Pittsburgh-Bowling Green Preview
While that familiarity could work to their advantage, interim coach Adam Scheier will be calling the shots this time around.
The Falcons go for a school record-tying 11th victory when they face Pittsburgh in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Thursday night.
Johnson got the best of Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch as Bowling Green (10-3) handed then-No. 16 Northern Illinois its first loss, 47-27 in the MAC title game Dec. 6. Johnson posted career highs with 393 passing yards and five touchdowns as the Falcons rolled to their fifth consecutive win.
"Bowling Green was impressive not only in their MAC Championship win, but all season long and we have a competitive game of football ahead," Panthers coach Paul Chryst said.
The Falcons are fifth in the nation with 14.8 points allowed per game and are averaging 35.4 to rank 27th. It remains to be seen how much - if anything - will change with Scheier at the helm.
Scheier replaces former coach Dave Clawson, who left to take the job at Wake Forest. He previously served as special teams coordinator. Bowling Green hired Eastern Illinois' Dino Babers as coach on Dec. 18.
"You go from winning a championship one day as a position coach to suddenly being in front of the whole team the next day as the head coach, getting them ready for a bowl game," said Scheier, in his fifth season with the Falcons. "I've never been through this, and neither have been any of the players. They've been playing for coach Clawson since they got here, and now it is going to be different."
Bowling Green is 1-2 against Pittsburgh after taking the last matchup 27-17 at Heinz Field in 2008.
"We had a players-only meeting and the senior leadership got up and reminded all of the guys that this is our program, and that we need to finish off what we've achieved thus far," Falcons defensive back BooBoo Gates said. "It doesn't matter that coach (Clawson) is gone. We need to step up and do this."
While the Panthers (6-6) posted signature wins over then-No. 24 Notre Dame and at Duke, they dropped four of six to conclude their first season in the ACC.
"This has been a fun season, but it certainly hasn't always gone the way we would have liked," Chryst said. "I think we've got the program headed in the right direction, and we're bringing back the tradition of Pitt football, but we're still at the point where it is hard to say what is going to happen on a week-to-week basis."
Pittsburgh is led by senior Tom Savage, who's thrown for 2,834 yards and 21 touchdowns. Keeping him upright could prove crucial, as Savage has been sacked an FBS-high 41 times.
Savage will surely be looking for his favorite target Tyler Boyd early and often. Boyd is fourth in the conference with 1,001 receiving yards and had 77 receptions to break Larry Fitzgerald's freshman record.
"It means a lot to me," Boyd said. "Where I come from, all we do is win, so I always think about winning first and statistics later."
Johnson, meanwhile, will need to be wary of star defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who collected more than his fair share of hardware this month. The senior won the Nagurski Trophy, Lombardi Award, Outland Trophy and Bednarik Award to become one of the most decorated players in school history.
"I am just overwhelmed with all the wonderful honors," he said. "This isn't about me, it is about Pitt and my coaches and teammates."
Donald leads the nation with an average of 2.2 tackles for loss and is tied for 13th with 10 sacks. Despite his individual efforts, Pittsburgh is giving up 27.2 points per game to rank 11th in the conference.
While the Panthers are making their sixth straight bowl appearance, they're coming off back-to-back losses in the BBVA Compass Bowl. After falling 28-6 to SMU in 2011, Pittsburgh suffered a 38-17 defeat to Mississippi last year.
The Panthers are seeking their first winning season since going 8-5 in 2010.