PITTSBURGH — The University of Pittsburgh might have won the battle against Youngstown State, barely, 45-37 Saturday at Heinz Field, but it lost the war when star running back James Conner injured his right knee late in the first half.

Conner tallied 77 yards on eight carries and scored two touchdowns with a long run for 40 yards, but he didn’t play a down in the second half for precautionary reasons.

“James is fine,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We were just being cautious. I think we have a strong stable of backup backs. You can look at Qadree Ollison and the way he came in. Chris James was banged up a little bit. So, it’s good that we have a strong stable of backs.”

The game was close at that point, but an 89-yard kickoff return by sophomore Avonte Maddox and 71-yard scoring run by redshirt freshman tailback Ollison helped the Panthers pull away. Ollison finished with 207 yards rushing on just 16 carries in his debut.

“Coach Narduzzi is always preaching next man up, and we always preach that in the running backs room,” Ollison said. “We’re all about equal to each other. We believe anybody can go in there and get the job done if James goes down.”

Quarterback Chad Voytik overcame a fumble and several missed opportunities with a 55-yard touchdown toss to tight end Scott Orndoff. Elijah Zeise was in the area as well, but the YSU defender tackled him as Orndoff caught the pass.

“It was probably the luckiest touchdown pass I’ve been a part of,” Voytik said. “They were both wide open, but I was thinking don’t overthrow it like I did the other one. I was throwing it to Zeise and Scotty turned around and peeled on it, and good thing he did. … I think Scotty saved me there.”

Midway through the fourth quarter, however, the Pitt defense folded again to let the Penguins back in the game Quarterback Hunter Wells fired a 77-yard touchdown toss to wideout Andre Stubbs, as free safety Terrish Webb and sophomore strong safety Pat Amara badly trailed the play. There was no cornerback in the area.

Ollison shoved momentum back to Pitt with a 52-yard run to the goal line, and Voytik scored from there.

“We have a tremendous amount of confidence in our guys,” Voytik said. “We knew they were all capable of having a performance like they did. One guy comes out, the next guy comes in there to make a play.”

But YSU wasn’t done. On first down from the 25 after a kickoff into the end zone, Jody Webb burst 75 yards around left end for a touchdown. The Panthers went three-and-out, after allowing the kickoff to hit the ground and failing to return it, and added a 39-yard punt set up the Penguins in good field position near midfield. But the Pitt defense held on four downs, and the Panthers nearly ran out the clock to seal the win.

Pitt trailed early after YSU’s Zak Kennedy kicked a 22-yard field goal with 8:38 remaining in the opening quarter. The Panthers’ opening drive went nowhere after Conner’s four-yard run on first down, as two sideways plays netted just a few yards, and Ryan Winslow had to punt.

Two big pass plays by Wells and a 23-yard run by back Martin Ruiz made it first-and-goal at the 6 for the Penguins. But Pitt stiffened with Star Linebacker Nicholas Grigsby leading the stand and two stops on Ruiz.

Pitt’s coaches got smarter on the ensuing series and rode Conner. A 40-yard burst around end changed field position, and a 13-yard hammer into the end zone gave the Panthers a lead they never relinquished.

True to his word, Narduzzi put in backup quarterback Nate Peterman, inserting him for the third possession. A 42-yard completion to Dontez Ford flipped the field, and Conner capped the drive with a four-yard scoring run where he shredded an attempted tackle by a YSU D-back at the line and easily ran it in.

Peterman played a second straight series and threw an interception that was returned 41 yards for a touchdown. Voytik fumbled in YSU territory early in the second half, and those plays kept the Penguins in the game. Kennedy kicked a 42-yard field goal and added a 23-yarder after the fumble, while Pitt’s Chris Blewitt added a 45-yarder.

However, the play of the game was an 89-yard kickoff return by Maddox with 38 seconds remaining in the first half. It secured a 24-13 halftime advantage for the Panthers and was the first kick return for Pitt since Buddy Jackson’s runback in 2011.

“We’re going to get better,” Maddox said. “We have no option, but to get better. That was a little mixup between me and Laf (Lafayette Pitts). We needed a play, because we were going into half and they had just scored, so I had to make a play.”

With Conner on the bench in the second half, Pitt went with sophomore Chris James and freshman Ollison at running back. Ollison missed a block that led to Voytik’s fumble. But he ran for 46 yards to get Pitt out of a hole five minutes into the second quarter. On the next play, tight end Scott Orndoff was open in the flat on the left side and appeared to have a clear path for a touchdown, but Voytik badly overthrew him.

After an incompletion and short pass on third down, Blewitt lined up for a 36-yard field goal. A delay penalty pushed it to 41 yards, and the junior place-kicker could not connect from that distance. But Ollison ripped off a 71-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.

A little later in the quarter, YSU scored with 51 seconds remaining on a 27-yard touchdown run by quarterback Wells to cut Pitt’s lead to 31-23. It capped a 10-play, 82-yard drive that lasted 3:57.

Notes: The last time these two teams met, in 2012, YSU won 31-17, at Heinz Field in Coach Paul Chryst’s debut. … The attendance was 49,969.