Opposing players hardly, if ever, receive cheers in Keenan Stadium. This week will probably be the exception when James Connor and the Pittsburgh Panthers come to town. Connor has a truly remarkable story that is worthy of applause and recognition.
It has been a trying year and a half for Connor. It started in the first game of the 2015 season when he tore his MCL. Three months later, on December 4, 2015, Connor was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. There was serious doubt whether the stand-out running back would ever step on a football field again. Despite this skepticism, Connor battled courageously with an unwavering belief that he would play for the Panthers again. Six months later, James Connor announced that he was cancer free and would be ready for the start of the 2016 college football season.
As a human, this is one of the stories that makes your heart happy. A young man who had the odds stacked against him worked extremely hard to regain his health. James Connor is a warrior and for him to be playing football again is nothing short of remarkable.
On the field, Connor is one of the best running backs in college football. In 2014, Connor’s last full season, he was named the ACC player of the year after rushing for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns. Astonishingly, he has returned to his 2014 form so far in 2016. Through three games, James Connor has rushed for 281 yards and 3 touchdowns. He has topped the 100-yard mark in each of his past two games.
Connor is exactly the type of running back that could give the North Carolina defense fits. If the Tar Heels are going to beat the Panthers, they must stop Connor and the Pittsburgh rushing attack. James Connor is a physical running back who seeks out contact and usually takes more than one person to bring down. At six-foot-two and 235 pounds, his running style is very similar to that of Elijah Hood’s. With an already banged up defensive front, limiting Connor is going to be paramount for the Tar Heels.
North Carolina has not fixed its problems against the run so far in 2016. That was the biggest question mark for the Tar Heel football team in the offseason, and it is still the biggest concern for Larry Fedora and his staff. Through three games, North Carolina is ranked 106th in rushing defense giving up 226 yards a game on a 4.9 yards per rush average. On the other side, James Connor and the Pitt rushing attack ranks 21st nationally with a 239 yards per game average.
Last week against FCS foe James Madison, North Carolina did not look good against the run. The Heels surrendered 209 yards rushing, including three straight possessions in the first quarter where the Dukes scored a touchdown. If Carolina plays like that against Connor and Pitt, it is going to be a long day for the Heels defense. Whoever controls the trenches will come out victorious on Saturday afternoon.
James Connor is certainly a remarkable story and it is fantastic to see him on a football field again. Make no mistake, though, he is coming full force and if North Carolina is not ready he will exploit their weakest unit. The Tar Heel defense will have its hands full with James Connor and the Pittsburgh rushing attack, and he will provide a great test for Carolina. Whether the Heels can pass this test will be decided on Saturday afternoon.