For the past few games, it might have been easy to forget that Isaac Bennett came into the season expected to be Pitt's leading running back this year.
He made sure everyone remembered Saturday night.
With freshman James Conner nursing a shoulder injury, Bennett burst loose in Pitt's 35-24 win against Old Dominion at Heinz Field.
The junior ran for 240 yards and three touchdowns, both career highs, on 30 carries against the Monarchs' porous defense.
"I can't even remember the last time I had 30 carries in a game, if ever," Bennett said. "It's always fun to have them hand me the ball and have confidence in me."
While the Old Dominion couldn't stop Pitt's offense, the Monarchs' offense gave the Panthers a scare early and made it interesting late.
The Monarchs jumped out to a 10-0 lead after the first quarter as Pitt struggled to contained quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who finished with 31 completions on 52 attempts for 313 yards and two touchdowns and a late interception. He also ran for 23 yards.
On Old Dominion's first drive, Heinicke marched his team 65 yards on a drive capped by a 15-yard touchdown pass to Marquel Thomas. The drive was aided by a third-down conversion near midfield on a pass-interference penalty against Pitt cornerback Lafayette Pitts.
"I think their quarterback's as good as advertised," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "We had to fight for that one, and the guys did."
The Monarchs extended their lead on their final drive of the first quarter when Jarod Brown made a 54-yard field goal. The kick set a new Heinz Field record for both college and NFL kickers, breaking the previous mark set by both Pitt's Kevin Harper and the Steelers' Jeff Reed.
Brown had two more attempts from 54 yards in the second quarter, but both came up short.
The Pitt defense stiffened in the second quarter, holding the Monarchs to 54 total yards.
At the same time, Bennett began running roughshod through Old Dominion's defense. He racked up 96 yards and three touchdowns on nine carries in the second quarter.
His second touchdown came after Pitt receiver Kevin Weatherspoon nearly returned an Old Dominion punt for a touchdown. Weatherspoon took the ball 56 yards -- Pitt's longest punt return since Darrelle Revis took one 73 yards in 2006 -- to Old Dominion's 12. Bennett punched it in three plays later on a three-yard touchdown run.
Bennett's final touchdown of the half, a 16-yard run with 36 seconds left in the second quarter, put Pitt up,, 21-10, at halftime.
"You're always hoping that you can get something going in the run game, but you never really do know exactly how the game's going to play out," Chryst said.
"I thought Isaac ran hard, and a lot of guys worked their tails off up front to make things happen."
It was an impressive show from Bennett, who had seen his carries decrease in favor of Conner. In wins against Duke and Virginia, Bennett had just 17 combined carries to Conner's 41. But Conner injured his shoulder in the loss against Virginia Tech last week, and, while he dressed Saturday he did not play, giving Bennett his time to shine.
"He's just the type of guy you want to have on your team," Pitt quarterback Tom Savage said of Bennett.
"Obviously, with James coming out doing what he did, a lot of juniors could kind of put their head down. [Bennett] always has a smile on his face. He goes out there and loves the game. It couldn't happen to a better person."
The Panthers continued pounding the ball in the second half, with Bennett running eight times for 60 yards on Pitt's opening drive of the third quarter, which ended on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Savage to Manasseh Garner. Even with Pitt ahead, 28-10, the game wasn't out of reach for the Monarchs.
Old Dominion scored on a 47-yard touchdown pass from Heinicke to Blair Roberts on its next drive, then Brown deftly recovered his own onside kick to give the Monarchs the ball back.
Five plays later, Antonio Vaughan ran 17 yards for a touchdown that cut Pitt's lead to 28-24.
The Monarchs got the ball back with a chance to take the lead, but their drive stalled, and Savage punched in a five-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to put Pitt up 35-24 and restore the double-digit lead.
Savage finished the game 11 of 18 for 104 yards and one touchdown, but was only sacked twice after going down 15 times over the past two games.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG First Published October 19, 2013 6:49 PM