Pittsburgh's James Conner may remind Iowa of Weisman's fast start in 2013

Andrew Logue
Sep 13, 2014: Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner (24) runs for a touchdown in fourth quarter in a game against the FIU Golden Panthers at FIU Stadium. Pitt won 42-25.

A big, bruising tailback is plowing through defenses and steering his football team toward a return to glory.

The only problem is, Pittsburgh's James Conner is bound to take a pounding.

"I'm not worried about how much he wants it as much as what we need and if he's doing something with it," Panthers coach Paul Chryst said last week. "I've worked with a lot of backs. We feel like we've got a pretty good gauge for workloads."

Sound familiar, Iowa fans?

When the Hawkeyes visit Pittsburgh for Saturday's 11 a.m. contest at Heinz Field, you might notice something familiar about the opposing offense.

A year ago, Mark Weisman ran the ball 85 times in Iowa's first three games for a total of 425 yards (an average of 5.0 yards per carry).

He helped the Hawkeyes rebound from a 4-8 finish in 2012 to an 8-4 regular season in 2013, but the heavy workload took a toll. Injuries mounted and Weisman fell 25 yards short of the 1,000 plateau.

The 6-foot, 240-pound Weisman ran 60 times in Iowa's final three games for a total of 198 yards (an average of 3.3 per carry).

"I've got a tremendous amount of respect for (Hawkeye) coach (Kirk) Ferentz," Chryst said during his Monday press conference. "He believes in a physical offense, physical defense. You've got to work to get yards. It's a sound defense and they've got good players."

Conner has run 80 times for 543 yards while helping Pittsburgh to its first 3-0 start in five years.

The 6-2, 250-pound sophomore from Erie, Pa., is starting to evoke memories of past Panther greats.

His 543 yards in the opening three games eclipsed a school record of 478, set by Tony Dorsett in 1973.

Dorsett went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1976 before becoming an NFL star and Hall of Famer.

"I know Tony Dorsett probably worked hard to get that record, and I worked hard," Conner told reporters after rushing for 177 yards Saturday against Florida International. "But it's a team game and I'm not really thinking about that.

"We've still got some bigger games down the line, and I just want to stay consistent throughout the whole season."

Conner, who had 146 rushing attempts all of last season, is one of just five running backs from a Power 5 conference since 2009 to run for at least 150 yards in four straight games.

His streak started with 229 yards against Bowling Green State in last December's Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, are allowing 65.7 rushing yards per game and an average of 2.3 per carry.

"The numbers are misleading in a lot of things," Chryst said of Pittsburgh's rushing attack. "We can do a better job of receivers blocking. We can do a better job, certainly, of getting to the second level.

"There's a lot of things we can be better at."