DETROIT — The nerves started playing games with Chad Voytik’s head when he got the news: Pitt quarterback Tom Savage had injured ribs, and Voytik, the Panthers’ heralded recruit of 2012, was getting his chance.
He didn’t let the moment go to waste.
With the game on the line, he led Pitt on two critical scoring drives in the fourth quarter of a 30-27 victory against MAC champion Bowling Green on Thursday night in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. The victory in front of a crowd of 26,259 at Ford Field gave Pitt (7-6) its first winning season since 2010.
“I was nervous when I first found out,” Voytik said. “But once I got on the field, there was a calm that came over me. It was just football again, just like I’ve always known it.”
Kicker Chris Blewitt, one of four freshmen who stepped up in crucial situations, recorded the decisive points with a 39-yard field goal with 1:17 left. Freshman running back James Conner, who also played defensive end for the first time this season, gained 229 yards on 26 carries and was named MVP. He broke a Pitt bowl record (202) set by Tony Dorsett in the 1977 Sugar Bowl in which Pitt won the national championship.
“It feels awesome being a part of history,” he said. “Coach gave me the ball, so I just continued to run.”
Thirty-two of Conner’s yards came on the final drive.
“He’s unbelievable,” said Voytik, who ran 20 yards to set up the field goal and 5 more for a score earlier in the fourth quarter. “He makes the quarterback position easy.”
Pitt played without three starters from its offensive line — two from previous injuries and junior right guard Matt Rotheram (excused for personal reasons). Also, freshman Shakir Soto started at defensive end for Bryan Murphy (personal reasons), and senior receiver Devin Street, the team’s emotional leader and No. 2 pass catcher, was out with foot and elbow injuries.
Savage, who completed 8 of 13 passes for 124 yards in the first half, was hurt on the second of two sacks.
“Enough can’t be said,” said coach Paul Chryst, whose team totaled 487 yards of offense. “I’m really proud of what they did and what they overcame. It didn’t go perfect. It never does. But certainly, I wasn’t surprised.”
Voytik came into the game with three career pass attempts. But he led a 98-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, punctuating it with a 5-yard run around right end, that gave Pitt a 27-20 lead with 9:31 to play. Overall, Voytik completed 5 of 9 passes for 108 yards, including a 62-yard bomb to freshman Tyler Boyd that set up the score.
Voytik said he thought he was going to underthrow Boyd.
“At first, I thought it slipped,” Voytik said. “I guess if I had gotten all of it, with my nerves, it would have sailed over his head. I’m glad it slipped a little bit. I don’t know if it was adrenaline or what, but it got there for me.”
After Pitt took the lead, Bowling Green tied the score on 15-yard touchdown pass from Matt Johnson to Ryan Burbrink with 4:42 left. But Voytik had time for one more scoring drive.
Pitt led 17-3 in the second quarter before allowing Bowling Green (10-4) to tie the score on a 94-yard kickoff return by Boo Boo Gates to open the second half.
The Falcons took a 20-17 lead with 9:52 left in the third quarter on a 46-yard field goal by Tyler Tate. Blewitt tied it at 20-20 on a 28-yarder with 5:59 left in the third quarter after he had missed from 39 earlier in the period.
Boyd had his best game of the season, catching eight passes for a Pitt bowl-record 173 yards and returning a punt 54 yards for a touchdown. It was Pitt’s first such score since Darrelle Revis did it in 2006.
In the process, Boyd set school freshman records held by Larry Fitzgerald for 100-yard games in a season (five) and yards receiving (1,074). He already had the freshman record for catches (85), also set by Fitzgerald in 2002.
Bowling Green kept All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald in check for most of the first half with repeated double-team blocking. But Pitt took advantage of the attention paid to Donald by unleashing a strong pass rush that netted five sacks before halftime and seven overall. Donald and Tyrone Ezell each had a sack while protecting the lead on Bowling Green’s final possession.
Pitt’s defense rose to the occasion in the first quarter after Bowling Green had driven to the Panthers’ 5-yard line. Two runs failed before Ezell sacked Johnson for a 5-yard loss on third down.
After a 28-yard field goal by Tate, Pitt’s offense came to life. Conner carried five times for 39 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown run to give the Panthers their first lead in a bowl game — at 7-3 — in almost three years.
Pitt increased the lead to 17-3 before halftime on a 25-yard field goal by Blewitt and Boyd’s return.
Bowling Green responded with 1:28 left in the first half on a touchdown drive that cut the lead to 17-10. Bowling Green scored on a 29-yard, fourth-down pass from Johnson to tight end Alex Bayer. Donald kept the drive alive when he was called for a hands-to-the face penalty after Pitt had stopped the Falcons on third down.
“It was just a dumb move on me,” Donald said. “I can’t do that being a leader. But we had the win, so I’m excited about that.”