Thanks to injuries and absences, Pitt turned its lineup inside-out Thursday night in a 30-27 victory over MAC champion Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl at Ford Field.
Kicker Chris Blewitt, one of four freshmen who stepped up in crucial situations, recorded the decisive points with a 39-yard field goal with 1:17 left. Freshman running back James Conner, who also played defensive end in the absence of starter Bryan Murphy (personal reasons), gained 229 yards on 26 carries and was named MVP. He broke a Pitt Bowl record (202) set by Tony Dorsett in the 1977 Sugar Bowl.
Thirty-two of Conner’s yards came on the winning drive.
âœHe’s unbelievable,â said redshirt freshman quarterback Chad Voytik, who replaced an injured Tom Savage and ran 20 yards to set up the field goal and 5 yards for a score earlier in the fourth quarter. âœHe makes the quarterback position easy.â
The victory gave Pitt (7-6) its first winning season since 2010.
After losing three starters off its offensive line â” two from previous injuries and junior right guard Matt Rotheram (excused absence for personal reasons) â” Pitt was forced to play the second half without Savage, who suffered a rib injury. Savage, who completed 8 of 13 passes for 124 yards in the first half, was hurt on the second of two sacks by Bowling Green.
“Enough can’t be said,â said coach Paul Chryst, who evened his Pitt record at 13-13. I’m really proud of what they did and what they overcame.”
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 for 108 yards, including a 62-yard bomb to freshman Tyler Boyd that set up the score.
“I was nervous when I first found out (I was entering the game),” Voytik said. “But once I got on the field, there was a calm that came over me. It was just football again, just like I’ve always known it.”
Voytik said he thought he was going to underthrow Boyd on the big pass play.
“If I had gotten over it, with my nerves, it would have sailed over his head,” Voytik said. “I’m glad it slipped a little bit. I don’t know if it was adrenaline or what, but it got there for me.”
Bowling Green tied the score on a 15-yard pass from Matt Johnson to Ryan Burbrink with 4:42 left, but Voytik led one more scoring drive.
Pitt led 17-3 in the second quarter before allowing Bowling Green (10-4) to tie the score on a 94-yard kickoff return by Boo Boo Gates to open the second half.
The Falcons took a 20-17 lead with 9:52 left in the third quarter on a 46-yard field goal by Tyler Tate. Blewitt tied it 20-20 on a 28-yarder with 5:59 left in the third quarter after he had missed from 39 earlier in the period.
In front of a crowd of 26,259, Boyd had his best game of the season that included a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown – Pitt’s first such score since Darrelle Revis did it in 2006. He also caught eight passes for a Pitt bowl-record 173 yards, tying a Pizza Bowl standard held by Randy Moss.
In the process, Boyd set school freshman records held by Larry Fitzgerald for 100-yard games in a season (five) and yards receiving (1,112). He already had the freshman record for catches (84), also set by Fitzgerald in 2002.
After a 28-yard field goal by Tate, Pitt came to life. Conner carried five times for 39 yards, including a 15-yard TD run to give the Panthers their first lead in a bowl game – at 7-3, in almost three years.
Pitt increased the lead to 17-3 before halftime on a 25-yard field goal by Blewitt and Boyd’s 54-yard punt return.
But Bowling Green responded with 1:28 left in the half on a touchdown drive that cut the lead to 17-10.