DETROIT -- A few weeks back, Pitt coach Paul Chryst said he was talking to redshirt senior nose tackle Tyrone Ezell when Ezell recalled the Panthers’ most recent bowl win, a 27-10 victory in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Kentucky to end the 2010 season.
Ezell was a redshirt freshman on that team and told Chryst what it felt like to end the season with a victory, the sense of accomplishment and positive momentum heading into the offseason. It’s something that the freshmen, sophomores and juniors have not experienced, with the past two seasons coming to an end with a 6-7 record and a loss in Birmingham, Ala.
The Panthers have a chance to put a positive cap on the up-and-down 2013 season today when they play Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
“There’s a big difference in our room between going 7-6 and 6-7,” Chryst said. “There’s a lot of reasons. The senior class, they want to finish it out right and I think they want to send the young guys into next year with some momentum. Every team’s the same way. Bowling Green’s probably got the same mantra. We’re looking forward to going up, getting one more chance to play and our goal is to play the best game we’ve played to this point.”
Each of the past two years, any momentum Pitt tried to establish in the bowl game was pounded into the turf at Legion Field by SMU and Mississippi, respectively.
Players and coaches said the same things those years, too, about 7-6 being much better than 6-7 and ending the season on a strong note. Perhaps the move out of Birmingham and about 700 miles north will make all the difference.
“I don’t know about last year and prior years, I just know what we’re going to do this year and how we are this year,” star defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “The main focus is Bowling Green.”
It likely will take one of Pitt’s best efforts of the season to come out of Ford Field with a win today. The Falcons might not be one of college football’s traditional powers, even at the mid-major level, but they have quietly put together a good season — if that’s possible for a conference champion.
After a 42-10 pasting Sept. 14 at the hands of Indiana, Bowling Green lost just two games the rest of the season: a 21-20 loss against the Southeastern Conference’s Mississippi State and 28-25 defeat against Mid-American Conference rival Toledo the next game.
The high point of the Falcons’ season undoubtedly came Dec. 6 when they handed heavy favorite and Bowl Championships Series hopeful Northern Illinois its first loss, 47-27, in the same stadium they will play in today.
“You just watch the film and see how good they are,” Chryst said. “Obviously if you’re going to win a championship and double-digit wins, it’s a good football team. The film certainly backs it up. Our guys are excited to play because they know we’re playing a heck of a team.”
The Falcons offense, led by sophomore quarterback Matt Johnson, gets most of the attention but the defense also has done its part. Bowling Green ranks second in Division I-A in red-zone defense, allowing scores on just 62.1 percent of opponents’ red-zone possessions.
Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd said he expects to be challenged man-to-man on the outside, but is looking forward to the test.
“Their secondary, I don’t think they’re anything we didn’t see; I think we’ve seen better,” he said. “We’ve just got to win one-on-ones, basically.
“I’m a competitor. I just like to come out here and compete against the best or whoever lines up in front of me. Of course, once the game comes, I’m going to be really ready.”
While the Panthers have displayed the proper level of respect for their opponents, there’s also a small chip on their shoulder knowing they come in as 41⁄2-point underdogs.
“We know it, but that right there is just more motivation,” Boyd said. “It’s going to keep pushing us and make us more hungry to win this bowl game.”
As a freshman, Boyd is one of the players who could use the momentum from a big win against a quality opponent heading into the offseason. For his 18 senior teammates, though, today will mark their final time wearing a Pitt uniform.
“It’s a whole lot of emotion for us, as seniors, just to finish the season off on a good note,” cornerback K’Waun Williams said. “It’s going to mean a lot to me to end my career on a good game.”
Even quarterback Tom Savage, who is finishing his only season at Pitt, said the end of the game will be emotional, though a victory could make it a little sweeter.
“It’ll be sad,” he said. “That’s going to be tough. Not being with the guys anymore, that’ll be the toughest thing. Let’s just get the win and we’ll celebrate after.”
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.