority of the 2015 season with an injury, but also as a result of being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer.
Seeing Conner on the field with his Panther teammates was an inspiration. But seeing him score 2 TDs in a 28-7 victory over the Villanova Wildcats was epic. Conner rushed for a game-high 53 yards with those 2 TDs plus 16 yards receiving as the Panthers started the season 1-0. The Heinz Field crowd cheered Conner as he joined the huddle, took the opening handoff and they cheered even louder when he scored his first TD in over a year.
Conner on the Hillman staff supporting him at Heinz. “They saved my life.”
After a listless first quarter in which Pitt and Villanova traded several 3-and-outs, the Panthers finally came to life in the second quarter after a 31-yard punt return by Quadree Henderson and an offside penalty that gave them a first and goal, Conner rumbled into the endzone on a 3 yard run to give Pitt a 7-0 lead. The drive 6 plays 31 yards & the Pitt fans gave Conner a huge standing ovation.
Pitt’s defense which had an interception by S Terish Webb earlier in the quarter, shut down Villanova’s defense once again, forcing them to punt with 4:54 left in the first half. But the Panthers couldn’t do much with their opportunity and once again ended up punting the ball to the Villanova 18 with 2:21 left in the first half.
Pitt’s defense struck again as DE Ejuan Price sacked Villanova QB Zach Bednarczyk, once again forcing them to punt. When Pitt took over, Conner struck again when QB Nate Peterman found him for a 9-yard TD pass to give Pitt a 14-0 lead. The drive covered 6 plays 32 yards. The Wildcats recovered the ensuing kick to close out the first half.
In the 3rd quarter, the Panthers took the opening kick-and drove it straight to the endzone as Henderson ran it 96 yards to give the Panthers a 21-0 lead. He also ran one back in the Military Bowl last season. Villanova took over, did nothing and punted the ball back to Pitt who took over at their own 18-yard line.
But it wasn’t a good drive for the Panthers as Peterman was sacked by Drew Wiley who caused a fumble-which was recovered by Villanova’s Rob Rolle who ran it in for a 3-yard TD, giving the Wildcats their first TD of the game. Pitt now led 21-7.
The Panthers then took the next drive and settled for a 47-yard FG attempt by K Chris Blewitt, but his attempt was blocked, his second miss of the day. Villanova took over at their own 32. Once again, Villanova did nothing and punted the ball back to Pitt as the 3rd quarter ended.
In the 4th quarter, Pitt did another 3-and-out and punted the ball back to Villanova who took over at their own 16. The Wildcats did nothing once again and punted the ball back to Pitt who converted a 10 play-49-yard play into another TD when Peterman found WR Jester Weah for 16 yards giving the Panthers a 28-7 lead with 6 minutes’ left in the game. The Wildcats were sacked twice on their final drive of the game as time expired, securing the Panthers 28-7 victory.
Peterman passed for 175 yards, 2 TD and no INTs. In addition to Conner’s 53 yards’ backup Quadree Ollison rushed for 30 yards as the Panthers rushed for 86 yards as a team. TE Scott Orndorff led Pitt with 68 yards receiving and WR Jester Weah scored the team’s only pass TD. On defense, CB Avonte Maddox led with 2 sacks and Price had 1.5. Webb had the team’s first interception of the season.
For the Wildcats (0-1) Bednarczyk passed for 119 yards and the interception. RB Javon White ran for 37 yards and WR Ryan Bell caught 5 passes for 52 yards. The Panthers were masterful in not allowing an offensive TD.
Here’s what Pitt HC Pat Narduzzi had to say about his team’s first victory: “Obviously we’re 1-0. We played a good Villanova team. A little sloppier on offense and defense than I’d like, but I thought we did pretty good. We didn’t throw as well as we needed to, but that’s fine, we’ll play better next week.”
On Conner Narduzzi said: ‘James is who he is, he scored the first TD and the 2nd..overall he made plays that he needed to. We will block better for him next week.
On playing Penn State: They’re a good football team, it’s an intra-state rivalry, we’ll be ready next week.”
Injuries: LB Elijah Ziese left the game early in the first quarter and did not return. No official word on his status as he was seen on the sideline in a walking boot.
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