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Published: Friday, 12/27/2013

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Season ends on sour note in Detroit

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

DETROIT — The Bowling Green Falcons would prefer that the lasting memory, the very last memory, was from the Mid-American Conference championship game.

That’s the way a team wants to go out, putting the heavyweight on his back, down for the count, the way BG did to Northern Illinois at Ford Field three weeks ago.

You don’t want the last memory to be of the same thing happening to you.

But the Falcons, so physical all season in MAC play, got pushed around Thursday night in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and Pittsburgh was too much in a 30-27 decision.

The scoreboard was far closer than the physical and statistical beating BG took, which is to the Falcons’ credit. Pitt had a 200-yard edge in total offense, part of that due to seven sacks and 12 tackles behind the line of scrimmage by the Panther defense that subtracted huge chunks of yards from the BG total.

But the biggest difference-maker was Pitt running back James Conner, who broke a school record that stood for more than 35 years and was held by some guy named Tony Dorsett. That’s all.

Conner, a freshman, is listed at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, but he looked and played taller, bigger, and stronger than an ox.

“The running back was a bear to tackle, as evidenced by how many he broke,” said BG interim coach Adam Scheier.

Conner wasn’t a secret — he’d netted about 50 yards per game, on average — although BG safety BooBoo Gates said film indicated the big back was used mostly in short-yardage situations.

Once Pitt’s coaches realized BG had no answer for him, Conner became an every-down back.

“I hit him once and he slipped out of it and I thought, ‘Oh, man.’ The whole game, he and their offensive line were really physical,” Gates said.

Conner did better than 50 yards on this night. Heck, he had 45 on one carry and several more in the 30-plus range. He finished with 229 and that was 27 yards more than Dorsett had in the 1977 Sugar Bowl against Georgia, the previous Pitt bowl record.

Not bad company.

While Conner, who was surprisingly quick and nimble, and his offensive line were busy dusting BG’s defense, Falcons quarterback Matt Johnson was being thrown for 56 yards in losses by Pitt’s great defensive tackle, Aaron Donald, and his D-line mates.

“We tried to keep Matty clean, we fought our hearts out,” said BG offensive guard Dominic Flewellyn. “But …”

All season during their march to the MAC championship, the Falcons were the bullies, the big, strong, physical team that most often imposed its will.

But Scheier, after pouring over Pitt film, was not surprised by what he witnessed Thursday night.

“I certainly respected the physical nature of their team,” he said. “That was not a surprise.”

The Falcons played over it as best they could, from Gates’ 94-yard kickoff return that opened the second half and tied the game at 17, to Johnson’s dramatic touchdown pass to Ryan Burbrink, a cross-body laser shot between two defenders, that tied it again at 27-all with 4:42 to play. But Conner had another drive in him and a late Pitt field goal decided things.

“It’s always great to win a conference championship, but we didn’t finish like we wanted,” Gates said. “We just met a team more physical than us, stronger than us, and we couldn’t get it done.”

So that, and a BG team that battled to buck those odds, will be the lasting memory of this game.

It may be the final memory, period, for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

The Detroit Lions and the Big Ten will partner in a new bowl at Ford Field starting next season, never mind that the Big Ten has never been an avid participant of this event at this site in the past.

The new alliance, which prefers no competition, may prove to be bigger and it may prove to be better, but the Pizza Bowl and its predecessor, the Motor City Bowl, served the MAC well for 17 years.

As Gates suggested, sometimes you just run into somebody stronger.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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