Pitt senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald finished up his magnificent season with two more tackles for loss Thursday, including a key sack in the fourth quarter, as the Panthers edged Bowling Green 30-27 in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Donald is a consensus All-American selection who became just the second player in history to win the Outland, Lombardi, Nagurski and Bednarik awards in a season (Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh was the other, in 2009). Donald finished the season with 28.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks, along with 16 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles. But on Thursday night, he was overshadowed by a freshman.
Tailback James Conner rumbled for 229 yards and a TD on 26 carries, breaking a Pitt bowl record owned by Tony Dorsett since 1976. Dorsett ran for 202 yards in a win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl following the 1976 season, a victory that gave Pitt its most recent national title. Conner also played some defensive end for the Panthers; while he didn't record a tackle, he did get enough pressure on Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson to force a holding call on the Falcons' final possession. Two plays later, Donald came up with his sack that basically ended the game.
Pitt also got a big game from true freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who had eight catches for 173 yards. Boyd was one of the most productive freshman wide receivers in the nation, finishing with a team-leading 85 receptions for 1,174 yards and seven TDs.
Boyd (6-2, 185) and Conner (6-2, 230) give Pitt coach Paul Chryst a nice foundation for next season; both should be among the best players at their positions in the ACC. Boyd is a savvy route-runner who is elusive and can get deep, while Conner is a bruising inside runner who should become an even bigger weapon as he gets better acclimated to the offense.
Pitt fans also got a glimpse of their quarterback of the future in redshirt freshman Chad Voytik. He played the entire second half after senior starter Tom Savage suffered a rib injury late in the first half. Voytik threw for 108 yards, ran for another 24 and guided the Panthers to 13 second-half points, including leading a seven-play, 51-yard drive that resulted in the game-winning field goal with 1:17 left. That kick came from another freshman, Chris Blewitt.
Pitt finished 7-6, the Panthers' first winning record since 2010 and just their ninth in the past 24 seasons. Bowling Green, which won the MAC, finished 10-4; it was the Falcons' fifth 10-win season in school history.
Mike Huguenin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.