Little Caesars Bowl
Pitt 30, Bowling Green 27
Basically … Pitt's Chris Blewitt broke a tie with just over a minute to play on a 39-yard field goal, and Aaron Donald and the Panther defense did its job to hang on for the win. Down 17-3, Bowling Green fought back with a 29-yard Alex Bayer touchdown catch late in the first half, and opened the second on a 94-yard BooBoo Gates kickoff return for a score on the way to a tie. The Panthers grabbed the lead back on a 28-yard Blewitt field goal and a five-yard Chad Voytik run, but Bowling Green wouldn't go away with Ryan Burbrink scoring on a 15-yard catch for a 27-27 tie before Pitt's final scoring drive. The Panthers got a school bowl record 229 rushing yards from James Conner and a 15-yard touchdown and Tyler Boyd scored on a 54-yard punt return to put Pitt up big in the first half.
- Rushing yards: Pitt 255 – Bowling Green 10
- Pitt RB James Conner ran 26 times for 229 yards and a score
- Pitt DT Aaron Donald made five tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss
- Pitt LB Ray Vinopal made a game-leading 11 tackles with a sack.
- Bowling Green CB BooBoo Gates made eight tackles with half a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss and returned four kickoffs for 165 yards and a score.
- Bowling Green P Brian Schmiedebusch averaged 54.6 yards with two put inside the 20 on his five kicks.
- Bowling Green QB Matt Johnson completed 20-of-32 passes for 272 yards and two scores
Pittsburgh (6-6) vs. Bowling Green (10-3) Dec. 26, 6:00, ESPN
Here's The Deal … Bowling Green has accomplished plenty in 2013, including the school's first league title in 21 years. One thing that's missing is a win over an FBS school to provide a little extra validation.
The MAC champs have been a great story this year, sweeping through their final five games, capped by a 47-27 rout in Detroit that denied unbeaten Northern Illinois a BCS bowl berth. But, the Falcons remain outside the Top 25 and grasping for national respect largely because they lost to Mississippi State and were blown out by Indiana. In fact, the program has dropped seven straight to major opponents, dating back to an upset of Pitt to start the 2008 season. Bowling Green returns to Ford Field, site of its MAC title triumph, with a new man in charge. Head coach Dave Clawson has moved on to Wake Forest, putting special teams coordinator Adam Scheier in charge on an interim basis.
Pitt is fortunate to be here, a .500 team with a split personality. The Panthers have beaten ranked Notre Dame and ACC Coastal Division champ Duke, yet they also fell to Navy and finished below .500 in league play. They'll head to Detroit looking to avoid a third straight 6-7 season, a rut of mediocrity that has become this program's personality. Second-year head coach Paul Chryst, in particular, would love to capture the momentum that comes with a bowl victory and a winning season.
Players to Watch: DT Aaron Donald has become the most decorated Pitt defender since Hugh Green was roaming around Western Pennsylvania more than three decades ago. Undersized, yet lightning quick, Donald looks like the kind of player that often winds up on a MAC roster. He's terrorized opponents for a nation's-best 26.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, whipping double-teams to blow up plays before they can develop. Donald will be facing an underrated Bowling Green O-line that features three all-league performers on the interior of the unit.
Pitt has a one-man show on defense. Bowling Green, on the other hand, has been a collaborative effort. The Falcons harbor no household names or national award winners; DT Ted Ouellet and S BooBoo Gates are the senior leaders. However, the unit has been sensational throughout the season. Bowling Green ranks in the top 10 in the country in pass defense, total defense and scoring D, allowing no more than seven points in seven games this fall. The Falcons just don't make many mental errors or blow assignments, which will force the Panthers to execute with a minimum of mistakes on Thursday.
The Panthers' natural inclination would be to unleash veteran QB Tom Savage and his dynamic duo of receivers, Freshman All-American Tyler Boyd and Devin Street. However, navigating the Falcons through the air is a tough assignment. Bowling Green is third to just Florida State and Michigan State in fewest yards per attempt, and Pitt has major issues in pass protection. The Panthers might consider a heavier dose of physical backs Isaac Bennett and James Conner. Not only can both move a pile, but the Falcons have been slightly more vulnerable against the run this year.
Bowling Green's magical year would not have been possible without the emergence of a pair of sophomores in the backfield. Backup QB Matt Johnson and receiver-turned-back Travis Greene have helped inject balance into the Falcon attack. Johnson is an improviser, generating 23 touchdowns with his arm and five more with his feet. He's become the heartbeat of the offense and one of the faces of the program. Greene has exploded for 1,555 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, displaying excellent vision in the open field. The Falcons are set in the backfield for the next couple of years.
Pittsburgh will win if … the running game gains traction in the early going.
Pitt has to establish the run if it's going to solve the Bowling Green defense. Putting too much responsibility on Savage against the Falcon secondary is a recipe for a lot of Matt Yoklic punts. The Panthers have to soften the front seven with Bennett and Conner by pounding away on first and second downs. If they're successful in the first half, it's going to create opportunities for Savage to find Street and Boyd streaking downfield on play-action. If Pitt cannot achieve a level of balance on Thursday, it'll wilt in front of the no-name Bowling Green D.
Bowling Green will win if … it starts fast.
The Falcons want to build a bridge from their last trip to Detroit three weeks ago, while erasing any doubts that it can't win without Clawson in charge. The program has been fantastic coming out of the halftime locker room, giving up just 21 points all year in the third quarter. If it can build a lead in the first 30 minutes, it'll be tough to take down in the second half. Bowling Green is very confident these days. Maintaining that level of confidence early on with Scheier at the helm will be critical for the Falcons.
What Will Happen: Bowling Green will remain on a tear … with or without Clawson.
Yeah, it's a little precarious when an interim coach is calling the shots on a one-game basis, but the Falcons have enough momentum—and seasoned veterans—to weather the changes in leadership. They're playing exceptionally well on both sides of the ball, a trend not likely to be disrupted by an inconsistent Pitt team. Bowling Green will ride its offensive balance and defensive tenacity to a second straight victory at Ford Field and a school-record-tying eleventh win of the year.
Prediction: Bowling Green 34 … Pittsburgh 23
Line: Bowling Green -5.5 o/u: 50
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