CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Pitt freshman tailback Dion Lewis made sure the final award of the season was the sweetest of them all, though forget about asking him to comment about it because he is always uncomfortable talking about his accomplishments.
Lewis was named the MVP of the Meineke Car Care Bowl yesterday after rushing 28 times for 159 yards and a touchdown to lead the Panthers to a 19-17 victory against North Carolina at Bank of America Stadium.
"Wait a minute, 28 carries, is that it? You had the day off," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt joked with Lewis at the postgame news conference, making reference to the fact that Lewis carried the ball 47 times in the Panthers previous game, a 45-44 loss to Cincinnati at Heinz Field.
"What he has accomplished this year, for a freshman, it goes without saying has been nothing short of spectacular."
Lewis' overall game was impressive, but what made it even more special is that the Panthers put the ball in his hands on the final, deciding drive, and he delivered even though everyone knew what was coming.
The Panthers trailed, 17-16, with 9:39 to play but drove 79 yards in 17 plays -- 13 of those plays for 58 yards were runs by Lewis -- and Dan Hutchins kicked the winning field goal with 52 seconds left to play.
"It is a great feeling knowing that the coaches trust me like that," Lewis said. "They trust me to get me the ball in clutch situations. My teammates also trust me and so I have to go out there and go to work and make sure I do my job.
"But I'm just trying to do what is best for the team and get a win."
Lewis, who was the Big East Conference offensive player of the year, also broke Pitt's freshmen rushing record of 1,686 set by Tony Dorsett in 1973.
He finished with 1,799 yards rushing, which is also the second-best total for any running back in Pitt history. He also tied Dorsett's Pitt freshmen record for 100-yard rushing games (10) and extended his own freshmen records for touchdowns (18), rushing touchdowns (17) and points (108).
Senior left guard Joe Thomas suffered an ankle injury in the Panthers' previous game against Cincinnati and never fully recovered, so redshirt sophomore Chris Jacobson earned his first start and played the majority of the snaps.
Also, freshman Dan Mason started at weak-side linebacker and redshirt sophomore Mat Gruder moved to strong-side linebacker in place of Greg Williams because Williams had missed some practices to attend a funeral.
The Panthers failed to score in the first quarter which extended their streak of consecutive scoreless quarters in bowl games to six. They were shutout a year ago in the Sun Bowl and didn't score in the final quarter of the 2004 Fiesta Bowl against Utah. ... Mason had an interception in the second quarter, the first of his career. ... Lewis lost a fumble early in the game, his first lost fumble of the season. ...Wide receiver Mike Shanahan had five catches for 83 yards, both career highs. "You look at the job Mason, Jacobson, Shanahan and then Dion Lewis did, all young guys, and it is clear the future is really good for us," Wannstedt said. ... Greg Gaskins played a few snaps early in the game at right tackle because Lucas Nix had a shoe problem.
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com .