James Conner was removed from Saturday's 45-37 victory against Youngstown State with a knee injury in the second quarter. He received ice and treatment on the sidelines but the injury wasn't expected to be serious.
Then Conner saw a doctor on Sunday, who discovered a torn MCL in Conner's right knee which will sideline the reigning ACC Player of the Year for the rest of the season.
"We thought it was okay," head coach Pat Narduzzi said. "He’s jumping around and enthusiastic, saying ‘coach I’m fine.' But after further evaluation, doctors looked at him on Sunday. He’s got a knee issue that’s going to need repaired and we’ll probably, I shouldn’t say probably, we will. It’s hard to believe. We’ll probably lose him for the season with an MCL."
Narduzzi said Conner will have surgery this week. Conner ran for 1,765 yards and broke Tony Dorsett's program record with 26 touchdowns in 2014.
Postgame Saturday, Narduzzi even said against an ACC opponent Conner probably would have stayed in the game. Further investigation revealed otherwise.
The loss is not only a worst-case scenario for the Panthers and their best player, but a gut-wrenching one.
"There’s not a guy that’s worked harder than him during camp," Narduzzi said. "I don’t think he missed a snap, a play, a practice. I don’t think there’s anybody hurt more than him and just disappointed for him and his family."
Narduzzi mentioned the possibility of avoiding surgery and seeing Conner return later this season, but it is in Conner's best interests to have his knee repaired now.
"They can brace it up for five or six weeks then come out of that and see how it works and maybe lose him for half the season," Narduzzi said. "But I don’t think that’s right for him as a player and his future."
Speaking of Conner's future, Narduzzi would not even begin to address what the injury's impact is on the running back's prospective return to Pitt or foray into the NFL next season.
The head coach did not inform of the team of the news himself but allowed Conner to do it Sunday night.
"It was difficult telling you guys (the media)," Narduzzi said. "I didn’t tell the team. James went around, after lift last night, and told some guys, so they got to know. I thought he should be the one to tell his team."
One of those players informed was center Artie Rowell, who played Saturday 365 days to the date he tore his ACL against Boston College last season.
"James was upset," Rowell said. "Personally, I know how he feels. I went through it a year ago. One year and two days ago to be exact."
Conner's last rush came with 10:54 remaining in the second quarter. He took a handoff out of the shotgun, ran off the right tackle and cut upfield before he was tackled.
At no point did Conner take a severe and he ran uninterrupted on the play. He got up on his own power and jogged off the field, but could be seen grimacing as he went to the sidelines when the game broadcast showed a close-up shot.
"I didn’t see the exact play," Rowell said. "But I’m sure it’s something that felt so small and so miniscule, it kind of just takes everything from you."
In a statement, the Conner family said the news left it with "very heavy hearts" but it is "confident that this is just a small setback for James."
"He will handle his recovery and rehabilitation with the same determination and force that he has displayed on the field," the family said. "We know that James is in great hands with the training and medical Staff at Pitt and we are already counting the days until he can run the ball as a Panther once again."