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 posted a 30-27 win over Bowling Green (10-4) 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 minute, 17 seconds 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,” Bowling Green interim coach Adam Scheier said. “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.
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. The Panthers drove 51 yards in seven plays late in the fourth quarter to set up a 39-yard kick by Blewitt, who 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.”
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.