Bowling Green Falcons (10-3, 7-1 MAC) vs. Pittsburgh Panthers (6-6, 3-5 ACC)
Ford Field -- Detroit, Mich.
Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013 -- 6:00 p.m. ET
Television: ESPN, ESPN3 (streaming)
The Bowling Green Falcons and Pittsburgh Panthers will celebrate Boxing Day (or, if you wish, "Return Crappy Presents To The Mall" Day) when they tangle at Ford Field in Detroit, Mich. at what could be the final-ever Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Both teams have taken very different paths to get here.
Bowling Green started 5-3 but won their final five games, often by huge margins, to finish 10-3. In their final regular season game, the Falcons defeated then-undefeated Northern Illinois for their first MAC championship in 21 years. Dave Clawson, BGSU's head coach for the last five years, bolted to become the new head coach at Wake Forest just a few days after that MAC Championship victory. Special teams and tight ends coach Adam Scheier took over head coaching duties on an interim basis, but last week, Bowling Green hired Dino Babers (an Art Briles disciple formerly of Eastern Illinois) as their full-time head coach. Scheier will still coach the bowl game.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh survived years of coaching turmoil to finally find some stability with their current coach, Paul Chryst. Chryst leads a team that, for several seasons, has been neither very good or very bad. Rather, the Panthers just always seem to be mediocre. After playing in the BBVA Compass Bowl for the last three years, Pittsburgh finally gets a reprieve with a new bowl location. However, it took some heroics for them just to get here. The Panthers started the season 3-1, then lost three of their following four games. After starting 4-4, they alternated wins and losses over the final four games of the season to finish 6-6. Their final victory was 17-16 over Syracuse and occurred as a result of a blocked extra point by Aaron Donald. Without that, Pittsburgh might not even be bowl eligible. As it is, the Panthers had to be invited to an "at-large" bowl spot, created when the Big Ten could not fulfill its obligation to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
As MAC fans obviously know by now, the Falcons feature one of the nation's best defenses. They are first in the MAC and eighth nationally in total defense by allowing just 308.7 yards per game. Against the pass, they're even better. The Falcons' average of just 166.2 passing yards allowed per game leads the MAC and is fourth among all 125 FBS teams. The defense allows 14.8 points per game, which ranks fifth in the nation, and gives up a passing efficiency rating of just 105.19, which ranks sixth. Both figures are tops in the MAC. BGSU is also exceptional in the red zone. They allow scores on just 62.1 percent of opponent trips to the red zone; only one other team in FBS is better. Given all these numbers, consider that 22% of the points and 15% of the yards BGSU allowed this year came in one game (versus Indiana). If Pittsburgh is going to gain yards or score points, they're going to be hard-earned.
Of course, any assumption that BGSU is "all defense" would be incorrect. The Falcons gained at least 400 yards in nine games, at least 500 in three, and at least 600 once. Two of the four games in which they didn't gain 400 yards were ones in which they totaled 396, and they never gained fewer than 343 in all 13 games this season. Bowling Green is a ball-control offense that leads all FBS teams with an average time of possession of 34:16. They rank 14th nationally with 305 first downs and ninth with a team passing efficiency rating of 159.56. They're also in the top 40 in third-down offense (.466), passing offense (265.1), completion percentage (.631), rushing offense (207.5), total offense (472.5) and scoring offense (35.4). Individually, Matt Johnson is tenth nationally in passing efficiency and yards per completion (14.21). Meanwhile, Travis Greene is tenth in total rushing yards (1,555).
However, perhaps the Falcons best feature on offense is the fact that they simply don't beat themselves. BGSU is the best in the MAC, and third in FBS, in turnovers lost with just 11. They rank the same in the MAC and nationally with just four fumbles lost, and Johnson's seven interceptions are among the top 15 in the country. Pittsburgh should not expect to be given golden opportunities.
Bowling Green is also very good on special teams. Tyler Tate led the team with 104 points after kicking 56-of-58 extra points and succeeding on 16 of 20 field goals. After missing two against Indiana in September, Tate made 11 of his last 13 attempts, including a career-long 52 yard attempt against Northern Illinois three weeks ago. On punt coverage, BGSU is fourth in the country as they've allowed an average of just two yards for each of the nine punt returns opponents have tried. Of the 18 total punt return yards allowed, 14 came on one return. Falcon punt returners are ninth in the country with an average of 14.33 yards per return, and that includes returns of 67, 56 and 49 yards. Two of those went for touchdowns.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, their numbers aren't nearly as good. On offense, they average 26 points per game, or nearly ten fewer than BGSU. In terms of yardage, the Panthers accumulated 351.8 yards per game. The primary difference between Pittsburgh and the Falcons was on the ground. Whereas the Falcons rush for over 200 yards per game, the Panthers only earn 114.9 and just 3.3 yards per carry. Neither stat is very good. Pittsburgh does have a healthy 236.8 yards per game average via the pass, and their 7.5 yards per attempt number is very good. However, against an experienced secondary, being primarily one-dimensional is not a good idea. They're also not very good on third down, with a conversion rate of just 39 percent. However, they're similar to Bowling Green in the sense that they don't turn the ball over much. They've got just 17 giveaways in 2013, but their defense is not opportunistic, so the Panthers' turnover differential is -1.
Quarterback Tom Savage was good when he had time to throw. He totaled 2,834 yards and 21 touchdowns, but he was also sacked 41 times. His primary target was true freshman Tyler Boyd, who caught 77 passes for 1,001 yards and seven touchdowns. Boyd's experienced counterpart, Devin Street, has some of the best numbers in team history and caught 51 balls for 854 yards and seven touchdowns in just 10 games. Isaac Bennett and James Connor split time in the backfield, with each gaining over 500 yards.
On defense, you would expect a player as dominant as Aaron Donald to help lift the entire unit to better numbers, but that is not how the Panthers' defense played out in 2013. The team gave up an average of 27.2 yards per game and gave up more yards (374.1) than their offense gained. Against the run, the team was especially poor. Despite Donald's more-than-two-dozen tackles for loss, Pittsburgh gave up 160.6 rushing yards per game and 4.3 per carry. As noted above, they also weren't good at taking the ball away, as they combined for just 16 takeaways (8 fumbles, 8 interceptions). Pittsburgh was good in third-down situations and allowed conversions only 38 percent of the time. However, once teams got into the red zone, a score was almost guaranteed. Opponents scored on 35 of 38 red zone attempts (95%)
Donald was essentially Pittsburgh's whole defense in 2013. He had 54 tackles, and (essentially) half were in the offensive backfield. His 26.5 tackles for loss were more than 1/3 of Pittsburgh's entire total of 74. Further, he had ten of Pittsburgh's 18 sacks in 2013. Half of the remaining eight sacks were made by fellow defensive lineman Bryan Murphy. Donald also had four forced fumbles and the blocked extra point that saved the Panthers' bowl hopes. Outside of Donald, Ray Vinopal is perhaps Pitt's best defensive player. He led the team with three interceptions, had six pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. If Donald can't wreak constant havoc in BGSU's backfield, Vinopal could be the key to the game.
On special teams, Pittsburgh is pretty good. Field goal kicker Chris Blewitt is 11-for-14 with a long of 47 yards, while punter Matt Yoklic averages 43.1 yards per punt. Punt returner Kevin Weatherspoon averages 7.7 yards per return but does have a 56-yarder to his credit. Kickoff return duties are split between Boyd and Lafayette Pitts, and the pair each average over 22 yards per return.
On paper, BGSU clearly has the advantage here. Pittsburgh will have a edge physically and in terms of depth, and that will negate some of the "on-paper" edge that the Falcons enjoy. However, I'm not sure it overcomes that completely.
While Bowling Green has been as focused as a team could possibly be since their devastating last-minute loss to Toledo back in October, it's true that teams "locked-in" like this don't like three-week breaks, and the Falcons have gone through an upheaval with the loss of Clawson and the hiring of Babers. However, this is a team that's been through a lot of adversity and growing as a group and have excellent leadership at the top. There is coaching staff stability, for this game at least, as just about all of the assistants under Clawson will coach this one final game. I think that, while you might worry about teams in this position (see: Boise State's loss to Oregon State), Bowling Green is the type of team that can overcome those issues.
Further, Bowling Green is very machine-like in their execution. They don't beat themselves with a lot of penalties and turnovers, and when hose problems do pop up, someone on another unit makes a big play to pick up his teammates. Teams with this style of execution are the ones you want to have playing against higher-caliber teams, where mistake-free football is key. And BGSU's 21-20 loss to Mississippi State, who's also playing in a bowl, should give the Falcons all the confidence they need for this game.
Pittsburgh is a veteran team, as well, and they should come into this game motivated and ready to play. For once, they're the team watching someone else go through coaching upheaval. Also, a trip to a different bowl venue has to be good for the psyche, right?
No official win/loss prediction here, but this should be a close, fun game with a lot of good crowd engagement. BGSU appears to be very close to a sell-out of their bowl ticket allotment, and Pittsburgh is close enough that they should be able to end a good contingent of fans, too.
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