DETROIT -- While a bowl game represents the end of the season, the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl Thursday night might have provided a glimpse of the future for Pitt.
Four freshman played key roles as the Panthers beat Bowling Green, 30-27, to head into the offseason with positive momentum for what seems like the first time in ages.
Freshman Chris Blewitt kicked the winning field goal with 1:17 left, his classmates James Conner and Tyler Boyd set Pitt bowl game records, and redshirt freshman quarterback Chad Voytik stepped in for the second half to lead Pitt to the win.
"What can you say?" Voytik said. "I'm excited. You can't ask for much more. Young talent and years to play with them. We can only get better."
Conner, the game's MVP, rushed for 229 yards, breaking Tony Dorsett's school bowl record of 202 yards set in the 1977 Sugar Bowl against Georgia. The freshman also chipped in by playing a handful of snaps at defensive end and caused a key holding penalty by Bowling Green late in the game that pushed the Falcons back.
"[Coach Paul Chryst] said he wanted to unleash me on both sides, so he asked me to play some defense, and I was all for it," Conner said.
As a team, the Panthers ran for 255 yards against a defense that was the best in the Mid-American Conference this season.
"He's unbelievable," Voytik said of Conner. "It makes playing the quarterback position easy when you've got a running back running like that."
Boyd had 173 receiving yards, another Pitt bowl record, which he set on a 62-yard pass from Voytik in the fourth quarter on a drive that ultimately led to a touchdown that put the Panthers ahead, 27-20.
Voytik found out at halftime he would be replacing quarterback Tom Savage, who injured his ribs on the final play of the first half. To raise the stakes a little, Bowling Green's BooBoo Gates returned the opening kickoff of the second half 94 yards for a touchdown to tie the score, 17-17.
"I was nervous when I first found out, but, once I got on the field, there was just a calm that came over me," Voytik said. "It was just football."
On Voytik's second drive, he came out with the ball on the Pitt 2. After a 20-yard pass to Manasseh Garner converted a third-and-5, Voytik reached back and found Boyd for the 62-yard completion.
"I thought it slipped," Voytik said. "I thought I underthrew him by 10 yards. I guess if I had gotten all of it with my nerves, it would've gone 10 yards over his head, so I'm glad it slipped a little bit."
Two plays later, Voytik ran it in from 5 yards out to give the Panthers a 27-20 lead.
The Falcons tied the score on their next drive, but Voytik and Conner answered right back. The duo combined for 51 yards, all on the ground, to set up Blewitt's winning field goal.
"I thought Chad did a nice job and was poised," Chryst said. "Certainly, I think it helped when we were running the ball the way we did."
Pitt needed the back-and-forth second half after giving away a 17-3 first-half lead.
After a Bowling Green field goal gave the Falcons a 3-0 lead early in the first quarter, Pitt responded with 17 unanswered points.
On the drive after the Bowling Green field goal, Pitt put together a 50-yard touchdown march. The final 37 came on the ground from Conner, who gave the Panthers a 7-3 lead with a 15-yard touchdown run with 58 seconds left in the first quarter.
The next drive kicked off with a 46-yard pass from Savage to Boyd that sparked yet another scoring march. Boyd almost came down with a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch to finish off the drive, but he was ruled out of bounds and Pitt had to settle for a field goal.
After the Panthers forced another punt, Boyd put a cap on the scoring spree with a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown. He made the two Falcon gunners miss and tip-toed down the sidelines the rest of the way to put Pitt in front, 17-3.
Even though it required some dramatics in the second half, Pitt finally put the game away on with sacks by Aaron Donald and Tyrone Ezell, two seniors who will leave Pitt saying they won their last game as Panthers.
"It's a great feeling to leave a winner," Donald said, who was chosen the lineman of the game. "For the young guys, it's something to build off. It's a great feeling just to know that the program is going back on top with coach Chryst. That's a guarantee."
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG First Published December 26, 2013 9:30 PM