Four Downs: Pitt downs Bowling Green behind freshman trio

Pittsburgh's freshman running back James Conner set the school's bowl record with 229 rushing yards against Bowling Green

Andrew Weber/Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Panthers capped off their 2013 campaign with a Little Caesars Bowl victory against Bowling Green, 30-27, on Thursday night. Here are four observations from Pitt’s impressive showing against the MAC champions:

There is nothing spectacular about a .500 record, especially for a team in the postseason. A six-loss team in the ACC is equally unimpressive, as Pittsburgh dropped games to BCS title participant Florida State, Virginia Tech, Navy, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Miami — and the names on that list are more impressive than their records.

But, other than the season-opening, four-touchdown loss to top-ranked FSU, Pitt lost its remaining five games by a combined 41 points — none coming by more than 11 points. It wasn’t the best-case scenario for its inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but it leaves open the possibility that improvement is just around the corner for this program. (Then again, the wins came by the thinnest of margins as well.)

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Even Thursday’s game against Bowling Green refused to be a quiet affair, as the Panthers needed a game-winning field goal by Chris Blewitt on their final drive to put the Falcons away for good. Still, 7-6 is better than 6-7, and there just might be some good things around the corner, starting with the offensive side of the ball…

Entering Thursday’s bowl game, Voytik, a highly-regarded recruit out of Cleveland, Tenn., one of the top prospects Chryst was able to hold on to in his first class at Pitt in 2012, had thrown just two career passes. He completed one … for eight yards. Locked into a tied game with Bowling Green in the fourth quarter in Detroit, the Panthers needed just a little bit more this time around.

Voytik, along with fellow freshmen Boyd and Conner — both of whom have played significant roles for the Panthers this season — came through when it mattered. Subbing in for injured senior starter Tom Savage (rib injury), went 5-for-9 for 108 yards and a rushing touchdown, leading the Panthers on two fourth-quarter scoring drives to solidify the victory. With the well-traveled Savage on his way out, Voytik is the heir apparent under center and his dual-threat ability — he’s certainly not Braxton Miller, but he adds an extra dimension that Savage does not — should make him a threat in the ACC next season.

Of course, the fact that he’ll be throwing to Boyd again next year will only help matters.

Boyd, a 6-foot-2 machine for the Panthers this season, was the prized playmaker in Chyst’s 2013 class and he paid immediate dividends in his first season on campus, breaking Larry Fitzgerald freshman record for single-season receiving yards (1,074) after setting the school’s bowl record with 173 yards against Bowling Green. He’s going to be a problem for opposing defenses, at least for the next two seasons.

Then there’s Conner, perhaps the most intriguing story of group. He was recruited as a defensive end and he played both ways in the bowl game … and still broke Tony Dorsett’s 1977 record for rushing yards in a bowl — rumbling for 229 yards and one score on 26 carries. And "rumbling" is the exact verb to use there. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound back is an absolute load to bring down. He logged 100-yard games against New Mexico, Duke and North Carolina this season, but this was his career game and just one of many signs of things to come.

Voytik, Boyd and Conner. Keep those names in mind during 2014 preseason polling.

It was a resilient effort for the Falcons, who lost head coach Dave Clawson to Wake Forest following the MAC Championship win against Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois, overcoming a 200-yard deficit and a non-existent running game (10 yards on 34 attempts) to push the ACC opponents to the final minute of the game. They even had a chance to win or tie the game in the final minute.

Sophomore quarterback Matt Johnson helped keep his offense rolling after falling behind 17-3, passing for 272 yards and two touchdowns, including a 15-yard score to tie the game at 27 apiece with less than five minutes on the clock. Even under constant duress, he kept plugging away. Whoever Bowling Green’s next coach ends up being, they should inherit a capable QB, one who passed for more than 3,400 yards and 25 touchdowns this season.

Other than Johnson, the Falcons other big play came on special teams, as senior BooBoo Gates took a kickoff 94 yards to the house coming out of halftime, setting the tone for a back-and-forth affair over the final 30 minutes of play. There were three separate ties in the second half, but the Falcons never could regain the lead.

The 285-pound senior took home basically every individual award available earlier this month — Bednarik, Nagurski, Outland, Lombardi/Rotary — after leading the country with 26.5 tackles for loss. He was a force of nature that very few teams found an answer for (his 10 sacks tied for 13th nationally). And, for the most part, he was at his best on the big stages: in eight ACC games alone, Donald ran up 21 tackles for loss.

But thanks to nonstop double- and triple-teams against the Falcons, Donald was silent on Thursday night. For nearly the entire game, his most noteworthy play was a personal foul penalty that kept a Bowling Green drive alive.

Until the Falcons’ final drive, that is.

With Johnson & Co. needing to go the length of the field in a shortened two-minute drive, Donald arrived in a big way, registering a sack that forced that MAC champs back to their own 10-yard line and into an impossible 3rd-and-31. The Panthers would go on to sack Johnson again on the next play, but Donald’s late arrival basically ended the game. No surprises there.

It should be noted that with so much attention being paid to the country’s most decorated lineman, the Pitt defense was able to add seven total sacks on the night, basically living in the Falcons’ backfield.

Donald will certainly be playing Sundays next year … and he’ll certainly be missed.