The Pitt Panthers football team is set to wrap up its inaugural Atlantic Coast Conference campaign with a Little Caesars Bowl matchup against Mid-American Conference champion Bowling Green. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. Thursday at Detroit’s Ford Field.
The 10-3 Bowling Green Falcons, led by quarterback Matt Johnson (3,195 yards, 23 TDs, 7 INTs) and running back Travis Greene (1,555 yards, 11 TDs) are coming off an impressive 47-27 victory over the previously 14th-ranked and undefeated Northern Illinois Huskies.
The Pitt Panthers have had multiple highs and lows this season, including a thrilling 58-55 win at Duke and a 28-21 victory against rival Notre Dame at a sold-out Heinz Field. Pitt opened up its much anticipated first year in the ACC with a 41-13 loss to the current No. 1 team in the nation, the Florida State Seminoles, led by Jameis Winston (25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and 4 TDs) en route to becoming the second straight freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
As for making a judgment on the success of Pitt’s season, it appears as though the program has found a level of stability under the realm of Paul Chryst, coaching in his second season for the Panthers. Though fans really want Pitt to become a consistent winner, this program has endured coaching turmoil since the resignation of Dave Wannstedt.
Many people predicted Pitt to have a losing season, based on the transfer of star freshman running back Rushel Shell, who had set the WPIAL high school rushing record with 9,078 yards at Hopewell. This was not the case, as Pitt found instant help and SportsCenter Top 10 plays by true freshmen such as RB/WR/athlete Tyler Boyd from Clairton and RB James Conner from Erie.
Aside from these two playmakers, Paul Chryst had no problem giving the nod to over 15 freshmen who played in the opening game against Florida State. Although Pitt has recently missed out on a few local WPIAL recruits, there is much hope for the future, as Pitt is in a much better situation in the ACC compared to the Big East (now the American Athletic Conference).
Senior QB Tom Savage was at the helm for the Panthers, replacing three-year starter Tino Sunseri, and threw for 2,834 yards with 21 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Junior RB Isaac Bennett rushed for 795 yards and 7 scores, while freshman James Connor added 570 yards and 7 TDs.
Boyd finished with 1,001 yards receiving and 7 TDs, while senior WR Devin Street finished with 854 yards and 7 TDs. Street became Pitt’s all-time leader in receptions, surpassing 178 receptions by Latef Grim, whereas Boyd finished with 77 catches in his first season, passing the freshmen school record of 69 set by the great Larry Fitzgerald.
On defense, Pitt struggled at times against Florida State, Duke and Miami, but defensive end Aaron Donald from Penn Hills was a force to be reckoned with. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly called Donald “a one-man wrecking crew,” as he lead the nation in tackles for loss (2.2 per game), and ranked 13th in sacks (0.83 per game) and 10th in forced fumbles (0.33 per game).
Donald is second in the FBS for active career quarterback sacks with 28.5. The list of awards for the first-team All-American and ACC Defensive Player of the Year are quite impressive and include the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Nation’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player), Rotary Lombardi Award (Nation’s Most Outstanding Lineman or Linebacker), Chuck Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year) and the Outland Trophy (Nation’s Best Offensive of Defensive Interior Lineman).
If Pitt can maintain its new level of stability, and Chryst continues to recruit the type of players he needs, there is no reason the Panthers cannot compete for an ACC championship every year. The atmospheres in Heinz Field for the Florida State and Notre Dame games were incredible, and these could become the norm, resulting from a winner.
Pittsburgh fans love winners and will certainly support the Panthers if the situation arises – look at what the Pirates accomplished at PNC Park this past year. Pitt will soon be renewing its rivalry with Penn State, and this will definitely be fun to watch.
Pitt fans, there is reason for optimism, and the Panthers also have bragging rights over WVU and Penn State, which will not be participating in bowl festivities this year. It would certainly be a step in the right direction with a bowl victory over Bowling Green, to finish off a winning season.
Brett Tunno is a new addition to the City of Champions staff. Follow him on Twitter @BJoseph21.