Before the season began, the most threatening game on Iowa's non-conference schedule looked like the 9/19 clash with Pitt. Illinois State was a top-notch FCS team... but still an FCS team. Iowa State has had plenty of recent success against Iowa and plays Iowa at home, but has less talent than Pitt at several positions. North Texas is coached by noted Hawkeye upset specialist Dan McCarney, but otherwise has very little else going for them. Pitt, on the other hand, brought all-conference talent at a few positions and narrowly lost to Iowa in Pittsburgh a year ago (a game that required a tremendous second-half comeback by Iowa to win). If you were pointing to a game on Iowa's September slate that looked like the most likely to end in a loss for the good guys, Pitt felt like a pretty safe choice. Well, now they're going to be entering Iowa City down one of those all-conference talents:
Horrible news: Pitt RB James Conner out for season w/MCL injury. Surgery this week— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) September 7, 2015
Horrible news indeed. Conner, a 6-2, 240 bowling ball of a running back with tremendous strength and better-than-expected speed, was a match-up nightmare at running back. He ran for 77 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries before leaving Saturday's game against Youngstown State with a leg injury. It didn't seem serious at the time; now we know that was a torn MCL and will keep him out of action for the rest of the season. Conner was a beast last year, bulldozing defenses for 1765 yards and 26 touchdowns on 298 carries (a 5.9 ypc clip). Those numbers were good enough to earn him first-team All-America honors by the American Football Coaches Association and second-team honors from several other services. He was also named the ACC Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year and broke a host of Pitt rushing records that had stood since Tony Dorsett was toting the rock for the Panters. Against Iowa last year, Conner ran for 155 yards and one touchdown on 29 carries, although most of his damage came in the first half -- Iowa was effective in slowing him down during their comeback in the second half.
In Conner's absence, freshman Qadree Ollison gave a more-than-satisfactory fill-in performance agianst Youngstown State, rushing for 207 yards and one score on just 16 carries. Almost a third of those yards came on one 71-yard run, but even if you take that run out, Ollison still averaged 9.1 yards per carry on his remaining rushes -- that's not too shabby. Ollison is listed at 6-2, 230, so physically he should be very similar to Conner. Based on the (very) limited evidence of his performance against Youngstown State, Ollison is a very promising talent at RB and will be a guy that the Iowa defense will have to be well-prepared for. But it's definitely a break for Iowa that they won't have to worry about defending Conner as well -- he was a proven star and a guy that can make even the best defenses look foolish. It's still premature to pencil Iowa in for a win over Pitt, but Conner's absence should improve their odds of picking up another win this September. And best wishes to Conner for a speedy recovery -- injuries suck and Conner was a joy to watch last year (except in the first half of the Iowa game) and it would be nice to see him smashing up NFL defenses a year from now.