Pitt's Bennett takes his big game in stride

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Pitt quarterback Tom Savage admitted it would have been easy for junior running back Isaac Bennett to "put his head down" after seeing his carries decrease the past four weeks.

Instead, Bennett responded Saturday with the best game of his career, gaining 240 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries in Pitt's 35-24 win against Old Dominion at Heinz Field.

"I just focused in and did my part," Bennett said. "It always feels good to run the ball a lot."

In the first two games, Bennett and freshman James Conner split the carries roughly 50-50. Starting with the Panthers' win Sept. 21 against Duke, Conner began taking on a heavier workload. In Pitt's 14-3 win Sept. 28 against Virginia, Conner had 15 carries and Bennett just five.

Still, Bennett never sulked and showed up with his trademark smile every day at practice.

"I'm a team player, first and foremost," Bennett said. "I've been like that since playing as a kid. It's all about the team and sometimes you've got to step back and play your role."

Conner got hurt early in Pitt's loss last week to Virginia Tech, but Bennett still only had seven carries as Pitt's running game faltered.

It broke loose Saturday night, as the Panthers rushed for 266 yards as a team.

Bennett said he found out over the course of the week that Conner didn't expect to play against the Monarchs, and that he likely would carry the brunt of the rushing load. He was ready for it.

"I know these past couple of games, we haven't had much success running the ball or whatever," Bennett said. "This week kind of opened everybody's eyes, showed that we can run the ball. Let's run the ball and let's win."

Like any good running back, Bennett credited his success to the offensive line, which did show improvement Saturday albeit against a weaker opponent. In addition to opening huge holes for Bennett, the line relinquished only two sacks of quarterback Tom Savage after he had been taken down 15 times in Pitt's two previous games.

"I think it has to be a combination of both [line play and skill positions]," Savage said. "The offensive line, they did a heck of a job [Saturday]. Isaac, he ran strong and aggressive."

Even though he didn't play, Conner was in uniform Saturday and is expected to return to action this week when Pitt travels to Navy. Pitt coaches have been adamant all season, even when Conner was getting most of the work, that the distribution of carries is determined on a week-to-week basis depending on who is running better.

After Bennett's showing, that decision likely will be a bit tougher.

"I just do my part," he said. "If they want to give me the ball, I'm glad to take it and get some yards to help the team. I'm looking forward to [Conner] coming back next week."

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Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published October 20, 2013 8:00 PM


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