The nation's top defensive player faces the MAC champs
A visit to Motown is just fine for Bowling Green and Pittsburgh.
No, Detroit isn’t everyone’s ideal day-after-Christmas destination, but the two teams playing in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl have reason to be pleased with their bowl trip.
For Bowling Green, the Falcons are here after upsetting undefeated Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game, a run good enough to garner a new head coaching job for Dave Clawson at Wake Forest. The Falcons will attempt to win their first bowl game since 2004 under interim coach Adam Scheier before new coach Dino Babers takes over.
This bowl bid isn't too shabby for Pittsburgh, either. After three consecutive seasons ending in Birmingham, Pittsburgh is finally on its way to a new bowl destination and under the same coach, Paul Chryst, for consecutive seasons. The Panthers reached bowl games in 2010 and 2011 under interim coaches.
In Detroit, Pittsburgh will look to cap an inconsistent first season in the ACC. Although the Panthers defeated Duke on Sept. 21 and Notre Dame on Nov. 9, the Panthers haven’t won back-to-back games since the end of September (and they won’t have an opportunity to rectify that in Detroit after losing the regular season finale to Miami).
Meanwhile, Bowling Green has used the top defense in the MAC to win its last five games. The Falcons intercepted two Jordan Lynch passes in the MAC title game as Northern Illinois scored a season-low 27 points.
Bowling Green vs. Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Dec. 26, 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Bowling Green by 3.5
Bowling Green’s Key to Victory: Contain the Pittsburgh passing game
Led by senior All-MAC safety BooBoo Gates, Bowling Green finished in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency defense, yards allowed per pass and passing yards per game. Pittsburgh has an above average passing game, led by an excellent duo of receivers in freshman Tyler Boyd, who topped the 1,000-yard mark in his first season, and veteran Devin Street. Rutgers transfer Tom Savage can get them the ball ... provided he stays upright. His jersey has changed, but Savage again has been one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the country. Opponents have sacked Savage 41 times this season. Adding to that total will be a key for Bowling Green.
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Win on third down and in the red zone
Northern Illinois had the unblemished record and the Heisman finalist, but it’s not tough to see why Bowling Green ended up winning the MAC. In addition to having the MAC’s best defense, Bowling Green led the league in third down offense and red zone defense and finished second in third down defense. In other words, Bowling Green made the critical plays to make up for a lack of star power. Pittsburgh has enough holes where the Panthers need to make these margin plays to secure a win.
Key player: Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
Don’t overthink it: Donald will be the best player on the field. By winning the Outland, Nagurski, Bednarik and Lombardi, the defensive tackle is the most decorated defensive player since Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson was brilliant against Northern Illinois, but the Falcons’ run game has been the constant during the five-game winning streak (5.2 yards per carry in that span). Donald could play a key role in shutting down both facets of the offense.
Bowling Green has the hot hand for sure. The Falcons knocked off their top competition in the MAC East on the road (Buffalo) and then an undefeated team in Detroit (Northern Illinois) in the last two weeks of the season. Pittsburgh has the edge in overall talent, particularly any time Aaron Donald is on the field. With a strong defense, Bowling Green has done enough in the final month of the season to show it’s capable of defeating a mid-level ACC team.
Prediction: Bowling Green 27, Pittsburgh 21