September 26, 2014
Pitt running back James Conner (24) eludes the tackle of Iowa defensive back Anthony Gair (12) during a first-quarter run in an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar)
Gene Puskar

PITTSBURGH (AP) Paul Chryst knows the game will come when the Pittsburgh Panthers need to throw the ball to win.

Until that day comes, he's happy giving it to James Conner as many times as necessary.

The sophomore running back leads the nation in rushing through the first four weeks, his 699 yards the most at this point in the season by any player in Pitt's 125-year history.

And yet Conner insists there is room for improvement. While he piled up 155 yards and a touchdown in last week's 24-20 loss to Iowa, he spent some of the aftermath watching replays of his second half. He burst for 24 yards on the first play of the third quarter but managed just 23 over his final 11 carries in part because he tried to turn every run into a gamechanger.

''I thought I could have done a couple things different,'' Conner said. ''Kept it (straight-ahead) more instead of breaking it to the outside.''

Conner and a dominant offensive line will try to get back on track Saturday when the Panthers (3-1) host struggling Akron (1-2). The Zips are coming off a 48-17 loss to Marshall in which the Thundering Herd rolled to 284 yards rushing. And they're a passing team led by senior quarterback Rakeem Cato.

Pitt is built in a starkly different manner. While the development of sophomore quarterback Chad Voytik is vital if the Panthers want to contend in a wide-open ACC Coastal Division, Chryst can live with his team's current imbalance. Pitt is running the ball 70 percent of the time.

''I'd rather be 70/30 run-pass than 30/70 right now,'' he said.

No chance of that happening as Pitt attempts to regain its momentum before heading into the teeth of its ACC schedule while Akron searches for its first points in three all-time meetings with the Panthers.

HANGING CHAD: Voytik passed for a career-high 250 yards against Iowa but missed sophomore Tyler Boyd on a pair of fourth-quarter throws when the Panthers were driving. Chryst praised Voytik's progress but allowed that he needs to develop a better rapport with targets not named Boyd, who has 21 receptions and four of Pitt's five receiving touchdowns.

''I love the way he's working. but he's probably the first to admit he's not where he wants to be,'' Chryst said of Voytik.

SLUMPING ZIPS: Akron has two touchdowns in its last two games, both of them meaningless scores in the fourth quarter of last week's blowout loss to Marshall. Injuries have been an issue but so has the inability of the Zips' spread offense to get anything going. Akron is averaging 377 yards a game, 89th in the country, including just 91 yards a game on the ground. Quarterback Kyle Pohl leads Akron in rushing with just 69 yards.

''We've played two pretty good teams,'' coach Terry Bowden said. ''But we've got to run the ball better.''

NO PRESSURE: Pitt's defense didn't collapse against Iowa. The Panthers didn't do much to make life difficult for quarterbacks Luke Rudock and C.J. Beathard either. Pitt didn't register a sack and allowed Beathard to breathe some life into the Hawkeyes with a big 62-yard completion to start the second half in which he had all day to throw. That needs to change for Pitt to be a threat in the ACC.

COMING HOME (KIND OF): Bowden grew up in West Virginia while his dad coached the Mountaineers and played at WVU in the late 1970s. That gave him plenty of opportunities to see the Panthers, a longtime rival of the Mountaineers who used to meet annually in the now discontinued ''Backyard Brawl.''

BUSY BOYD: Conner isn't the only Panther making history. Boyd's 10 receptions against Iowa gave him 101 in his 17 career games, tying Larry Fitzgerald for the school record for the fewest games to reach the 100-catch mark.

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