DETROIT — The way James Conner and Tyler Boyd played in their first postseason game, it’s no wonder Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst is excited about next season.
With a pair of freshmen leading the way — and breaking some long-standing school records in the process — the Panthers edged Bowling Green 30-27 on Thursday night in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Conner rushed for 229 yards. Boyd caught eight passes for 173 yards and also scored on a punt return.
“We obviously have some great young talent, and that’s why we are so confident about the future of this program,” Chryst said. “We think we’re in great shape going forward.”
Conner broke a Pittsburgh bowl record for yards rushing held by Tony Dorsett, and Chris Blewitt kicked a tiebreaking field goal with 1:17 remaining.
Conner even played a handful of snaps on the defensive line. Boyd gave Pitt (7-6) a boost with his versatility as well.
One star the Panthers will have to replace is Aaron Donald, their All-American on the defensive line. Donald, a senior, helped thwart any last-ditch comeback with a sack deep in Bowling Green territory in the final minute.
“They were without question the most physical team we faced all season,” said Adam Scheier, Bowling Green’s interim coach. “The offensive line was tough, the running back was obviously a bear to tackle, and the whole defensive line was disruptive. We knew we had to keep Donald and their other guys out of our backfield, but we couldn’t do it.”
Scheier took over after Wake Forest hired coach Dave Clawson away from the Falcons. Scheier coached the bowl, but now Dino Babers takes over.
Dorsett rushed for 202 yards in Pitt’s win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1977. The school’s receiving record for a bowl came the next season. In a Gator Bowl win over Clemson, Gordon Jones had 163 yards receiving.
Both marks fell Thursday.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Conner rushed for 165 yards in the second half, helping Pitt overcome the loss of quarterback Tom Savage, who didn’t play after halftime because of a rib injury. Conner and the Panthers drove 51 yards in seven plays late in the fourth quarter to set up a 39-yard kick by Blewitt, who had missed from the same distance earlier.
Then Conner was back on the field on defense, helping the Panthers protect the lead.
“After the last game, coach told me they wanted to unleash me on both sides of the ball, so I’ve been getting a lot of reps both ways,” Conner said. “I was pretty tired by the end, but I wasn’t going to tap out. They kept giving me the ball, so I just kept running.”
Chad Voytik relieved Savage and put Pitt ahead 27-20 with a 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, but the Falcons — who upset Northern Illinois in Detroit in the Mid-American Conference title game earlier this month — tied it on Matt Johnson’s 15-yard strike to Ryan Burbrink with 4:42 to play.
Boyd’s 54-yard punt return gave the Panthers a 17-3 lead in the second quarter. Bowling Green (10-4) rallied, tying it at 17 on a 94-yard kickoff return by BooBoo Gates to start the second half.
Bowling Green appeared to catch a break on the kick return by Gates. A tussle behind the play drew a flag as Gates approached the goal line, but officials ruled that the touchdown stood, with offsetting penalties after the play.
The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl faces an uncertain future now that the Detroit Lions have decided to get in the bowl business and will host a game next season. If this game vanishes from the bowl lineup, this was an entertaining finale.
Conner put Pitt ahead 7-3 with a 15-yard scoring run near the end of the first quarter. Boyd nearly lost his balance trying to stay inbounds at the end of his punt return, but he was able to reach the end zone.
“I knew I had to stay inbounds, because I’m not in the goal-line package,” Boyd said. “So if I stepped out, I wouldn’t get a chance to score.”
The Falcons rallied thanks in part to an ill-timed loss of discipline by Donald, who picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with Bowling Green about to punt from its own territory. The Falcons ended up scoring on the drive when Alex Bayer took Johnson’s short pass on fourth-and-1 and turned it into a 29-yard touchdown to make it 17-10.
Savage completed eight passes in the first half. Seven of them went to Boyd, for 111 yards.