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Pitt-Virginia Panther of the Game: James Conner

The Pitt running back pulled double duty to take home this week’s award

Despite Jordan Whitehead’s pick-6 and his four tackles and Quadree Henderson’s electrifying plays, James Conner takes home the Panther of the Game award this week in Pitt’s 45-31 win over Virginia.

You can make an argument for a couple of other players, as mentioned above, along with another strong game from last week’s co-winner: Tyrique Jarrett. However, Conner’s statistics, along with coming up big, when it mattered most give him the award.

Conner finished yesterday with 20 rushes for 90 yards and two touchdowns. He also chipped in two catches for 28 yards on the receiving end. And in case you missed it, he also played defensive end and put some pressure on Kurt Benkert on an important late drive for Virginia, nearly picking up a sack in the process.

Ho-hum...just another day for number 24. Do you want more? OK, how about the clutch plays Conner put on the field yesterday. Pitt went three-and-out right off the bat when not using Conner, but on their second possession, with Pitt trailing 7-0 and facing 2nd and 10, big James completely ran over two Virginia defenders in route to a 16-yard run. This seemed to get the offense going. Add to that two 3rd-and-2 conversions and one 4th-and-one run that resulted in a first down and it seemed that every time the Panthers needed a big play, James Conner provided it.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

Expect to see more of James Conner on defense for Panthers

Yesterday, Pitt running back James Conner got onto the field as a defensive end in the Panthers' win against Virginia. He was also pretty effective, nearly sacking the quarterback on a play.

If you are a Pitt fan hoping to see more of that, it sounds as if you'll get your wish. Here's what head coach Pat Narduzzi said after the game:

''We've been kind of working that in and as you guys know, he was recruited as a defensive lineman,'' Narduzzi said. ''... James is a super football player. I was happy he got a hurry on the quarterback and we'll have a little bit more of that.''

The key is obviously the last part of that where he suggests Conner could be doing that a bit more.

As I said yesterday, I'm not sure I want to see James back there on defense playing 15-20 snaps. But at the same time, if Pitt wants to use him on a few plays, similar to what they do with Whitehead on offense, I think that could be helpful. Narduzzi also talked about using Conner in part to help keep his other players fresh, which obviously makes a lot of sense. And with Pitt missing star defensive end Ejuan Price with an injury for part of yesterday, inserting him made even more sense.

I'll be interested to see how much they use Conner on defense going forward. And from the sounds of it, we can count on Conner playing there in some capacity.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

The Pitt-Virginia Turning Point of the Game: Whitehead Pick 6

Jordan Whitehead’s interception was an easy selection as The Turning Point of the Game

In writing about “The Turning Point” week in and week out during Pitt’s football seasons, yesterday couldn’t have been easier. Safety Jordan Whitehead’s pick-6 is The Turning Point of yesterday’s 45-31 victory over Virginia.

Pitt had just tied the game at 28, with under one minute remaining. With two timeouts and the Panthers’ suspect secondary, Virginia decided to take a chance. It was one that they would regret. The Cavaliers drove to almost midfield, before quarterback Kurt Benkert looked to his right and tried the seam. Unfortunately, Pitt safety, Jordan Whitehead, was waiting right there.

The sophomore picked off Benkert’s pass at the Pitt 41-yard line and immediately turned towards the right sideline. Whitehead followed his blockers and made one cutback, inside the 10, and streaked almost untouched into the end zone. The pick-6 gave Pitt a 35-28 lead with only four ticks left on the clock before halftime, and Pitt received the opening second half kickoff, too.

It was the Panthers’ first lead of the game and it was one that they would never relinquish. Pitt has made the majority of their games too close for comfort, but today was not one of them. Whitehead’s play, just before halftime, seemed to take the sail out of Virginia’s offense. The Pitt defense stiffened up in the second half and the Cavaliers would never get closer than the 35-28 deficit.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

Video: Pitt running back James Conner nearly records sack against Virginia

In Pitt's 14-point win over Virginia on Saturday, one of the moves that had everyone talking was the insertion of running back James Conner into the Panthers' defense. The team was a little banged up, missing defensive end Ejuan Price for part of the game. And needing a pass rush to help limit the Cavaliers' passing game, Conner got his shot.

And not only did Conner get into the game on defense, but he nearly pulled off a sack in his only snap. Included was an unreal spin move and a great tackle of the quarterback just after he released the ball:

Things @JamesConner_ can do for @Pitt_FB: ✔️ Play RB & DE✔️ spin moves✔️ pressure the QB✔️ everything#ConnerStrong — ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) October 15, 2016

There has been a lot of talk about Conner getting into the game defensively for a while now, but this is the first time it's materialized since he was used briefly on defense in the Bowling Green game a few years ago.

I'm not a fan of using Conner all the time on the defensive line, obviously, but throwing him out there for a few plays a game to help guys stay fresh is fine by me. He's clearly talented enough to cause disruptions from time to time.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt defeats Virginia on road, 45-31

Pitt's defense made things interesting early on, but in the end, the Panthers prevailed for a 45-31 win over Virginia on Saturday.

On Friday, I sort of went on a Twitter rant since I didn't quite understand the optimism some folks had regarding Virginia's chances. As I said then, Pitt could certainly lose. But nothing in the team's play this year really suggested that Virginia should win. They had some bad early losses and while they had won their past two games, they did so against teams not as good as Pitt (and, perhaps, not even very good teams at all) in Central Michigan and Duke.

Now, Pitt sort of tested that in the first half as Virginia's passing game, as we all expected, was on fire. The secondary gave up numerous big plays and it was a back and forth game. Pitt actually led at halftime, 35-28, thanks to a Jordan Whitehead pick six. But if you ask me, Virginia looked like the better team. Pitt's secondary gave up several big plays and Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert had a strong first half.

But as I suspected they might, they had a hard time matching Pitt's offense. Aside from the opener when Pitt scored 'only' 28 points running what just about everyone insists was a scaled back offense, the team has averaged 40 points per game. Few teams will be able to match that - especially ones with weaker defenses.

Ironically, if you're looking for a difference maker today, it wasn't the offense. That would be the special teams where the Panthers dominated. Pitt pulled off (by my count, anyway) three big kick returns - one of which went the distance as Quadree Henderson took another kickoff to the house in the first half.

To me, the biggest stretch was right before the end of the first half. Pitt trailed 28-21 with under six minutes left. Kicking away from Henderson, Rafael Araujo-Lopes returned a kick back 69 yards, setting up a Pitt touchdown to tie it. On Virginia's next possession, instead of playing it safe, they tried a pass that was picked off by Whitehead on that aforementioned pick six. Within the span of a few minutes, we had a 14-point swing and, while I can't speak for them, that had to be a demoralizing thing for the Cavaliers.

From there, Pitt took over in the second half.

As much as we criticized the defense in the first half, they played pretty well in the second, allowing only three points on a late, meaningless field goal. Part of the problem in the first half was a real lack of pressure. That, um, changed.

On Virginia's first drive, Pitt sacked Benkert twice, forcing them to punt. They got another big sack on Benkert on the next drive, again forcing a punt. On the third drive, they stuffed a crucial 3rd and 1 play. They went on to force two more punts before giving up the field goal at the end.

If you want to know why the defense had much more success in the second-half, it was clearly the pressure they brought up front. We even saw James Conner on defense, something that was talked about the past two years, and he not only made an appearance there, but was a factor in forcing Benkert into an incompletion after an unbelievable spin move.

The secondary isn't good - we all know that. But when Pitt gets the pressure they need up front, they're much less of a problem. With Avonte Maddox out, Pitt also lost safety starter Terrish Webb as the injuries keep piling up. He went out of the game then returned in street clothes, so we'll see what happens there. But man, this team is getting hit with injuries every single week, it seems. Ejuan Price also missed some time.

And while the secondary again was bad, the run defense also had some big problems initially, too. Virginia led Pitt in rushing (85 yards to 77) at halftime and Taquan Mizzell accounted for most of that with 70. Mizzell was bottled up a bit early, but did have a huge 44-yard touchdown. Like I said earlier in the gamethread, if you're going to be that bad against the pass, you almost need to be lights out against the run. Pitt wound up giving up only 100 rushing yards at the end and the Panthers more than doubled that, so it got fixed.

Offensively, I was a little surprised Pitt didn't do more passing. They threw a modest 21 times despite Virginia having one of the worst pass defense in D-I (even worse than Pitt's, statistically, coming into the game). Quarterback Nathan Peterman did the job with 137 yards and two touchdowns, but this was a game I thought they might finish with more passing yards. Still, who's going to complain about that?

Finally, I thought James Conner did quite a bit today to prove he's still a star and that it's going to take some work to knock him from his perch as the top running back. He had been kind of outdone a bit by Chawntez Moss lately, but that wasn't the case today. He had 90 rushing yards with two touchdowns and some of his yards were very tough. Moss had a quiet day with seven rushes for only 26 yards (he, too, was banged up a bit on a play on special teams coverage).

Conner had one touchdown diving over the top of the line and then repeated that feat on a key 3rd down play. He also caught two passes for 28 yards and one was a very good wheel route play for a nice gain. When you factor in the pass rush on defense, too, he just sort of put the team on his back today and did what they needed done. No really huge plays for a lot of yardage from him, but a lot of key ones.

All in all, this is a really nice win. I still don't think Virginia is a great team and that they will struggle to even reach a bowl with a pretty brutal schedule down the stretch. But it was still a road win on Homecoming and, in conference, two win by 14 points is great. Pitt is now 5-2 and carries some momentum into their toughest stretch of the year with games against three ranked opponents in a row, in Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami, and Clemson.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Former NFL player, Auburn defensive star Quentin Groves dead at 32

Former NFL defensive lineman and Auburn standout Quentin Groves, 32, died Saturday.

The cause of death has not been officially confirmed, though  according to SB Nation, Groves suffered a heart attack. During the 2008 NFL combine, he was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which caused a rapid heartbeat. After a minor surgical procedure, Groves was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft.

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Groves spent two years at Jacksonville, and then played for several teams, including the Raiders, Browns and Titans. He last played in the regular season in 2014.

At Auburn, Groves was an All-SEC star, tying the school's career sack record at 26 and setting a single-game record with four sacks.

Going Scouting: Virginia Tech

Pitt fans have two chances to scout out their next opponent

Virginia Tech hired the hot name last off-season to replace the legendary Frank Beamer. Justin Fuente is the new man in charge of the Hokies and his 4-1 start has landed VT at 17th in the AP Poll and 19th in the Coaches’ Poll. Not a bad start, but what do we really know about Tech?

We know they lost to nationally ranked Tennessee, but also fumbled five times (losing three), in that game. They have won four games, but three of them are to Boston College, Liberty, and East Carolina. The fourth was an impressive thumping of North Carolina, but it was also in a driving rain storm, which no doubt, hurts UNC’s passing attack. So, we may still not know a ton right now, but the great news is that with Pitt’s bye coming, you have two chances to check out Virginia Tech.

Once Pitt and UVA are done today, you should be able to flip right over to ESPNU to see Tech travel to the Carrier Dome to take on Syracuse, at 3:45 p.m. Not exactly a team you want to see them tested by, before Pitt, but fear not...that’s not all. Virginia Tech will then pull off the rarely seen back-to-back Thursday night games on ESPN.

Just five days after getting back from upstate New York, the Hokies have a highly anticipated matchup against fellow ranked ACC Coastal opponent, Miami. That will happen on October 20th, at Lane Stadium, and kickoff will be at 7 p.m. You can see that game on ESPN. What you may not know now about Virginia Tech now, you surely will know a ton more before they invade Heinz Field exactly one week after Miami to take on Pitt, at 7:00 p.m., and also on ESPN.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh names homecoming queen during recruiting trip

Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh kept busy during the Wolverines’ bye week — he announced the homecoming queen at a California high school game.

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ESPN reported that Harbaugh was on a recruiting trip at Antioch High School to see highly recruited running back Najee Harris, who is committed to Alabama. 

Harbaugh attended Antioch’s homecoming game against Liberty High School, and school officials asked him to announce the homecoming queen at halftime, ESPN reported.

Harbaugh called the name of Tatiana Mendez as the crowd roared.

Harbaugh said he'd never been asked to handle the microphone during a recruiting visit.

"That was an all-time first for me," Harbaugh told ESPN. "That was really cool." 

Pitt-Virginia: How to Watch, Schedule, Game Information

Pitt faces Virginia today as they look for their fifth win of the season. The Panthers have a winnable game but will need to be ready for the Cavaliers' passing game, which has been on fire lately.

The good news for the Panthers is that Virginia's defense has had problems this year - both in stopping teams from throwing and from running. Pitt may give up some points today, but their offense should be fully capable of scoring enough to win.

Given the struggles of both pass defenses, it wouldn't be too surprising to see a high-scoring game. I also look for Pitt to try to control the clock on offense to keep the defense off the field as much as possible. They can do that by continuing to run the ball and attack Virginia's run defense, which ranks in the lower half of D-I.

Here’s a look at the game day information for today’s contest:

Date: October 15, 2016

Time: 12:30 p.m.

Location: Charlottesville, VA (Scott Stadium)

TV: ACC Network (locally, WTAE/ABC)

Radio: 93.7 FM The Fan

Last Game: Pitt defeated Virginia, 26-19 at home (2015)

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

(Don't) Bet the Farm: Pitt vs Virginia Predictions

The Cardiac Hill staff make their predictions for Pitt's 2nd road ACC game.

Well, I told you guys Pitt would make it interesting against Georgia Tech.

I didn't think it would be last-second-field-goal-off-the-goal-post interesting, but hey, that's Pitt football for you.

This week, the staff is again unanimous for Pitt. Virginia is definitely starting to turn it on a bit the last couple weeks with wins over Central Michigan and handling Duke, but I'm not quite a believer yet. For one, Virginia shockingly has a worse rated pass defense than Pitt, and Pitt has faced better passing offenses, in my opinion.

Having said that, Virginia does have a great passing attack of their own, and will certainly look to exploit that versus Pitt. Pitt's defensive line should be able to put pressure on Virginia's QB Kurt Benkert as Virginia's offensive line has given up a fair amount of sacks while Pitt is top 10 in sacks on defense. Virginia has next to no run game with less than 120 yards per game on the ground, whereas Pitt is more than double that number.

Long story short: While Pitt's passing defense has large holes that UVA can and should exploit, I think Pitt has huge advantages in the run game, run defense, and on both lines. Pitt lost this game two years ago, so I don't expect them to take UVA lightly. I think Pitt wins by about a touchdown, but a good passing attack counts for a lot. We'll see!

Corey - Pitt (6-0)

Anson - Pitt (5-1)

Chris - Pitt (5-1)

JD - Pitt (5-1)

Jim - Pitt (5-1)

Aron - Pitt (4-2)

Stephen - Pitt (4-2)

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