NCAA

ACC Offensive Player of the Year Lost with Torn MCL – Will it even matter?

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James is fine,” said Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi, as he was referring to the status of his star running back who left the home opener against Youngstown State. “Just being cautious.”

Narduzzi would be proven wrong.

It was revealed days later that the 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year will miss the remainder of the season with a torn MCL.

Conner, the junior running back, has been breaking ACC and school records like he does opposing tacklers since his freshman season in 2013.

He quickly established himself as the workhorse in the Pitt offense.

Conner was now vying to be one of the most productive running backs in the history of Pitt Football.

His sophomore season he raised his level of play and by doing so placed himself in the conversation of being a Heisman Trophy candidate this year.

Last season, Conner joined Tony Dorsett and Craig “Ironhead” Heyward as the only three Pitt running backs named as All-Americans. Other notable running backs that have played at Pitt include Curtis Martin (HOF) and current Buffalo Bills Pro Bowler LeSean McCoy.

As a sophomore (2014), Conner rumbled out of the gate with four straight 100-yard games that included one 200-yard outing. He surpassed legend Tony Dorsett who had 140 points scored during his Heisman Trophy season in 1976. Conner scored three more touchdowns than Dorsett (26).

Connor amassed 1,765 rushing yards last season, surpassing McCoy’s Pitt sophomore record of 1,488 (2008) and broke the ACC sophomore record held by Boston College’s Montel Harris (1,457 in 2009).

Panthers fans were surely and anxiously awaiting the encore act by their Heisman Trophy candidate.

First, Conner broke off a 40-yard gain off the right side of the offensive line in the first quarter. The next snap he instinctively made one cut and showed his burst as he ate up 13 yards as he went untouched for his first touchdown of the 2015 season. Connor scored another touchdown in the first quarter and two carries later he tweaked his knee and did not return to the game. He still finished the game with a modest 79 yards rushing on eight carries and two touchdowns. Conner averaged an impressive 9.6 yards per carry while carving through the Penguins defense.

It appeared Conner was on his way towards another All-American campaign season until the injury turned out to be worse than anyone believed.

Call it fate or maybe luck, but Pitt may not lose much in the absence of Conner.

After he left the game, a freshman named Qadree Ollison stepped in and erased any doubts about the depth of the Panthers backfield.

The freshman running back from the state of New York, who was bound to steal carries, will likely become the bell-cow in the Panthers offense without Conner.

Ollison, a three-star recruit was ranked as the fifth-best player in New York after leaving high school. He emulated Conner in size and production, at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he flashed both power and speed as he eclipsed 100 yards rushing (207) in his first collegiate game.

“It was a great first game if you ask me,” said a camera shy Ollison in front of a multitude of media. “Most important we got the win. Coach Narduzzi is always preaching next man up and we always preach that in the running back room.”

Ollison was not alone in providing more than ample quality in the absence of Conner. Sophomore running back Chris James was solid, being the first to relief Conner after leaving the game early in the second quarter.

“I wasn’t thinking my first run was 45 yards,” laughed Ollison. “It was just doing what I have to do to help my team win. I don’t want this to be about me we had other guys go out there today and make big plays for us today. Scott Orndoff had an amazing catch and everybody made big plays. The special teams. The offense. The defense.”

Wearing No. 37, Ollison looks like former Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins running back Gerald Riggs. Riggs was 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds and donned the same jersey number. Their style and size mirror each other.

“He did a great job out there today,” Narduzzi said post-game referring to Ollison. “He’s been doing it all camp.”

Coach Narduzzi and even Ollison could not have expected this type of first outing.

Ollision’s monstrous debut coincides with the last time a freshman running back had over 100 yards rushing in their first game. The last two occurrences happened in the home opener against YSU. Dion Lewis (2009) eclipsed the 100-yard plateau with 129 yards.

“Next man up,” Ollison said is the mantra amongst the running backs.

That time is now as Ollison himself looks to mirror the All-American (Conner) and be the workhorse the Pitt offense needs to be successful.


About Bo Marchionte

Bo Marchionte

Bo Marchionte is an NFL writer for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade. His background includes being staff for the Texas vs. The Nation All-Star game as a talent evaluator for player personnel along with an internship scouting with the Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers for the Canadian Football League. Bo’s draft background includes working for the NFL Draft Bible and currently owns and operates College2Pro.com. He has done radio spots on NBC, Fox Sports and ESPN and their affiliates in different markets around the country. Bo covers the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Panthers along with other colleges in the northeast.