Not sure you could draw up a better bowl game than that for Pitt. Sure it would have been nice to get the blowout win, but in a weird way I think the close game might have been better for the program's visibility. There were probably more than a few people who saw that tonight's game was close in the second half, tuned in and saw James Conner and company pull out a close win against a good team (though NIU's loss later tonight didn't help the MAC's perception). Here's a link to my game story from Friday's Post-Gazette, and here are a couple of thoughts before I head to sleep.
- Offseason momentum is very real: Just ask a school like West Virginia, or even Pitt's opponent last year, Ole Miss. When people go to analyze Pitt next season, they'll go through everything and then notice how well the Panthers played in this bowl game, especially given the number of freshmen that played key roles tonight. It's not the be-all, end-all — those bad losses to Navy, North Carolina and Georgia Tech still happened — but this is a big win for a program that's still trying to find its bearings and identity under Paul Chryst. I think it also helps that this game featured some of Pitt's skill players putting up gaudy numbers and showing that this offense might be ready to turn a corner. Chryst can go into recruits' living rooms this offseason (not just the few 2014 guys left on the board, but also juniors and even sophomores) and sell this win as a data point that the program is heading in the right direction. It's unfortunate that Tom Savage's college career had to end the way it did (given all the hits he has taken this year, it would have been nice for him to lead the team to a bowl win) but it also allowed Pitt to begin turning the page a little early.
- Save some credit for the offensive line: Conner, Chad Voytik and Tyler Boyd certainly deserve their share, but everyone should remember their reaction before the game (or during it) when they found out what Pitt's offensive line looked like tonight. Matt Rotheram missed tonight's game for personal reasons (which, from my understanding, are nothing to be concerned about) and Dorian Johnson stepped in at right guard and performed very, very well. Some of those holes Conner had to run through were gigantic. Johnson looked so natural at the guard spot, that it might make me rethink his long-term position. Just looking at next year, it makes a whole lot of sense to keep your four returning starters (including Adam Bisnowaty) intact and just put Johnson at the vacant left guard position. If you're looking for your best five — something Chryst and offensive line coach Jim Hueber often say — that's probably it.
- Don't forget about the seniors: In a lot of ways, it was fitting that the same was sealed by back-to-back sacks from Aaron Donald and Tyrone Ezell. Everyone knows about Donald, who leaves as the most decorated player in Pitt history and on par with Hugh Green as the program's best defensive players ever. I know Donald enjoyed his week of collecting individual awards, but I bet if you asked him, he would say he enjoyed collecting this trophy the most. There were a bunch of seniors that I thought played really well today, and shouldn't get lost in the love-fest for the freshmen (though that love-fest is also very deserved). Ezell, too, played a very nice game (and actually got my vote for Lineman of the Game over Donald, who was held in check for most of the day and had a bad personal foul). Ryan Schlieper has been very good all season stepping in for Cory King at left guard, and Savage was having a pretty nice game before he had to come out with a rib injury.
That's a wrap for the 2013 season, Pitt fans. I'm taking a week off to go visit friends and family, but will be back in January as we head down the home stretch for recruiting. Even during my vacation, I'll be active on Twitter @SWernerPG, so make sure to follow along.