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DETROIT — A memorable season for the Bowling Green State University football team had a forgettable finish at Ford Field.
The Falcons fell behind early thanks to breakdowns in all three phases of the game, then forged an impressive second-half comeback, only to see the University of Pittsburgh kick a field goal with 1:17 left and claim a 30-27 victory in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Bowling Green saw a five-game winning streak end and fell to 10-4 on the season, while Pitt finished 7-6.
“We had a great season, and this one loss doesn’t tell the story of the whole season,” senior offensive lineman Dominic Flewellyn said of the Mid-American Conference champion Falcons. “This loss doesn’t mean we’re not a good team.
“I’m proud of our guys.”
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The tone for this physical contest was set early as Bowling Green pushed to the Panthers’ 5 for a first-and-goal on its second drive of the game. The Falcons couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone and instead settled for Tyler Tate’s 28-yard field goal.
“That first drive, where we had a chance to get a touchdown but settled for a field goal, [the touchdown] would have helped,” interim coach Adam Scheier said. “We dug ourselves a hole.”
That hole came thanks to 17 unanswered points by the Panthers. A 43-yard kickoff return gave them the ball at midfield, and seven plays later James Conner scored on a 15-yard run.
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Following a three-and-out by the Falcons, Pitt drove 85 yards on 11 plays — including a 46-yard catch-and-run from Tom Savage to Tyler Boyd — that set up a 25-yard field goal by Chris Blewitt.
BG had another three-and-out, and on the ensuing punt Boyd fielded the ball on his own 46 and scampered 54 yards for a TD that made it 17-3 with 6:43 left in the second quarter.
In the first half alone Boyd caught seven passes for 111 yards; he finished with eight catches for 173 yards and 69 yards on three punt returns.
“He made great plays on the ball,” senior safety BooBoo Gates said of Boyd. “He’s an aggressive receiver. He’s a great player.”
Bowling Green showed some pluck by getting off the canvas and scoring a touchdown on its next possession. A personal foul on Pitt’s Aaron Donald kept the drive alive, and Matt Johnson converted a fourth-and-one play by finding Alex Bayer for a 29-yard touchdown.
The Falcons tied the game on the first play of the second half as Gates fielded the kickoff, found a seam and rumbled 94 yards for a touchdown. Gates tied the BG record for the longest kickoff return in school history, which was set by Leon Weathersby against Western Michigan in 1997.
“Coming out of halftime, I felt we needed something to happen — a spark,” Gates said. “I talked to myself, saying, ‘Make a play, Gates. Make a play, Gates.’
“I caught the ball, and I saw nobody was coming free. I set the coverage, there was a hole, and I hit second gear and just ran.”
BG got another stop and drove 51 yards to set up a 46-yard Tate field goal to take a 20-17 lead.
That’s when Pitt’s Joe Conner took over. The bruising back keyed a Panthers drive that ended with a 28-yard field goal by Blewitt that tied the game with six minutes left in the quarter. Conner had 132 of his 229 rushing yards in third quarter alone.
“Watching film, we saw he was a big back who came in on short yardage and got the big yards,” Gates said of Conner. “But it was a surprise how many tackles he was breaking.
“I hit him one time, and he slipped out of my tackle. I thought, ‘Man.’ All through the game he was physical, and the O-line was physical, too.”
Both teams put together clutch scoring drives to start the fourth quarter. Pitt drove 98 yards on just six plays before back-up quarterback Chad Voytik scored on a five-yard run, and BG answered with a nine-play, 75-yard drive and tied the game when Johnson completed a 15-yard scoring strike to Ryan Burbrink.
Johnson completed 20-of-32 passes for 272 yards but was sacked seven times for 55 yards in losses.
Pitt drove for the game-winning score as Conner had five carries for 32 yards and Voytik, who replaced Savage at quarterback in the second half after Savage was injured, added a 19-yard run to set up Blewitt’s game-winner from 39 yards out.
BG had one last gasp, but the Panthers — who finished with seven sacks on the night — pushed BG back to its own 1-yard line, and a fourth-and-40 play was a prayer that went unanswered.
It all added up to a stinging loss to end one of the best seasons in program history.
“We just met a team that was stronger than us, more physical than us, and we just couldn’t get it done,” Gates said.