Chris Blewitt kicked the game-winning field goal while true freshmen James Conner and Tyler Boyd made numerous big plays as the Pitt Panthers ended their season with a 30-27 Little Caesars Bowl victory against Bowling Green on Thursday night in Detroit.
Pitt finished at 7-6, the first winning season under second-year coach Paul Chryst, while Bowling Green fell to 10-4. In addition to the contributions of Conner and Boyd, redshirt freshmen quarterback Chad Voytik stepped in for an injured Tom Savage in the second half and led the Panthers to their final 13 points.
Conner, named the Pizza Bowl MVP, finished the game with 26 rushes for 229 yards and a touchdown, and he also played defense for the Panthers at times. Boyd finished the game with eight receptions for 173 yards, while All-American Aaron Donald was named Defensive Lineman of the game.
Pitt had just six offensive linemen make the trip to Ford Field, and senior receiver Devin Street was inactive due to injury, but this did not stop the Panthers’ run game from putting up big numbers against the MAC champions. The Falcons opened up the scoring with a field goal after the drive began with a kick-catch interference penalty, but Pitt responded as Boyd broke Larry Fitzgerald’s record for receiving yards by a freshman, surpassing 1,017 yards. With 58 seconds left in the first quarter, Conner had a 15-yard rushing TD to put Pitt up 7-3.
In Pitt’s next possession, Boyd caught a 46-yard pass from Savage, and the Panthers converted a fourth and 1. Savage passed Dan Marino and Alex Van Pelt for passing yards in a season, and Blewitt converted a field goal to put Pitt up 10-3. The defense had numerous big stops, and this was followed by a 54-yard punt return touchdown by Boyd, the first since Darrelle Revis’ seven years ago.
Pitt stopped Bowling Green on the next possession, but then Donald, who was double and triple-teamed for most of the game, committed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. The Falcons got a fourth-down TD pass to tight end Alex Bayer to make it a 17-10 game. Before the end of the first half, Savage suffered a rib injury and missed the remainder of the game. Chryst indicated that Pitt needed to keep their poise and composure in the second half.
To start the third quarter, the Falcons’ BooBoo Gates returned a kickoff TD to make it 17-17, as questionable roughing penalties were committed by both sides and negated because the score was deemed to have happened first. Bowling Green and Pitt matched field goals to make it a 20-20 game entering the fourth.
In the final quarter, Voytik completed a 62-yard pass to Boyd, followed by a 5-yard Voytik rushing score to cap a six-play, 98-yard drive. Moments later, Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson connected with Ryan Burbrink to tie the game at 27-27. But the Falcons had no answer for Conner, as he surpassed a Pitt bowl record set by Tony Dorsett in the 1977 Sugar Bowl.
Blewitt hit a 39-yard field goal to put Pitt up 30-27 with 1:18 to go, and the defense stepped up with two key sacks to force the Falcons into a fourth and 40. Pitt wreaked havoc on the line, compiling a total of seven sacks. With all of the freshmen contributing for Pitt, the next few seasons are looking very bright.