The Pittsburgh Panthers benefited from a virtuoso performance by sensational freshmen James Conner and Tyler Boyd en route to a 30-27 upset victory over MAC champion Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Thursday.
The hefty but surprisingly nimble Conner ran for a Pitt bowl-record 229 yards and a key 15-yard touchdown in the final minute of the first quarter to respond to an early field goal by the Falcons at Detroit's Ford Field.
Conner definitely earned his MVP honor as he finished with a career-high 229 yards, a Pitt record for a bowl game! #LCPB— Little Caesars Bowl (@LCPizzaBowl) December 27, 2013
Boyd had eight receptions for 173 yards and took a punt to the house to give the Panthers some second-quarter momentum.
It was amazing to see what the two youngsters did to an opponent that ranked No. 8 in total defense entering the evening as the Panthers improved to 7-6. The hard running from Conner even compelled ESPN's Damon Sayles to make a gaudy comparison:
However, the 17-3 lead that Pittsburgh had built was erased in short order around the intermission. The Falcons had some fight in them after all, as quarterback Matt Johnson tossed a 29-yard touchdown to Alex Bayer, which cut the deficit to seven points at halftime.
In the blink of an eye, Bowling Green's special teams became special on the second-half kickoff, as Jerry "BooBoo" Gates went 94 yards to paydirt, knotting the game at 17 apiece.
Booboo Gates' 94-yard kickoff return TD ties the Bowling Green record for longest kickoff return, set by Leon Weathersby 1997— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 27, 2013
The first-year phenom Boyd's prowess as a playmaker in Pitt's passing game was most critical and the difference in the game.
Senior signal-caller Tom Savage went down with a rib injury, which forced the Panthers to turn to freshman Chad Voytik, who had thrown just two passes all season before Thursday's contest:
The rib injury to QB Tom Savage clearly altered the gameplan, but freshman Chad Voytikis holding his own in charged up defensive game #LCPB— Little Caesars Bowl (@LCPizzaBowl) December 27, 2013
He was forced to grow up quickly, and having a precocious fellow freshman in Boyd to turn to helped the cause immensely.
The tandem connected on a big gain that set up Voytik's untouched scamper to the end zone from five yards out to put the Panthers on top 27-20 with 9:31 left.
Unfortunately for Pitt, the unflappable Johnson roared back, often running for his life and taking one of seven sacks on the evening amid a great nine-play, 75-yard drive. It culminated in a touchdown toss to Ryan Burbrink from 15 yards out to even things at 27 apiece.
Check out Matt Johnson's scramble-and-throw TD to Ryan Burbrink to tie the game 27-27. Great finish ahead: http://t.co/YjztMsNOVp— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) December 27, 2013
Thanks to some punishing runs from Conner and a 19-yard scramble by Voytik, Pitt moved into field-goal range. Kicker Chris Blewitt didn't live up to what his surname might imply, booting the winning kick through the uprights from 39 yards away.
Johnson and Co. attempted to rally, but back-to-back sacks and a turnover on downs on a crazy multiple-lateral play secured the victory for the Panthers.
Here are the grades for the key performers in a bowl that did not garner much attention but was thrilling nonetheless.
Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh: A
Although he was a little quieter toward the end once Conner became more of a focal point in the game plan, Boyd proved he is maybe the most underrated freshman in the country.
ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit weighed in about how promising Boyd's career looks moving forward:
Pitt true Fr WR Tyler Boyd is for real. Kid has been doing it all year. What a future!!— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) December 27, 2013
Between the electric punt return and being the only Panthers receiver to catch more than one pass—tight end J.P. Holtz had two catches—it was just a great all-around performance from a star who put himself on the map. He and Conner will lead Pitt into a new, flourishing era as they continue to improve.
Matt Johnson, QB, Bowling Green: A-
It's a shame that Johnson didn't get better protection. Even under constant duress, he managed to complete 20 of 32 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns, keeping the Falcons in it until the very end.
Bowling Green needed better play from its typically strong defense in the end to give Johnson one more chance to win it. By the time Pitt strung together a late drive to take the lead, it was too much to overcome that pass rush.
James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh: A
It took awhile for Conner's physicality to take a toll on the Falcons, but it was evident that his pounding caused Bowling Green to crack.
In the second half, he ran for 165 yards on 16 carries and was not going to be denied. His efforts—and those of the Pittsburgh offensive line—were instrumental in taking the outcome out of the inexperienced Voytik's hands.
Travis Greene, RB, Bowling Green: C-
What a disappointing way for the Falcons' leading rusher to close out an otherwise outstanding sophomore campaign. Greene went out with a whimper, registering just 39 yards on 18 carries and two catches for 12 yards.
There was no balance to be had thanks to an excellent performance from Pitt's defensive front, which was keyed by senior lineman Aaron Donald, who will likely be playing on Sundays sometime in the next year. He even garnered a comparison to Detroit Lions star Ndamukong Suh:
Clear to see why @AaronDonald97 won all those awards. Affecting plays even when not making them. Similar to a #90 that calls Ford Field home— Little Caesars Bowl (@LCPizzaBowl) December 27, 2013
Nevertheless, the Falcons could not establish the ground game, which took Greene out of rhythm and made the offense one-dimensional, thereby causing Johnson to be vulnerable.
This is a big win for Pittsburgh, which ends the season on a high note at 7-6. The Panthers are above .500 and built something for the future.
The absence of Falcons head coach Dave Clawson—who took the job at Wake Forest—seemed to cause Bowling Green to come out flat, and the future of the program appears even more precarious at the moment.