DETROIT (AP) — Bowling Green will have to settle for one big win at Ford Field in 2013.
Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson scrambles during the first half of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against Pittsburgh on Thursday in Detroit. (AP PHOTO | DUANE BURLESON)
James Conner rushed for 229 yards — breaking a Pittsburgh bowl record held by Tony Dorsett — and Chris Blewitt kicked a tiebreaking field goal with 1:17 remaining, lifting the Panthers to a 30-27 win over Bowling Green on Thursday night in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Bowling Green (10-4) had upset Northern Illinois in Detroit earlier this month in the Mid-American Conference title game, but Pitt turned out to be too powerful an adversary in the Falcons' return to the Motor City.
"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."
Scheier took over after Wake Forest hired coach Dave Clawson away from the Falcons. Scheier coached the bowl, but now Dino Babers takes over.
"Focus was never a problem," Scheier said. "These seniors were so ready that we could have just rolled the ball out there and they would have run the practices themselves."
But Conner ran all over Bowling Green's defense, and fellow freshman Tyler Boyd gave Pitt (7-6) a boost with eight catches for 173 yards. Boyd also scored on a punt return in the first half.
Bowling Green tied it at 17 when BooBoo Gates took the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown.
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.
Conner rushed for 165 yards in the second half.
"We had seen him on film, but he was mostly a short-yardage guy, so we weren't expecting that from him," said Gates, a Bowling Green defensive back. "He was breaking tackles all over the place. I had one shot at him, and he slipped right out and I was like, 'Whoa.'"
Conner helped 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.
Aaron Donald, Pitt's All-American on the defensive line, helped thwart any last-ditch comeback with a sack deep in Bowling Green territory.
Chad Voytik relieved Savage and put Pitt ahead 27-20 with a 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, but the Falcons 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 rallied, tying it at 17 on the return by Gates to start the third.
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.