The 2013 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl -- quite possibly, the final edition of the game -- kicks off in less than 48 hours. The Mid-American Conference champion Bowling Green Falcons will face the Pittsburgh Panthers from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Bowling Green seeks to get the MAC off the schneid by securing the league's first bowl win of the season.
Who are the players to know for this titanic battle? We'll start with the designated road team.
Pittsburgh Panthers (6-6, 3-5 ACC)
#7 - Quarterback - Tom Savage
Savage is a redshirt senior that measures 6'5" and 230 pounds. He's the size of what has become the prototypical National Football League quarterback, but his journey as a college player has been anything but typical. He began his career in 2009 at Rutgers, where he started as a true freshman. He started 11 games, led his team to a bowl victory and was named team MVP on offense. He threw for over 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. However, as a sophomore, he played in just six games and started only four. After the 2010 season, he decided to transfer to Arizona, where he would have to sit out the 2011 season. He would have been eligible to play as a junior in 2012, but then decided to transfer to Pittsburgh before the 2012 season. Again, he had to sit out a year and would have just one season of eligibility left.
Despite not playing in two years, Savage entered his senior season as the starter and had a fantastic season. He threw 376 passes and completed over 61 percent of those. He had a career-best 2,834 yards and 21 touchdowns while throwing just nine interceptions. Those are fantastic numbers when you consider that he was also sacked 41 times and was almost constantly under pressure. After all that he's been through, this is a guy who isn't going to get easily rattled, and he'll be very dangerous if he has time to throw.
#23 - Wide Receiver - Tyler Boyd
Boyd, who stands 6'2" and weighs 185 pounds, is a true freshman but is already one of the best receivers in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Given time, he has a chance to develop into one of the top receivers in the entire country. Boyd is a Pennsylvania native who had an outstanding high school career. In his three years as a starter, his high school team never lost a game, and he actually starred as a running back. He rushed for 5,755 yards and had 117 touchdowns, and that includes 2,584 yards and 43 touchdowns just in his senior season.
As a freshman for the Panthers, he has 77 receptions for 1,001 yards and seven touchdowns. He averaged 13 yards per catch and 83 yards per game. He also was involved occasionally in the running game, as he secured 108 rushing yards on 11 carries. One of those 11 carries resulted in a touchdown. He's a speedy player who can be used in a variety of ways, including screens and end-around runs, so Bowling Green will have to be very watchful of him.
#74 - Right Guard - Matt Rotheram
As we noted above, Tom Savage was sacked 41 times this season and was under nearly constant pressure. Despite being a very veteran group, Pittsburgh's offensive line performed very poorly. Rotheram was the only member of the unit to be recognized as All-ACC, and he was just in the honorable mention group.
Rotheram has started each game in the last two seasons for the Panthers and is a monster in size at 6'6" and 340. He'll be counted on to help keep BGSU defenders away from Savage. The Falcons haven't rolled up a lot of sacks in 2013, but they've still been very effective at the line of scrimmage.
#97 - Defensive Tackle - Aaron Donald
Donald is arguably one of the five best players in all of football. Frankly, there's not much argument at all that he's the best player on defense. Who else could it be? Donald is first-team All-American (and first-team All-ACC), won the Nagurski and Outland Trophies as well as the Lombardi and Bednarik Awards, and was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
He has 26.5 tackles for loss in 2013, which is simply a mind-boggling number. That's an average of more than two per game, for those of you who don't want to bother with math on this holiday. Among those tackles are ten sacks, which means that Donald has more than half of Pittsburgh's season total of 18. He also has two pass break-ups and four forced fumbles.
Oh yeah -- Donald also has a blocked extra point. It was just sorta, kinda important. It only became the game-winning point in Pittsburgh's 17-16 win over Syracuse. Without that blocked kick, the Panthers might not be playing in this game.
This guy is an absolute terror, and I think it can be safely assumed that the Falcons will have to devote two players to block him. Even then, he could be very disruptive, so it will be imperative for players devoted to blocking Pitt's other defenders win those one-on-one matchups. If not, it will be a very long day for BGSU's offense.
#9 - Safety - Ray Vinopal
Other than Donald, Pittsburgh's defense gets very little love. Perhaps the team's best player on that side of the ball (not named Aaron Donald) is Vinopal. Vinopal has been all over the place this year. He's one of the Panthers' leaders with 72 tackles. Two of those tackles are for loss, and he was involved in one sack this season. He leads Pittsburgh with three interceptions and has six pass break-ups. He also has two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Provided he has some time to throw, Matt Johnson ought to have some success against Pittsburgh's secondary, but he may want to avoid Vinopal if he can.
And now, the designated home team...
Bowling Green Falcons (10-3, 7-1 MAC)
#11 - Quarterback - Matt Johnson
Johnson has to be one of the most successful out-of-nowhere stories in 2013, not just in the MAC but anywhere in college football. He competed for the starting job this summer against a three-year incumbent and was installed as the team's new #1 less than one quarter into the season. He threw for 3,195 yards and rushed for 269 more. He averaged 9.48 yards for each of his 337 attempts as a sophomore and completed 64.4 percent of those passes. He threw for 23 touchdowns (and ran for five more) while throwing just seven interceptions. Against 12-0 Northern Illinois, he fired five touchdown throws and accumulated 393 passing yards, as he led BGSU to its first conference championship in 21 years.
Johnson will again have to be accurate and avoid mistakes, but at this point, there's no reason to question whether or not he can do the job. It's plainly obvious that he's up to the challenge.
#13 - Running Back - Travis Greene
Whereas Tyler Boyd is a wide receiver converted from a running back, Greene is a running back converted from a wide receiver after Anthon Samuel transferred to Florida International last spring. Think that switch was a good choice? Well, Greene only set the BGSU record for rushing yards in a single season with 1,555. He also scored 11 touchdowns. Greene rushed for 100 or more yards in nine games, including each of the last five and seven of the last nine. The only interruptions to that streak were a 99-yard game (on 15 carries) against Mississippi State and a 96-yard game (19 carries) against Toledo. He had fewer than 88 yards in a game just once, when he ran for 43 (on only 11 carries) against Indiana.
Greene isn't the world's fastest back, but he's elusive and has very good vision. He's also fantastic after initial contact, despite a stature smaller than many other backs. It will be important for him to have a big game to help try to keep Donald at bay, so Johnson can be as crisp as possible.
#65 - Center - David "Chief" Kekuewa
Kekuewa is the anchor of the Falcons' offensive line and was named first team All-MAC for his efforts in 2013. He led a unit that helped BGSU's offense rank in the top three of the MAC in every major category and produce both a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,500-yard rusher. Against such an athletic, dominating defender such as Donald, his duties at the line will be even more important than usual. If the Falcons are to have offensive success anything close to what they did against Northern Illinois, he'll be at the center of the effort (pardon the pun).
#93 - Defensive Tackle - Ted Ouellet
Ouellet was the player who acted as the de-facto replacement for NFL draftee Chris Jones on the Bowling Green defensive line. Ouellet's numbers are not nearly as gaudy as Jones' were, but he's been effective nonetheless as he's helped lead a true team defensive effort. If anything, the Falcon defense is actually better in 2013 than it was in 2012, and that's truly saying something special.
Ouellet led the Falcons with 5.5 sacks and was second only to D.J. Lynch with seven tackles for loss. He also has an interception and a forced fumble. Ouellet is hard-hitting and disruptive, and he often lives on the opposing team's side of the line of scrimmage. With the well-documented troubles of Pitt's offensive line, Ouellet could have a very big role in this game.
#24 - Safety - Jerry "Boo Boo" Gates
Aside from having the most awesome nickname in the MAC, Gates is the leader on perhaps the conference's best defensive unit. The Falcon secondary is truly what makes their defense go, as they have excellent coverage cornerbacks and safeties who are good defenders at all levels. Their abilities often let the front seven devote more time and resources to defending the run and rushing the passer, which in turn helps the secondary.
Gates is third on the team with 63 tackles, including three for loss. He is tied for the team lead with two interceptions and also has three pass break-ups. Gates also enjoys taking the ball away from other players, as he has two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. One of his interceptions resulted in an 82-yard interception return for a touchdown against Ohio.
BONUS NAME TO KNOW:
Adam Scheier - Interim Head Coach, Bowling Green
Scheier is in what could be a very uncomfortable position this week. He was named interim head coach shortly after Dave Clawson left Bowling Green to become the new head coach at Wake Forest, but he already knows that this will be his only game at the helm of the Falcons. BGSU hired new full-time head coach Dino Babers last week.
Scheier had served as special teams and tight ends coach previously for BGSU and has been with the team since the beginning of Clawson's tenure. The players are very familiar and comfortable with him, and it's unlikely that anything scheme-wise will change from what the team has previously done this year.
He appears to be very professional and is saying all the right things publicly, but it would be natural for him to have reservations about the upcoming game. His mindset and ability to block out all the questions about his future will be a key factor in helping get his team ready for Thursday night.