Freshman tailback leads Pitt past Bowling Green
Updated On: Dec 27 2013 12:09:02 AM CST
James Conner battered the Mid-American Conference's best defense. For added measure, he delivered a few more bruises on defense.
Pittsburgh's freshman tailback rushed for a career-high 229 yards to power the Panthers past the Bowling Green Falcons 30-27 in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Thursday at Ford Field.
Another Pitt freshman, Chris Blewitt, kicked a game-winning 39-yard field goal with 1:17 remaining.
Conner, selected the MVP, broke Tony Dorsett's school bowl record of 202 rushing yards against Georgia, set in the 1977 Sugar Bowl.
"That feels awesome, being a part of history. But I wasn't too concerned with how many yards I had," he said. "Coach (Paul Chryst) called my number and I continued to run. I wasn't worried about breaking a record."
Conner ran the ball 26 times and scored a touchdown. He also took some snaps at defensive end.
"James would be the first one to say he didn't do it on his own," Chryst said. "Certainly, he got enough yards on his own. It was a heck of a performance, and he's got to build on it."
Conner gained 165 yards after halftime and came up just 9 yards shy of DeAngelo Williams' record for rushing yards in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, formerly the Motor City Bowl. Williams established the mark for Memphis in 2005 against Akron.
"Coach said he wanted to unleash me on both sides," said Conner, whose previous high was 173 yards against Duke.
Other freshmen made major contributions for the Panthers (7-6). Wide receiver Tyler Boyd had a career-high 173 receiving yards on eight catches and also scored on a 54-yard punt return.
Boyd broke Larry Fitzgerald's freshman school record of 1,005 receiving yards with a 19-yard reception during the first quarter. He finished with 1,174 yards on the season.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Chad Voytik scored on a 5-yard run during the fourth quarter. He went 5-for-9 passing for 108 yards in place of senior Tom Savage, who completed eight of 13 passes for 124 yards but missed the second half due to a rib injury.
"Chad did a nice job and was poised," Chryst said. "It certainly helped the way we were running the ball. He'd been working and preparing for this moment, and our guys rallied around him."
Sophomore quarterback Matt Johnson completed 20 of 32 passes for 272 yards and two touchdown for the Falcons (10-4), but it wasn't enough to extend Bowling Green's five-game winning streak. He was sacked seven times as Bowling Green rushed for only 10 yards on 34 attempts.
"Their running back was a bear to tackle, as evidenced by the amount of tackles he broke," said the Falcons' Adam Scheier, who coached the team on an interim basis after Dave Clawson was hired as Wake Forest's head coach. "Defensively, we knew their D-line was disruptive and we needed to keep them out of the backfield, and that didn't happen.
"There was too much pressure on Matty J throughout the day. Physically, they dominated both lines of scrimmage."
Bowling Green senior safety BooBoo Gates returned the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 17-17. Sophomore Tyler Tate's 46-yard field goal gave the Falcons a 20-17 edge in the third quarter. The Panthers answered with a 28-yard field goal by Blewitt.
Voytik's 62-yard completion to Boyd set up Voytik's go-ahead touchdown run to cap a 98-yard drive with 9:31 remaining.
Bowling Green tied it again at 27-27 on Johnson's 15-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Ryan Burbrink.
Conner had a 20-yard run on Pitt's go-ahead, 51-yard drive that culminated with Blewitt's field goal.
"It was surprising how many tackles he was breaking," Gates said of Conner. "I hit him one time and he slipped out of my tackle and I'm like, 'Man!' All through the game, he was running physical, the whole line was physical, even the fullback was physical, and they dominated us in the run."
NOTES: The Falcons' last bowl victory was a 52-35 decision over Memphis in the 2004 GMAC Bowl. ... Pitt lost five of its previous seven bowl games. Before Thursday, the Panthers' last bowl victory was a 27-10 win over Kentucky in the 2010 BBVA Compass Bowl. ... Bowling Green defeated Northwestern 28-24 in 2003 in its previous appearance at the Detroit bowl game... The Mid-American Conference lost five consecutive times in the bowl before Central Michigan's 24-21 win over Western Kentucky last season. ... The Falcons won the last meeting 27-17 at Pitt's Heinz Field in the 2008 season opener. ... Bowling Green allowed just 21 second-half points in its previous seven games. ... The Panthers played 12 true freshmen this season. ... Pitt senior DT Aaron Donald, who won the Bronko Nagurski and Outland trophies, committed a 15-yard penalty during the second quarter.
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