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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The play looked innocent on tape. James Conner took the handoff from Chad Voytik, ran to his right and lunged for a 9-yard gain and a Pittsburgh first down.
Moments later, the reigning ACC Player of the Year limped toward the sideline favoring his right knee. A day later, what appeared to be a minor tweak turned into something far more serious.
The junior will miss the rest of the season after tearing the MCL in the knee, a shocking blow for a program in search of good mojo under first-year coach Pat Narduzzi and a player with designs on heading to the NFL next spring.
Conner will undergo surgery sometime this week after tests on Sunday revealed the extent of the damage.
"They say if you can find a path with no obstacles it probably doesn't lead anywhere," Conner posted on Instagram on Monday. "I came too far and beat adversity before in life and I'm ready to do it again."
Narduzzi initially held Conner out of the remainder of Pitt's 45-37 victory over Youngstown State as a precaution, saying Conner could have gone back in if the Panthers were facing an ACC opponent.
Conner briefly wrapped his knee in ice after getting hurt, but ditched it after halftime while serving as a de facto cheerleader and mentor while redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison ran for 207 yards and a score as Pitt hung on in Narduzzi's head coaching debut.
Ollison credited Conner's constant encouragement for helping ease any lingering jitters about his first college game. It's a role Conner will get plenty familiar with over the next four months.
While Narduzzi said there was a chance Conner could have rested the knee for six weeks without surgery, the only way to make sure the knee properly healed was by getting it taken care of immediately.
"For his best interest, his future, he needs to get it repaired now," Narduzzi said.
Conner set a school record with 26 rushing touchdowns last fall — breaking a mark held by Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett — and slimmed down in the offseason with the goal of giving his 6-foot-2, 230-pound body a better chance of running away from defenders in the secondary.
He certainly looked nimble while scoring a pair of early touchdowns against the Penguins, including a 4-yard burst that gave the Panthers a quick 17-3 lead.
Pitt was driving in Youngstown State territory with just under 11 minutes left in the second quarter when Conner picked his way past the line of scrimmage before being tackled by Kenneth Durden, who was hanging on to Conner's right knee as the running back fell to the ground. Narduzzi said nothing stood out while watching the replay, only the result.
"It didn't look bad on tape," Narduzzi said. "He felt good afterward."
Conner, who ran for 1,765 yards in 2014, should be fine by the spring though Narduzzi cautioned it is too early to gauge Conner's NFL prospects. For now there is only recovery and rehabilitation.
"This is a temporary setback and I'm going to work even harder to bounce back," Conner said in a statement. "Even though I won't be able to play this season, I'm going to be right beside my teammates and help them every way I can to have a great season."
Ollison stepped in immediately and produced Conner-like results. His 207 yards rushing were the most ever by a Pitt freshman in an opener. His workload will almost certainly increase heading into Saturday's game at Akron, which upset the Panthers at Heinz Field last fall.
Pitt center Artie Rowell said Conner was "upset" when Narduzzi shared the injury with the team on Sunday, but isn't worried about the long-term effect on Conner's career. Rowell tore his knee in the 2014 opener against Delaware, but was back on the field last Saturday.
"I'm sure it's something that felt so small, so minuscule and then it takes everything from you," Rowell said. "It's hard to deal with but if there's one person that can do it, it's him."
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