Pittsburgh, Northwestern take bowl cuts at Yankee Stadium
James Conner called his shot before he digs in at Yankee Stadium.
Conner, Pittsburgh's star running back, announced he would skip his senior season and declare for the NFL draft and also play for the Panthers against Northwestern in the Pinstripe Bowl.
He bucked the 2016 trend of draft prospects bypassing a bowl game to protect their NFL futures for one last game with his teammates. Conner also reversed his decision to wait to announce his fate until after Pitt's bowl game.
''I didn't want to go into the bowl game having the attention be on me,'' Conner said.
The New York spotlight will shine on Conner in his final game as he tries and cap what's been a solid season and boasted of wins over Clemson and Penn State for the Panthers (8-4). Conner proved he could handle the attention that comes with developing into one of the best running backs in football during a comeback season from a cancer diagnosis that turned him into an inspirational figure for others in the same fight.
Conner had the unconditional support of his coaches and teammates during his battle Hodgkin lymphoma. He wasn't about to bail on the Panthers in a bowl game against Northwestern (6-6).
He had a personal goal for playing in the bowl game, as well.
''I'm showing the scouts I can be back to my normal self and that I can compete at a high level after everything I've been through,'' he said.
Back to his normal self?
Conner could hardly be more potent out of the backfield had he never been jolted with the life-changing diagnosis. The Empire State Building was lit this week in Northwestern purple and white and Pittsburgh gold and navy in honor of the game. Conner lit the scoreboard just as boldly for Pitt.
The ACC's career touchdown leader could have bolted for the NFL last year until he was derailed by a torn MCL in his right knee in the 2015 season opener and a very public battle with Hodgkin lymphoma last winter. Conner underwent months of draining treatment but returned in time for fall practice and gained strength as the season wore on. He finished with 1,060 yards rushing and 20 total touchdowns to push his career total to an ACC-record 56.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Conner is far from a surefire early-round NFL pick, so punishing the Wildcats could be the final push he needs to improve his draft stock. He wants Pitt to eventually retire his No. 24. But for a player who's faced more grinding obstacles than the toughest defense could throw in his path, the one-day-at-a-time motto is more than a cliche - it's a way of life.
''I don't even look a week ahead because, especially me, you don't know what's going to pop up,'' he said.
Here are some other things to know about the Pinstripe Bowl:
TAKE ME OUT TO THE BOWL GAME: George Steinbrenner was known in New York as ''The Boss.'' Could he have instead been known as ''Coach?'' Steinbrenner, the longtime New York Yankees owner who died in 2010, spent one season as an assistant coach at Northwestern. The Wildcats went 0-8-1 in 1955 - the kind of record that would have got on Steinbrenner's Yankee managers famously fired. Steinbrenner later endowed an athletic scholarship at Northwestern.
Steinbrenner wanted the new Yankee Stadium built to accommodate college football and this will be the seventh Pinstripe Bowl played there.
PLAYOFF WRINKLE: Under coach Pat Narduzzi, the Panthers threw a bit of wrinkle in the College Football Playoff. They were the only team to beat No. 2 Clemson and handed Big Ten champions Penn State one of its two losses. Who knows, but had Penn State defeated the Panthers, perhaps the Nittany Lions would be in a playoff game.
FITZGERALD'S FUN: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is longtime friends with Yankees manager Joe Girardi. Girardi played college baseball at Northwestern. Fitzgerald has led the Wildcats to seven bowl games in the last nine seasons - with only one win. His 76 career wins at Northwestern are tops on the school's career list. He's one of eight active FBS coaches that are the career leader in wins at the school.
The Wildcats rallied from an 0-2 start to reach their latest bowl game.
WELCOME BACK: Pitt played twice at old Yankee Stadium. The Panthers defeated Army in 1962 and lost to Syracuse in 1923.
FINAL FAREWELL: Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada will call the shots for the final time before he leaves for the same position at LSU where he can eat all the gumbo.
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