Play of Pitt freshmen builds confidence for future

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DETROIT — When quarterback Chad Voytik stepped into the huddle for the second half Thursday night in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, Tyler Boyd wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Of course, he had confidence in Voytik, a redshirt freshman playing his first real game experience, from the passes the two had connected on in practices. But game situations have can sometimes throw a wrench in the best-laid plans.

Voytik took over the second drive of the half on the Pitt 2. After a couple of plays moved the ball out of the shadow of the end zone, the Panthers called a play that had Boyd going deep down the right sideline.

“When [Chad] got in that huddle, he gave me that eye like, ‘Be ready,’” Boyd said. “He was more confident than me going into the play. I saw that he had my back, so I had his back for sure. Once we broke the huddle, went out there, we were locked and loaded. I knew I was going to have to beat him with a double move and I knew the ball was going to be right where it had to be.”

Sure enough, the pass was right on the money for a 62-yard gain and one of the concerns about Voytik — his arm strength — appeared to be unfounded. In more immediate returns, the pass set up the Panthers for a go-ahead touchdown drive two plays later.

Voytik, Boyd and freshman running back James Conner — who set a Pitt bowl record with 229 rushing yards in the Panthers’ 30-27 win against Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl at Ford Field — provided nearly all of the spark Thursday night for the Pitt offense.

They also gave fans some hope looking forward for the program under coach Paul Chryst. All freshmen, Voytik, Boyd and Conner have at least two more years together in Pitt uniforms.

“The confidence going into next season and the experience … you can’t replace it,” Voytik said.

Voytik spent most of 2013 on the bench behind starter Tom Savage, who played through various injuries for most of the season. After a rib injury on the final play of the first half, Savage tried to put his shoulder pads back on for the second, but just couldn’t go, forcing Voytik into duty.

“It’s nerve-wracking, not going to lie,” Voytik said of being the backup. “Tom’s battled through some injuries this year and he’s a tough kid. You just have to have your helmet ready at all times, stay in the game plan.”

After the game, Voytik credited Conner, noting that it was easy to play quarterback with a running back that was moving the ball so easily.

Behind a makeshift offensive line, Conner bruised and pounded his way into the history books, breaking a record set by one of Pitt’s all-time greats — Tony Dorsett.

“It feels awesome being a part of history,” Conner said. “But I wasn’t too concerned with that. I didn’t know how many yards I had. When coach called my number, I just continued to run. I wasn’t like, ‘When am I breaking the record?’”

Perhaps even more impressive was that Conner made one of the game-saving plays on the final drive — playing on defense.

With Pitt limited at defensive end due to injuries, Conner played as a pass-rusher in most passing downs.

Chryst was coy when asked if Conner could be a two-way player long term, only noting “He’s pretty good.”

Voytik was a bit more effusive in his praise of Conner’s versatility.

“He’s an animal,” he said. “We’re going to use him so much in the future. I can’t wait to see how we’re going to use him.”

Sam Werner: and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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