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The big 2013 Little Caesars Bowl breakdown: Expect passing-game excitement

The Pizza Bowl matchup of Bowling Green and Pittsburgh features two teams that both make big plays in the passing game and get sacked a lot. A fast start could be key for the favored Falcons, both in getting past coaching distractions and in avoiding the wrath of Aaron Donald.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Goals are so contradictory and frustrating in the world of mid-major football. Bowling Green just won its first conference title in 11 years and has put a product on the field similar to that of Texas or Nebraska. The reward: less money and a coaching search.

[W]hile I love that the mid-majors exist at the highest level, part of me wonders why. Especially with the BCS loophole closing, just about the greatest thing a mid-major can accomplish is a single big upset win or a spot in a bowl named after food -- Pizza, Potato, Beef ('O' Bradys). Is that worth it? Would it be more fun for all involved if they were part of a lower subdivision with a shot at a national title, even if it was a lesser one?

I'm seriously asking here; I have no answers.

I wrote that on December 10 after watching Bowling Green wreck Northern Illinois' chances at a BCS bid, then lose its head coach to Wake Forest. Now-former head coach Dave Clawson put a hell of a product on the field this year, one that improved overall in 2013 despite regressing on defense.

The Falcons return to Detroit, this time behind interim head coach Adam Scheier. The BGSU team that played through the 2013 regular season was, on average, a decent amount better than its Pizza Bowl opponent, Pittsburgh. Will that be the case on Thursday?

How they got here

Pitt's season to date

Pittsburgh's first season in the ACC was, to say the least, rather up-and-down.

The Panthers got Jameis'd on the opening Monday night of the season, falling 41-13 to Florida State and the eventual Heisman winner. They responded with a couple of enormous offensive performances (combined score in wins over New Mexico and Duke: 107-82), then more or less fell apart offensively, averaging just 20.1 points per game over the next eight contests.

They won games 58-55 and 14-3 and lost games 41-31 and 19-9. They were all over the map, but in the end, they ended up in a pretty predictable place, with a perfectly mediocre record (6-6) and F/+ ranking (59th).

BGSU's season to date

Bowling Green finished 2012 with one of the hottest defenses in the country and fashioned itself a potential contender in the MAC East race heading into the season. The results were there early -- the Falcons started 5-1 with easy wins over weak teams -- but the defense was rocked in a 42-10 loss to Indiana, and its ratings never recovered despite stellar late results.

No worries; the offense came to play in 2013. After tight losses to Mississippi State and Toledo in October, Bowling Green plowed through November (average score in wins over Miami-Ohio, Ohio, Eastern Michigan, and Buffalo: 44-4), then bombed undefeated Northern Illinois, 47-27 in the MAC title game.

BGSU once again finished the regular season one of the hottest teams in the country; now we just have to see what impact the bowl break and the loss of Clawson will have.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Pittsburgh 6-6 59 62 36 109
Bowling Green 10-3 41 -5.5 39 72 7
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Pitt Offense 68 66 80 66 106 89 60
BGSU Defense 75 66 85 52 27 13 63
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Pitt Offense 89 28 23 58 120 122 107
BGSU Defense 74 69 39 53 11 68 27
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
BGSU Offense 67 14 52 37 9 20 23
Pitt Defense 19 35 19 26 69 84 7
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
BGSU Offense 54 9 82 49 109 112 100
Pitt Defense 16 68 107 28 68 106 44
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
Pitt Special Teams 91 52 118 11 123 96
BGSU Special Teams 3 48 1 66 11 57

Pitt's biggest advantages:

BGSU should face plenty of passing downs. Bowling Green went big against Northern Illinois, attempting a lot of deep passing on first-and-10. It worked, but it doesn't always work.

Quarterback Matt Johnson takes a lot of sacks on both standard and passing downs -- here's where I remind you that Pitt has end Aaron Donald, he of over 10 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss -- and Pitt's base, standard downs defense is pretty damn good (19th in Standard Downs S&P+). The Panthers are strong against the run and could to a certain degree negate the steady work done by BGSU running back Travis Greene, who has averaged 6.0 yards per carry in 2013 despite a long of only 33 yards.

Granted, Pitt still has to keep BGSU in check on passing downs to get out of drives, and granted, the Panthers have a bit of a big-play problem. Still, you'd always prefer to be defending on third-and-9 instead of third-and-3. Pitt's defense could give itself a chance, and Donald could get a lot of shots at Johnson on any and all downs.

Pitt has a coach, and BGSU does not. For once, Pitt is on the stable side of this equation, since new Bowling Green head coach Dino Babers (an Art Briles protege from Eastern Illinois) hasn't fully taken over yet. After a brutal stretch of five coaches in two years (including interims and Mike Haywood, who was fired without coaching a game), the Panthers have had the same head coach for two straight years now!

Paul Chryst inherited a dysfunctional, disjointed roster and is still working out the kinks (he's 12-13 so far), but while we have no idea how motivated or dialed in BGSU might be, we have to figure this game means a decent amount to Pitt moving forward. If this ends up mattering, it will probably benefit Pitt.

BGSU's biggest advantages:

Pitt has a three-and-outs problem. You can take Pittsburgh away from Tino Sunseri, but you evidently cannot take the Sunseri out of Pittsburgh.

Sunseri was one of the most sack-prone quarterbacks in the country, and while his eligibility wrapped up after 2012, his replacement, Rutgers transfer Tom Savage, has taken on a Sunseri-esque tone, completing 61 percent of his passes and showing a good amount of toughness in the pocket ... and getting sacked 41 times. Pitt ranks an egregious 120th in Adjusted Sack Rate. What does the BGSU defense rank? 11th.

Sacks are only part of the reason why Pitt ranks 106th in First Down Rate (the ability to get at least one first down in a given drive), but they're there regardless. When they fail, they fail quickly, whether the reason is a sketchy running game or a sack-prone passing game. You can run on Bowling Green, but if the Panthers are unable to get backs Isaac Bennett and James Conner going -- the two averaged just 4.8 yards per carry over 24 carries per game -- then Ted Ouellet and a decent BGSU pass rush could tee off on Savage. If that happens, then star receivers Tyler Boyd and Devin Street (combined: 196 targets, 128 catches, 1,855 yards, 14 touchdowns) might not even get to be part of the Pizza Bowl narrative. (It might not be an option for Street, anyway -- he's questionable with injury.)

BGSU should win field position in a walk. For the season, Bowling Green has been tremendous at winning the field position battle; Pitt ... has not. Three-and-outs are part of the issue -- BGSU is great at forcing and avoiding them, and Pitt is neither -- but part of it is also due to Bowling Green's punting game. Brian Schmiedebusch averages only 39.8 yards per punt, but he has had 19 of 44 downed inside the 20, which signifies both that he is good at placing them near the goal line and that he is rarely punting from his 20.

If special teams and field position matter in this game, that's very good news for the Falcons.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

This is another bowl in which overreactions will likely be minimal. Pitt will be tasked with replacing Donald, nose tackle Tyrone Ezell, and half of its starting secondary on defense, plus Savage, Street, and the left side of its offensive line on offense.

Only Donald was a true difference-maker, and there are some intriguing youngsters who could play larger roles next year -- Tyler Boyd and James Conner are true freshmen, solid corner Lafayette Pitts is a sophomore, and linebackers Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas are both juniors with potential; still, the Panthers are not yet earning the benefit of the doubt under Chryst, and that won't change unless they beat BGSU by 30.

BGSU, meanwhile, is a little bit ahead of schedule. Matt Johnson is only a sophomore, and five other offensive starters are sophomores or younger. The defense must replace five starters, but an offense that was so young and improved so dramatically in 2014 could carry the Falcons deep into another conference title race, especially if Babers' Baylor-esque attack can hit the ground running. The Pizza Bowl result really won't change expectations regardless.


F/+ Projection: BGSU 29, Pittsburgh 24
Win Probability: BGSU 67%

This is another bowl game in which the favorite on paper has to deal with some drastic off-paper issues. If Scheier and the remaining BGSU staff get this team properly motivated and prepared, the Falcons should be able to rough Savage up enough and connect on just enough big plays on offense to win their 11th game of the season.

If not, however, Pitt has enough playmakers of its own to put BGSU in a hole, then tee off on Matt Johnson with Donald and company.

Whoever starts fastest will probably take this one, though that can be said about a majority of games.

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