DETROIT -- There is some question as to who had the upper hand when Matt Johnson and Artie Rowell faced one another in high school.
"The best thing I can say is that Artie never sacked me," Johnson said, with a smile. "He got close a couple of times. ... I'm proud to say I never met him during a game."
When Rowell was asked if he ever tackled Johnson, he said, "He claims not, but I got him a few times."
It's the kind of back-and-forth you would expect from friends. So do not misunderstand: While Johnson, the starting quarterback for Bowling Green, and Rowell, the starting center for Pitt, will stand on opposite sidelines Thursday for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, they are still friends.
It was a friendship forged on the fields around their hometown of Harrisburg. And it is a friendship that already has withstood the tests of time, distance and competition.
"We played each other in little league baseball, basketball, all that stuff," Rowell said. "We went to middle school together."
In high school their paths split: Johnson chose to attend the city's private school, Bishop McDevitt; Rowell went to the public school, Central Dauphin.
"A lot of my friends are older than me -- and they were already at McDevitt," Johnson said about his decision. "Plus, I knew coach [Jeff Weachter] had a great track record of getting guys into Division I programs."
Did Johnson try to recruit Rowell to McDevitt?
"Absolutely! He's a monster," Johnson said.
The two friends split their four high school meetings. Rowell's Central Dauphin team won their freshman and senior years; Johnson's McDevitt team won their sophomore and junior seasons.
Their paths seemed to separate forever when Johnson signed with Bowling Green and Rowell joined Pitt. But both have blossomed this season, their first as full-time starters.
Johnson took over as the Falcons starting quarterback and excelled, completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 3,195 yards and 23 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He led Bowling Green (10-3) to the Mid-American Conference's East Division title, then a win against No. 16 Northern Illinois in the MAC championship game.
Rowell could not watch too many of the Falcons' games, but saw their 47-27 win against the Huskies, in which Johnson completed 21 of 27 passes for 393 yards and five touchdowns.
"The things he was doing in that game looked like his high school days when he was wearing McDevitt colors," Rowell said.
Rowell started all 12 games at center for the Panthers, anchoring a line for an offense that averages 160.6 rushing yards per game and 374.1 yards of offense. He helped Pitt finish 6-6, including wins against Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division champion Duke and Notre Dame. That set up a sixth consecutive bowl appearance for Pitt.
Although the two schools were not scheduled to play one another during their careers, the two redshirt sophomores stayed in touch. As luck would have it, Bowling Green and Pitt were paired in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl .
"Even before [the announcement], when there was a potential that we might play them, we were texting back and forth," Johnson said. "There was no trash-talking; it was more about getting together, maybe taking a picture together after the game."
Well, there was a bit of trash-talking by Johnson on Twitter. There, he expressed the hope that he would get to face the Panthers after Pitt failed to offer him a scholarship.
"He's a good athlete, great leader, good kid," Rowell said of Johnson. "I know he said some things on Twitter or whatever but, hey, it is what it is. People come up to me in the locker room and ask me, 'Hey what's up with that?' I can't defend him, I can only say he's a good guy."
Their friendship will be put aside for four quarters Thursday.
"We shared the same dream -- and I'm excited that we both accomplished our dream of playing Division I football," Johnson said. "We never thought there was a chance we would play one another, because the only way would have been in a bowl game, and that's such a rare opportunity."
■ Game: Pitt (6-6) vs. Bowling Green (10-3).
■ When: 6 p.m. Thursday.
■ TV: ESPN.
The Block News Alliance consists of the Post-Gazette, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and television station WDRB in Louisville, Ky. John Wagner writes for the Toledo Blade. The Post-Gazette's Sam Werner contributed.