DETROIT – Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald won a slew of awards this year.
The senior is hoping to close the season with a win Thursday night against Bowling Green at the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl to help the Panthers finish with a winning record for the first time since he was a freshman.
The Falcons won’t be easy to beat.
Bowling Green (10-3) is favored to top the Panthers (6-6) at Ford Field, where it defeated previously unbeaten and 16th-ranked Northern Illinois in the Mid-American Conference championship game earlier this month.
The impressive victory and the program’s turnaround led to Wake Forest hiring coach Dave Clawson away from the Falcons. Bowling Green picked former Eastern Illinois coach Dino Babers to replace Clawson but will be led in the bowl game by interim coach Adam Scheier.
Here are four things to watch when Pittsburgh and Bowling Green match up in the Motor City:
Donald won the Lombardi, Outland, Nagurski and Bednarik awards and was the ACC defensive player of the year. The 6-foot, 285-pound defensive tackle had 10 sacks this season and led the nation with 2.2 tackles for loss per game. “He’s a disruptive force,” Scheier said. “We’re just going to have to keep him in check.”
Bowling Green averaged 35.4 points and 472.5 yards with a balanced offense. Travis Greene ran for a single-season, school-record 1,555 yards. Matt Johnson threw for 3,195 yards with 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Johnson outplayed Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch in the MAC title game, throwing four of his career-high five touchdown passes in the first half. He was 21 of 27 for a career-high 393 yards, connected with five teammates for scores and didn’t throw an interception against a team playing for a BCS bowl bid.
The Panthers finished 6-7 in each of the last two years, capping each losing season with a lopsided defeat at the Compass Bowl. Mississippi routed Pitt 38-17 last season and SMU beat the Panthers 28-6 a year earlier. “We want to finish strong and wanted the opportunity to play another game with this group,” second-year Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “We like this group, and there’s a big difference in our room between going 7-6 and 6-7.”
The Falcons won’t have Clawson, but they will have some coaching continuity during their return to Detroit. Scheier, in his fifth season with the program, was the team’s special teams coordinator and tight ends coach under Clawson. The interim coach will be assisted by offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero and defensive coordinator Mike Elko against Pitt. “What we do here works,” Scheier said. “It’s a plan and foundation put in place by coach Clawson.” Clawson and his staff helped Bowling Green become the only team to have a chance this season to increase its number of victories by three for a third straight year. The Falcons can match a school record with an 11th win. They had eight victories last year, five in 2011 and two in 2010. Babers, a former Baylor assistant, turned around Eastern Illinois during a short stay. He was 19-17 in two seasons with the Ohio Valley Conference program.
The Detroit Lions decided to get in the bowl business and will host a game next year, effectively pushing the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl out of their stadium. The bowl game has been held at Ford Field since 2002. It was previously called the Motor City Bowl and was played at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.