PITTSBURGH — The comeback James Conner never doubted, not once, officially ended with an unremarkable 1-yard loss.
And while the Pittsburgh running back picked himself up and quietly headed back to the huddle early in the first quarter against Villanova on Saturday, thousands inside Heinz Field rose to their feet for a standing ovation that had nothing to do with football and everything to do with perseverance.
There will be plenty of time for Conner to nitpick his performance in Pitt’s 28-7 season-opening win. Just not Saturday. Conner’s well aware of the significance of his familiar No. 24 jersey sprinting onto the field for the first time in 364 days, a layoff that began with a knee injury last September against Youngstown State then became something far more harrowing when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma around Thanksgiving.
The road back included months of chemotherapy treatment, sessions that left him drained but undaunted. He soldiered through spring practice wearing a mask during drills to protect his depleted immune system, all the while hoping his example would resonate with those facing similar battles. It’s a role he never envisioned having to fill, but one he’s willingly embraced.
It’s why the stands were filled with family members, the medical staff that helped restore him to health and hundreds of friends from back home in Erie, Pennsylvania. Conner’s two-touchdown performance was as much a testament to their support as it was his resolve. At the same time he’s only too happy to put this chapter — the first chapter anyway — behind him and get back to football and not the disease that temporarily brought the 2014 ACC Player of the Year’s blossoming career to a halt.
“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.”
There was rust to be sure. There were also signs that he’s going to be just fine. The proof came in the second quarter when Conner took a handoff and raced around the left end, stiff-arming a Villanova defender before crossing the goal line to give the Panthers the lead while the teammates who elected him as one of Pitt’s three captains raced to congratulate him.
“That first touchdown couldn’t be any better, stiff-arm into the end zone right into the student section,” quarterback Nate Peterman said. “It was an emotional moment.”
Conner was at it again just before the half, hauling in a 9-yard score by making a difficult grab in traffic over the middle. He finished with 53 yards on 17 carries and added three receptions for 16 yards as Pitt avoided an embarrassing slip-up a week before a highly anticipated showdown with Penn State.
“I’m sure as we watch the tape we’re going to have a lot of corrections for him,” coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Mainly that he’s looking for a touchdown every play instead of hitting it up there for three or four yards and be happy with it. It’s been a long time since he stepped on the field in a game situation. He made plays when he needed to.”
Quadree Henderson returned the second-half kickoff 96 yards for a score to break things open. 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.
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: 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