I have to start with this, because I swear, I may have written or read something exactly like it after the UNC game.
The Falcons fell behind early thanks to breakdowns in all three phases of the game, then forged an impressive second-half comeback, only to see the University of Pittsburgh kick a field goal with 1:17 left and claim a 30-27 victory in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Hell, if Pitt had lost this game we could have pointed to key breakdowns of our own in all three phases of the game.
The thing that Bowling Green took away from that loss. Pitt was bigger and stronger.
BG had one last gasp, but the Panthers — who finished with seven sacks on the night — pushed BG back to its own 1-yard line, and a fourth-and-40 play was a prayer that went unanswered.
It all added up to a stinging loss to end one of the best seasons in program history.
“We just met a team that was stronger than us, more physical than us, and we just couldn’t get it done,” Gates said.
Pitt had an advantage and exploited that. Wearing down Bowling Green the entire game. Not letting them get space to make as many plays. It helped immensely that James Conner decided to have the best game of his young career last night.
But the biggest difference-maker was Pitt running back James Conner, who broke a school record that stood for more than 35 years and was held by some guy named Tony Dorsett. That’s all.
Conner, a freshman, is listed at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, but he looked and played taller, bigger, and stronger than an ox.
“The running back was a bear to tackle, as evidenced by how many he broke,” said BG interim coach Adam Scheier.
Conner wasn’t a secret — he’d netted about 50 yards per game, on average — although BG safety BooBoo Gates said film indicated the big back was used mostly in short-yardage situations.
Once Pitt’s coaches realized BG had no answer for him, Conner became an every-down back.
“I hit him once and he slipped out of it and I thought, ‘Oh, man.’ The whole game, he and their offensive line were really physical,” Gates said.
Conner did better than 50 yards on this night. Heck, he had 45 on one carry and several more in the 30-plus range. He finished with 229 and that was 27 yards more than Dorsett had in the 1977 Sugar Bowl against Georgia, the previous Pitt bowl record.
I don’t know about anyone else, but when I saw Connor on defense first, I was thinking that Pitt was planning for a full-time switch for him based on the RBs coming in. That the Pitt coaches were starting to think that they need some playmakers on defense for next year. While there is a chance that he will still see action on defense occasionally next year, he probably cemented his place as a running back.
When the game started, the O-line looked as messed up as ever. Pass protection was spotty at best and Savage was taking another beating. That said, the O-line held it together with the run blocking.
The toughest job on the Pitt staff continues to belong to offensive line coach Jim Hueber. Hueber was forced to juggle more bodies prior to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Thursday when junior right guard Matt Rotheram, a two-year starter and perhaps the most consistent blocker on the unit, was excused for personal reasons. A Pitt spokesman said Rotheram remains a member of the team, but Rotheram was not at Ford Field for the game against Bowling Green. The result was another new look for the Pitt offensive line, which already was missing left tackle Adam Bisnowaty and left guard Cory King, both of whom have back injuries. King, a senior, hasn’t played since the Virginia Tech game Oct. 12. Freshman Dorian Johnson started in place of Rotheram, while seniors Juantez Hollins and Ryan Schlieper continued to fill in for Bisnowaty and King. Johnson played mainly tackle during the regular season. Center Artie Rowell and right tackle T.J. Clemmings were the only offensive linemen in the spots where they started the season.
Health and depth. What was lacking this year (and the previous two years). Those are my wishes for the O-line in 2014.
Obviously, the storyline is how the youth was served for Pitt. But on the defense it was still the seniors. Ty Ezell dominated the interior as Bowling Green devoted a lot of energy into containing Aaron Donald. But at the end of the game, Donald still made the impact play.
With less than a minute remaining in the game, he drilled Johnson for an 11-yard sack, forcing a third-and-31. The clinching sack sealed Donald’s selection as Defensive Lineman of the Game.
However, it was mostly a frustrating game for Donald. He occasionally had his opportunities to work one-on-one against the Bowling Green’s offensive line, but those were rare.
Donald was double-teamed most of the game. Senior offensive linemen Dominic Flewellyn and David Kekuewa handled the bulk of the responsibilities. Donald had two first-half tackles.
“He was disruptive,” Flewellyn said “He can get in the backfield, which causes the quarterback to shift right or left, and that leaves all the other blockers in one-on-ones and they can make plays as well.”
Grigsby, senior Tyrone Ezell and freshman defensive lineman Shakir Soto led the Panthers with two sacks apiece, and Pitt had seven total.
Bowling Green’s offense found itself overpowered most of the night. Their O-line which seemed so solid before this game just could not protect Johnson when he dropped back. Nor could it provide any running room for Travis Greene. Their star running back who had over 15oo yards coming into the game. He had 9 games of over 100 yards rushing, and he was held to his lowest output — 39 — on the year.
But, lets be honest. The storyline out of this game was that Pitt’s youth had a huge impact, and appears poised to take that into 2014. At least on the offense.
“What can you say?” Voytik said. “I’m excited. You can’t ask for much more. Young talent and years to play with them. We can only get better.”
Tyler Boyd, James Conner, Jaymar Parrish, Dorian Johnson, Chris Blewitt and Chad Voytik all played huge roles in leading Pitt to the victory.
“Enough can’t be said,” said coach Paul Chryst, whose team totaled 487 yards of offense. “I’m really proud of what they did and what they overcame. It didn’t go perfect. It never does. But certainly, I wasn’t surprised.”
Voytik came into the game with three career pass attempts. But he led a 98-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, punctuating it with a 5-yard run around right end, that gave Pitt a 27-20 lead with 9:31 to play. Overall, Voytik completed 5 of 9 passes for 108 yards, including a 62-yard bomb to freshman Tyler Boyd that set up the score.
Voytik said he thought he was going to underthrow Boyd.
“At first, I thought it slipped,” Voytik said. “I guess if I had gotten all of it, with my nerves, it would have sailed over his head. I’m glad it slipped a little bit. I don’t know if it was adrenaline or what, but it got there for me.”
Voytik is not a pure drop-back passer. Well, he’s not as effective in that way. He is much more comfortable and dangerous when allowed to roll the pocket a bit. Given the state of Pitt’s O-line and ability to pass protect it also gave him more time to look downfield.