Around The ACC: Off And Running


Pitt’s Conner, Miami’s Johnson earning spots among the best

GREENSBORO, N.C. ( – One need not be a football historian to appreciate the special seasons Atlantic Coast Conference running backs James Conner and Duke Johnson are putting together this fall. But when one compares their season and career achievements to elite performers of the past, it quickly becomes evident that they sit among pretty good company.

Pitt’s Conner ranks as the nation’s leading rusher with 1,342 yards, but that number tells only part of the sensational sophomore’s story. As noted by Pitt sports information director E.J. Borghetti:

“Conner’s 1,342 rushing yards through the season’s opening nine games are the most by a Pitt player not named Tony Dorsett. Conner’s nine-game total is third only to the legendary Dorsett, who holds the top two rushing spots at Pitt after nine games (1,525 yards as a senior in 1976 – the Heisman Trophy year – and 1,348 as a freshman in 1973). While Conner trails Dorsett, he is still outpacing such former Pitt standouts as LeSean McCoy, Curtis Martin, Dion Lewis and Craig Heyward.”

Miami’s Johnson leads all running backs nationally with 1,486 total yards (1,213 rushing, 273 yards receiving). In his last five games. Johnson has averaged 168.6 rushing yards per game and 8.7 yards per carry.

In less than three seasons, Johnson has passed Edgerrin James for second on the Hurricanes’ all-time rushing list with 3,080 career yards, Johnson has now scored at least one TD in each of his last eight games. That is the longest such streak by a Hurricane since Willis McGahee’s 11-game run in 2002.  

“I probably wouldn’t believe that I would be close,” Johnson replied when asked if he ever foresaw his record-book ascension.  “Just knowing the guys that came before me, I wouldn’t think that I would have had the chance.”

Both backs put their talents on full display last weekend.  Duke head coach David Cutcliffe summed matters up succinctly after his Blue Devils survived a 263-yard, three-touchdown onslaught from the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Conner to outlast Pitt for a 51-48 overtime road win.

“I have to say that James Conner is a special football player,” Cutcliffe said.   “He beats up a lot of people. We had a couple of defensive backs who came out of the game early after tackling him … a better word is attempting to tackle him.”

Meanwhile at Coral Gables, Johnson was delivering a 177-yard rushing, three-touchdown performance as Miami clinched bowl eligibility with 47-40 win over visiting North Carolina.

Johnson’s show featured a 90-yard touchdown dash that tied for the longest running play in Miami history, matching a record that had stood for nearly 60 years since Jack Losch covered the same amount of ground versus Bucknell on Nov. 11, 1955.

“There’s a difference between a talented running back and a skilled running back,” Miami coach Al Golden said in evaluating Johnson’s performance. “This guy is skilled right now.

Both running backs, along with Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, have been named semifinalists the 78th Maxwell Award, which goes annually to the nation’s top college football player. Conner was named the Maxwell Football Club’s National Player of the Week for his performance against Duke.

Look for more big numbers and more comparisons with past greats , along with constant acknowledgment by both players that neither is doing it alone.

“I think as an offense we are in a zone,” Johnson said of the Hurricanes. “We’re hitting in every way we can, passing and rushing. Guys up front are doing a great job week-in and week-out providing holes and protection so (quarterback) Brad Kaaya and I can do what we do best.”

It is no coincidence that Miami center Shane McDermott was recently named the ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week, or that Pitt tackle T.J. Clemmings has received the honor three times this season.

“James would be the first to admit – certainly the O‑line is a big part of it,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “It's something that the whole offense takes pride in – the tight ends, fullbacks, receivers.  And I think our line, in many different areas, has grown.”

Both running backs will rest this weekend, as the Hurricanes and Panthers are on bye weeks. Each team has three games remaining, beginning with Miami’s home test against defending national champion Florida State and Pitt’s trip to Coastal Division opponent North Carolina on Nov. 15.

And circle your calendar for Nov. 29. That is the day Conner and Johnson will stage a same-field showdown as Pitt travels to Miami for the regular-season finale.