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PITTSBURGH (AP) — A year ago, James Conner spent the days before Thanksgiving wondering what was wrong with him. The answer came in the form of a cancer diagnosis that sent the Pittsburgh running back through months of debilitating treatment that threatened his blossoming career.
It's all behind him now. All of it. And that - more than the records he's breaking at an alarming rate - is what matters. It's why Conner didn't get wrapped up in his own hype after his pair of touchdowns in Pitt's easy 56-14 romp over Duke on Saturday made him the leading career touchdown scorer in Atlantic Coast Conference history.
"When I take the field, I put cancer and everything behind me and just play," said Conner, who left briefly after tweaking his right ankle in the second quarter but returned for the second half. "I'm getting better every week."
So are the Panthers (7-4, 4-3 ACC), who showed no signs of a letdown after stunning Clemson last week. Conner, as is his wont, led the way. He bulled over from 1 yard in the first quarter and again in the third to give him 50 rushing touchdowns for his career, breaking the previous mark set by N.C. State's Ted Brown between 1975 and 1978. Conner now has 53 touchdowns in all, eclipsing the old ACC mark of 52 set by Wali Lundy of Virginia from 2002-05.
Asked if any of them stand out over the others and Conner pointed to his 20-yard sprint in the fourth quarter against the Tigers, the one that put Pitt in position to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the program's recent history.
"Everything I've been through and me working on getting in a rhythm, my endurance playing 60 minutes of football," Conner said, "it showed I can play 60 minutes of football at a high level, late in the game," Conner said.
For once such theatrics weren't necessary for Pitt. Not with Conner running for 101 yards. Not with Quadree Henderson returning a punt 65 yards for a score and adding another on a 52-yard jet sweep. Not with Nate Peterman throwing for three scores in the wind at wintry Heinz Field as the Panthers set a new school record with 432 points on the season.
"It was a good, comfortable win," Conner said. "We've got to finish out the season strong."
A DUD FOR THE BLUE DEVILS
Daniel Jones completed 28 of 46 for 248 yards and a touchdown but Duke (4-7, 1-6) did little downfield against the nation's 127th-ranked pass defense. The Panthers sacked Jones five times, including two by senior defensive end Ejuan Price. After going over 200 yards on the ground in each of their last three games, the Blue Devils managed just 25 yards rushing against Pitt.
"They won the execution battle and that's why the score is so lopsided," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "We also lost the kicking game. It wasn't our intention coming in, but we just got whipped."
Henderson's zig-zag punt return in the third quarter put the Panthers up 42-14 and marked his fourth kick return for a score this year, tops in the nation. The Blue Devils found one way to keep it from Henderson, having Jones do a quick kick on a fourth-down later in the third quarter.
"I was sitting off to the sideline, waiting for (the snap) and he just kicked," Henderson said with a laugh. "Definitely a sign of respect. I appreciate it."
Duke: The only chance the Blue Devils have of making a fifth straight bowl game will be with a win at Miami next week and hope there aren't enough 6-6 teams to fill the bowl slots.
Pitt: While the defense is hardly stout, the Panthers have become opportunistic of late. An early fumble recovery by linebacker Matt Galambos on Duke's first play set up a touchdown and helped the Panthers set the tone. Pitt later turned a fumbled Duke kickoff return into another score.
Duke: travels to Miami in the regular season finale. The Hurricanes stunned the Blue Devils 30-27 last season, winning on the final play during a 75-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that featured eight laterals. The ACC ended suspending officials for two games following a series of officiating errors during the return.
Pitt: will try to continue its mastery of Syracuse. The Panthers have won 10 of their last 11 against the Orange, including all three meetings since the schools joined the ACC in 2013.
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