This is going to sound at best self-serving (or, at worst, fabricated), but I meant to pick Pitt to beat Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. I just forgot.
My reasoning was (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) was that the seniors would step forward and end a turbulent college career with a big effort.
Who knew the freshmen would steal the show?
Yet, it’s worth giving a shout to a few seniors who played exceptionally well, especially defensive tackle Ty Ezell (two sacks for a loss of 14 yards after getting none in the first 12 games). Ezell was energized by the accolades (and double teams) thrown at his neighbor on the Pitt line, Aaron Donald.
You also need to credit seniors Juantez Hollins and Ryan Schlieper, who stepped into the void on the offensive line and were part of a unit that amassed 487 yards after averaging 351.8 during the regular season.
While we’re recognizing seniors, defensive backs Jason Hendricks and K’Waun Williams each contributed a TFL (tackle for a loss), among the 12 Pitt collected in the game.
Seniors not as fortunate included quarterback Tom Savage, who couldn’t play the second half of his final college game because of injured ribs that have been nagging him for several weeks. Prior to the game, he had said barely a word, publicly, about them.
“He’s the toughest kid I know,” backup quarterback Chad Voytik said.
Also, what had to be going through the heads of seniors Devin Street and Cory King, also sidelined by injuries in the final weeks of their collegiate careers?
For Pitt fans, the future looks bright, but – as coach Paul Chryst will tell you — that means nothing. Now, they have to go do it.
Several players who were productive against Bowling Green return — the freshmen’s stories have been well-chronicled, I think — but no one has said much about sophomore Nicholas Grigsby.
Grigsby, who brings something approaching sprinter’s speed to the linebacker position, led Pitt with 2 1/2 TFLs (minus-17 yards) and looks to be one of the keys to the 2014 defense that will miss Donald’s play-making ability. Coaches have paid special attention to Grigsby in each of the past three training camps, and he has responded well to some tough love.
Pitt has been in this position previously, winning its final game in 2007, 2009 and 2010, only to underachieve the next season. The last two times before Thursday that Pitt won a bowl game, its coach was gone by the end of the next season.
In 2009, the Panthers beat North Carolina, 19-17, in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, but opened 2010 2-3. Two months later, Dave Wannstedt was fired.
Few remember Pitt won its first appearance in the BBVA Compass Bowl, 27-10, against Kentucky after the ’10 season before opening the 2011 season 3-4 under Todd Graham.
The thrill of the 13-9 upset of West Virginia to end the 2007 season turned into a season-opening loss to Bowling Green, 27-17, in 2008.
Is there work to do next year? You bet, both in recruiting and player development. Chryst also must hire a strength and conditioning coach after Todd Rice resigned earlier this month with a training room that housed a few too many sore backs.
One of the most interesting talking points of the victory against Bowling Green was how it conjured up memories of Pitt greats Tony Dorsett, Darrelle Revis and Larry Fitzgerald.
Tyler Boyd’s punt return for a touchdown was Pitt’s first since Revis did it in 2006 against West Virginia. Boyd also broke three of Fitzgerald’s receiving records.
James Conner ran for 229 yards to break Dorsett’s school bowl record.
But before I make any more predictions that I don’t release, I’ll wait to see how the offseason unfolds.