Dunlap: James Conner Loss Is Absolute Devastation
No way to spin this.
No way to look through the prism and extract a positive.
This one hurts. This one hurts badly.
This one really could put a sort of end to the Pitt football season before it so much as gets off the ground.
Yeah, it's that bad. And it sucks, it really does.
On Monday, Labor Day turned from a day of rest (or maybe celebration) to one of the most laborious in recent memory for Pitt fans as it was announced standout junior running back James Conner will undergo season-ending surgery on his right knee for a torn medial collateral ligament.
The injury happened in Saturday's Youngstown State win.
Without Conner, Pitt shouldn't have much trouble getting past Akron this coming weekend, but can you really look at any other game on their schedule now and circle it as a probable win?
Look up and down that schedule and tell me you can find one game now --- other than zipping past the Zips --- without the services of Conner, where you feel ultra-confident.
Even as a reformed pessimist, I'm not so sure I can find one.
Losing one of the top running backs in the country can, and will, have that impact especially when you're marching out a quarterback who will never be confused for Dan Marino --- or even Alex Van Pelt.
I get how good Tyler Boyd is.
He's a world-class talent who, in my estimation, is destined to shine on Sundays.
And that tight end grouping at Pitt, to me at least, is profoundly underrated.
Same thing with those big maulers up front who comprise the line, as they can flat-out play and are deeply underrated.
All that said, however, there will be many points in many games when the Panthers need quarterback Chad Voytik to make throws and those throws won't come nearly as easy now that Conner is done. It is the domino impact that, in my opinion, will catch up with Voytik and, by extension, this Pitt offense.
In essence, there will be no big-time threat in the offensive backfield to soften the opposing defense up and make Voytik's life easier.
It feels as if, with Conner out, teams might employ a "make Chad Voytik beat us" defense and, right now, are you certain that can happen?
There is no arguing what Qadree Ollison did against Youngstown State, as the redshirt freshman dazzled and overwhelmed the Penguins in Conner's place, roaring to 207 yards, a touchdown and looking more than comfortable in the open field.
Still, all respect to Ollison, he ain't James Conner.
Also, that was, all respect to Youngstown, Youngstown.
Sophomore running back Chris James --- who entered the season as the No. 2 guy on the depth chart --- was also injured in the Youngstown State game, although the significance of his injury is said to be minor and he should be back up to speed for Week 2.
Again, all respect to Chris James, he isn't Conner.
This loss for Pitt hurts deep because Conner had put on good weight, come into the season and had a look in camp as if he had potential to absolutely dominate.
"Even with all of his success last year, James attacked his preparation for this season like he was fighting to earn a starting spot," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. "He is a tremendous competitor and teammate. After he was injured on Saturday, James was constantly in the ear of his teammates, encouraging them and coaching them on the sideline. Our entire program shares his disappointment but we will also be behind him every step of the way in his recovery."
Unfortunately, for the Panthers, however, if there was one guy they could ill-afford to lose, James Conner was it.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weekdays from 5:40 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 "The Fan." You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his bio here.
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