PITTSBURGH — James Conner and Tyler Boyd signed with Pittsburgh to help permanently swing the fortunes of a school that can't seem to stop stubbing its toe whenever sustained success seems within reach.
As far as the two sophomore stars have come in a short time, they're still learning. So are their teammates.
Pitt let a 10-point halftime lead slip away in a 24-20 loss to Iowa on Saturday that prevented the Panthers from getting off to their first 4-0 start since 2000. Conner ran for 155 yards and a touchdown but was limited to just 23 over his final 11 carries.
"We want to change the program, turn it around from where we've been in the previous years but it's not just going to happen overnight," Conner said. "It's not going to happen in one season. It takes time. I think we're heading in the right direction still."
Boyd caught 10 passes for 153 yards but Pitt's last two drives ended with Chad Voytik passes sailing over his head.
"It is what it is," Boyd said. "You can't take nothing back. The throw was a little high but I can't blame him because it's a team thing. Got to make it better next week."
Voytik threw for a career-high 250 yards with an interception on the game's final snap. He played spectacularly at times, extending plays with his feet at times and stepping up in the pocket to deliver balls in the face of a pass rush during others.
Still, it wasn't enough keep Pitt (3-1) from enduring the kind of early season misstep that seems to come with frustrating regularity.
Two years ago it was Youngstown State. Three years ago it was on the road at Iowa, where a 17-point fourth-quarter lead vanished. In 2010 it was Utah. In 2009 it was N.C. State. In 2008 it was Bowling Green. Add another one to the pile after Iowa's Mark Weisman ran for 88 yards and two touchdowns, including a 1-yard plunge with 6:56 remaining to give the Hawkeyes (3-1) their first lead.
"A game like that just comes down to a few plays," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "They made them and we didn't."
Not in the second half anyway.
Iowa came in seventh in the country against the run allowing all of 65 yards a game. Conner needed all of a quarter to top that total. Churning relentlessly behind a rapidly improving offensive line, Conner continued the best start by a running back in school history. He now has 699 yards on the season, well ahead of the pace set by Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett in 1976.
Where Dorsett was a balletic mix of speed and grace, Conner is all blunt instrument. His 22-yard burst on Pitt's second possession set up a 13-yard dash by Chris James, the first rushing touchdown surrendered by the Hawkeyes this season. It was symbolic of a half in which the Panthers outgained the Hawkeyes 262-128.
"We were getting worked pretty good there in the first half, I really can't remember getting worked like that," Ferentz said. "They pretty much did anything that they wanted to do."
Conner started the third quarter by bulling his way 24 yards on the first play from scrimmage. Then the mistakes started to pile up. The drive stalled at the Iowa 36 and Pitt punted.
Iowa backup quarterback C.J. Beathard - pressed into action when starter Jake Rudock went down with a knee injury - hit Damond Powell for a 62-yard gain to jumpstart the Hawkeyes and Weisman followed with a 10-yard sprint into the end zone for his first score.
The teams traded field goals and the Hawkeyes went in front following a plodding 13-play, 52-yard drive that included a pair of fourth-down conversions and ended with Weisman vaulting into the end zone.
Pitt had two opportunities to take the lead but Voytik couldn't hit Boyd on fourth-and-10 with less than 2 minutes to play. The Panthers drove into Iowa territory in the waning seconds but Voytik's pass over the middle to Boyd sailed high and into the arms of Iowa safety Anthony Gair.
The Hawkeyes raced onto the field in celebration after righting their season following a stunning loss to rival Iowa State a week ago. The Panthers trudged to the locker room in shock but resolute better days are ahead.
"I said (to the guys) everything that we want to do is still intact," senior safety Ray Vinopal said. "We can achieve all our goals and win the ACC. It's still a 12-game season and we have eight ahead of us."
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