James Conner, Pitt top Bowling Green in Little Caesars Bowl
Thanks largely to the efforts of a true freshman running back, Pittsburgh closed its first season in the ACC with a winning record.
Pitt tailback James Conner reeled off 229 rushing yards and one score on 26 carries as the Panthers overcame a resilient Bowling Green team and clinched the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl with a 30-27 win at Detroit’s Ford Field.
Conner’s rushing total bested the program record in a bowl game set by former Pitt great Tony Dorsett (202 yards) in the 1977 Sugar Bowl. The freshman Conner only had three games with 100 yards or more this season for the Panthers but set a career-high in yards against the Falcons and tied a career-high in carries with 26.
Pitt survived the Little Caesars Bowl without a full game from its starting quarterback, Tom Savage, who sat out the second half with a reported rib injury. But backup Chad Voytik stood in admirably for Savage, leading the Panthers on a 98-yard scoring drive early in the fourth quarter to retake the lead from Bowling Green. That drive included a 62-yard pass to Tyler Boyd and was capped by a five-yard touchdown run by Voytik.
But the Falcons responded on the ensuing drive. Quarterback Matt Johnson — a Pennsylvania native who didn’t receive a scholarship offer from Pitt — found Ryan Burbrink for a 15-yard touchdown with 4:42 to play to tie the game again. Conner added a couple of big runs on the next series to set up a kick by Pitt’s Chris Blewitt.
Blewitt knocked in a go-ahead field goal with 1:17 left before the Panthers turned on the defense and forced Bowling Green into a fourth-and-40 situation with 16 seconds to play. The Falcons’ last-ditch effort with a handful of laterals failed.
The bowl win was an important one for Pitt coach Paul Chryst in his second season at the school and first in a new conference. Chryst surely enjoyed the performance of Conner, who looked like a budding star for the Panthers at running back. The team was also able to send out Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald on a high note. Donald was one of the most heralded defensive players in the country, garnering four separate defensive awards. But perhaps most importantly, the Pitt program finishes with a winning record in its first season in the ACC. That’s a strong building block for Chryst and the Panthers moving forward.