Conner leads Pitt to 30-27 win in Little Caesar’s Bowl

DETROIT — James Conner rushed for 229 yards — breaking a Pittsburgh bowl record held by Tony Dorsett — and Chris Blewitt kicked a tiebreaking field goal with 1:17 remaining, lifting the Panthers to a 30-27 win over Bowling Green on Thursday night in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

Conner also played a handful of snaps on the defensive line, and fellow freshman Tyler Boyd gave Pitt (7-6) a boost with eight catches for 173 yards. Boyd also scored on a punt return in the first half.

Bowling Green (10-4) tied it at 17 when BooBoo Gates took the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown.

Dorsett rushed for 202 yards in Pitt’s win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1977. The school’s receiving record for a bowl came the next season. In a Gator Bowl win over Clemson, Gordon Jones had 163 yards receiving.

Both marks fell Thursday.

The 6-foot-2 Conner rushed for 165 yards in the second half, helping Pitt overcome the loss of quarterback Tom Savage, who didn’t play after halftime because of a rib injury. Conner and the Panthers drove 51 yards in seven plays late in the fourth quarter to set up a 39-yard kick by Blewitt, who had missed from the same distance earlier.

Aaron Donald, Pitt’s All-American on the defensive line, helped thwart any last-ditch comeback with a sack deep in Bowling Green territory.

Chad Voytik relieved Savage and put Pitt ahead 27-20 with a 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, but the Falcons — who upset Northern Illinois in Detroit in the Mid-American Conference title game earlier this month — tied it on Matt Johnson’s 15-yard strike to Ryan Burbrink with 4:42 to play.

Boyd’s 54-yard punt return gave the Panthers a 17-3 lead in the second quarter. Bowling Green rallied, tying it at 17 on the return by Gates to start the third.

Bowling Green appeared to catch a break on the kick return by Gates. A tussle behind the play drew a flag as Gates approached the goal line, but officials ruled that the touchdown stood, with offsetting penalties after the play.

The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl faces an uncertain future now that the Detroit Lions have decided to get in the bowl business and will host a game next season. If this game vanishes from the bowl lineup, this was an entertaining finale.

Conner put Pitt ahead 7-3 with a 15-yard scoring run near the end of the first quarter.

The Falcons rallied thanks in part to an ill-timed loss of discipline by Donald. The senior defensive tackle picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with Bowling Green about to punt from its own territory. The Falcons ended up scoring on the drive when Alex Bayer took Johnson’s short pass on fourth-and-1 and turned it into a 29-yard touchdown to make it 17-10.

Savage completed eight passes in the first half. Seven of them went to Boyd, for 111 yards.

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