The Pittsburgh Panthers got a late field goal to take a back-and-forth Little Caesar's Bowl 30-27 over Bowling Green Thursday night. The Panthers (7-6) finish with a winning record for the first time since 2010, while Bowling Green (10-4) become the sixth MAC team in the last seven years to lose in the Pizza Bowl.
The Panthers built a 17-3 first half lead, highlighted by a Tyler Boyd 54-yard punt return for a score, and it looked like Pitt could run away from Bowling Green. The Falcons got a 29-yard touchdown pass late in the half, though, which cut the Pitt lead down to seven points. Bowling Green returner BooBoo Gates then returned the second half's opening kick 94 yards for a score, tying the game at 17. An exchange of field goals left the game tied at 20 entering the fourth quarter.
The game was especially chippy for a mid-tier bowl. Both teams were hit with personal fouls for fighting, and Bowling Green's D.J. Lynch almost cost the Falcons the return touchdown by throwing four punches at Pitt's Manasseh Garner behind the play.
The referee called offsetting personal fouls on the participants, though it remains unclear what Garner did beyond "try not to get punched."
Pitt quarterback Tom Savage, who passed Dan Marino and Alex Van Pelt on the Pitt single-season passing record board Thursday night, was knocked out of the game with a rib injury and missed the second half. Backup Chad Voytik played well in relief, completing 5 of 9 passes for 108 yards. With nine minutes to play, Voytik connected with Boyd on a 62-yard pass play. Two plays later, Voytik took a bootleg five yards for the go-ahead score.
Bowling Green's Matt Johnson led the Falcons back down the field, completing five consecutive passes for 76 yards in a 75-yard touchdown drive. Johnson capped the drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Burbrink. For the third time, the score was tied, and Pitt had four minutes to engineer a scoring drive.
Voytik again hit Bowling Green with the bootleg, running for 19 yards on the second play of the drive. Freshman halfback James Conner, who had hammered Bowling Green for nearly 10 yards per carry on 22 carries to that point, ran for another 20 to put Pitt in field goal range. Two more Conner runs bled the clock below two minutes and set up 3rd and 1 from the 21. Bowling Green's defense stopped Conner on third down, though, and unfortunately-named Pitt kicker Chris Blewitt kicked a 38-yard field goal to give the Panthers a 30-27 lead with 1:17 on the clock.
A penalty on the kickoff left Bowling Green with a long field, and an Aaron Donald sack left the Falcons facing 3rd and 31 from their own 10. Pitt defensive tackle Tyrone Ezell got yet another sack, and Bowling Green needed 40 yards to keep their hopes alive, and a series of laterals fell short.
Box Score Hero: James Conner broke Tony Dorsett's school record for rushing yards in a bowl game, racking up 229 yards on 26 carries and getting a touchdown. The 6'2, 230-lb. freshman tied his season high for carries and exceeded his single-game yardage mark by 56 yards.
Rankings Ramifications: Neither team was ranked, and neither is likely to get into the polls after Thursday's game.
But Did They Cover? Bowling Green was a touchdown favorite at kickoff. Pitt crushed that spread.