For those who say there's too many bowl games, don't tell that to Paul Chryst and his Pitt team.
Gaining eligibility with a 6-6 record, the Panthers took advantage of the extra game to propel a number of significant roles, which leads to increased optimism, following a 30-27 win over Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
"We obviously have some great young talent and that's why we are so confident about the future of this program," head coach Paul Chryst said. "We think we're in great shape going forward."< /p>
Freshman James Conner, who leading up to the game, practiced some at defensive end rushed for 229 yards and a touchdown, taking home Game MVP honors. Senior defensive lineman Aaron Donald was named Lineman of the Game.
Tyler Boyd finished with eight receptions for 173 yards, and a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown.
If that wasn't enough, Conner and Boyd set new Pitt records tonight. Conner's 229 yards surpassed the 202 that Tony Dorsett rushed for against Georgia back in the 1977 Sugar Bowl. Boyd's receiving performance eclipsed the previous mark of 163 yards, set by Gordon Jones in the 1977 Gator Bowl against Clemson.
"After the last game, coach told me they wanted to unleash me on both sides of the ball, so I've been getting a lot of reps both ways," Conner said. "I was pretty tired by the end, but I wasn't going to tap out. They kept giving me the ball, so I just kept running."
Pitt couldn't convert a first down on either of its first two drives of the game. Bowling Green drove inside the Pitt ten, looking to score, before Tyrone Ezell sacked Johnson for a five-yard loss. The sack forced Bowling Green to settle for a 28-yard field goal from Tyler Tate. The Falcons led 3-0, following the 11-play, 50-yard drive.
It looked like Bowling Green had Pitt's defense figured out, thanks to completions of 17 and 18 yards from Johnson, as well as a 10-yard run from Johnson. Ezell's sack of Johnson on a third-and-goal at the Pitt four, kept him in check.
On that drive, Conner made his debut at defensive end. The freshman running back had been practicing there in preparations leading to the bowl game. On Pitt's third series of the game, Conner rushed five times for 39 yards, out of a possible seven plays for 50 yards. That included a 15-yard touchdown run that gave Pitt its first lead of the game, 7-3, with under a minute to play in the first half.
Pitt tacked on a field goal in the second quarter, extending the lead to 10-3. It looked like a drive that was heading for a touchdown, considering Pitt started from its own 15 with a 46-yard completion from Savage to Boyd.
Boyd was wide-open on the reception, but it was the improvisation after the play. He had just one man to beat, who caught him after Boyd broke one tackle.
Pitt got into the red zone on the legs of Conner, who rushed five times for 25 yards, including a 15-yarder off tackle that got the Panthers to the Bowling Green 20. Savage then targeted his first receiver not named Boyd, J.P. Holtz for a gain of 13. Savage put a nice touch on the ball, ahead of Holtz, in a comfortable spot away from the defender.
Pitt couldn't convert inside the five, leading to a 25-yard field goal, and a 10-3 Pitt lead.
The Pitt defense answered the call again, as Ray Vinopal and Nicholas Grigsby came up with sacks, forcing the Falcons to punt again. Boyd put a big footprint on the game, returning the punt 46 yards for a touchdown. Pitt led 17-3, getting major contributions from several true freshmen, and some others who stepped up.
"I knew I had to stay inbounds, because I'm not in the goal-line package," Boyd said. "So if I stepped out, I wouldn't get a chance to score."
Things continued to go Pitt's way, as Grigsby came up with his second sack of the game, Pitt's fifth. Bowling Green was heading for another punt, whe Aaron Donald was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after the whistle. Instead of punting, it gave Bowling Green a first down, and new life. Seven plays later, Johnson hit Alex Bayer for a 29-yard score, making it a 17-10 Pitt lead, with just under two minutes left in the first half.
Pitt did get some yardage on its final drive of the first half. Boyd made another big grab, this time for 29 yards. The drive ended with a Pitt punt.
Bowling Green took over at its own one yard-line, following the punt. They ran out the clock, trailing 17-10 at the half. Still, there was a sense of irony that several younger players stepped up to give Pitt a 17-3 lead. Yet, it was Pitt's all-world player in Donald that committed a costly penalty, which led to Bowling Green getting back on its feet.
Bowling Green wasted no time at all tying the score to start the second half. BooBoo Gates returned the opening kick, untouched, 94 yards for a touchdown. Keep in mind, with just over six minutes left in the first half, Pitt was up by two touchdowns. In a short span of minutes, Bowling Green evened it up.
Tom Savage did not return to start the second half, as Chad Voytik took the reins. Savage left the game with bruised ribs, giving way to Voytik. He engineered a field goal attempt on his first drive of the game. Chris Blewitt's 39-yarder was wide left, but the drive did see a career-long 45-yard run from Conner.
Bowling Green did convert a field goal on its first offensive series of the half, a 46-yarder by Tate. The Falcons regained the lead, 20-17, with 9:52 left in the third quarter. Pitt answered Bowling Green's 3-0 lead with 17 points. Bowling Green answered Pitt's lead with 17 points of its own.
Blewitt got his shot ad redemption, converting a 28-yarder to tie it back up at 20-20. Conner, again, game up big on the drive. He had a 25-yarder to get Pitt in to Bowling Green territory, then a seven-yarder to get them inside the ten.
Following a 67-yard punt from Brian Schmiedebusch, Pitt took over at its own two. Tested for the first time of the game, Voytik connected with Manasseh Garner for a gain of 20, converting a third-and-five. Voytik later hooked up with Boyd for a gain of 62, setting Pitt up at the Bowling Green seven. He capped the drive two plays later, scrambling in from five yards out.
"The experience, you just can't replace it," Voytik said. "To get the win for these seniors, I can't say enough about that group.I was just glad to get out there and finish the game with them."
Voytik, thrust into the first significant action of his career, answered the call with the game on the line. He guided the Panthers on a six-play, 98-yard drive.
Unfortunately for Pitt, Johnson answered with another touchdown pass for Bowling Green. He connected with Ryan Burbrink from 15 yards out, tying the game at 27-27, capping a nine-play, 75-yard drive.
It was up to Voytik to lead the Panthers on one more go-ahead drive. Blewitt kicked a 39-yard field goal with 1:17 left in the game, giving Pitt the win.
In just one half of work, Voytik finished with 108 yards passing on 5-9 passing. Savage threw for 124 yards on 8-13 completions.
Before the game, it was announced that Honorable Mention Matt Rotheram did not make the trip due to personal reasons. He started all 12 games to this point. In his place, true freshman Dorian Johnson started at right guard.
Soto got the start at defensive end in place of Bryan Murphy, who did not make the trip because of separate personal reasons.