The Falcons ended their season with a loss to Pittsburgh in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. The Panthers kicked a field goal in the final minutes to claim a 30-27 victory over the Falcons at Detroit’s Ford Field on Thursday, Dec. 26. Here’s a look back at the loss. ...
OPENING THOUGHTS: Are the soot-colored uniforms bad luck? No, wait … enough about uniforms. There were several disappointments in Thursday’s game, but they all seem to branch out from one root: Were the Falcons completely, totally ready for the bowl game? There was disorganization at times, BG seemed focused more on “chirping” and on chippy play than on winning the game, and there were mistakes made in areas that had been relatively mistake-free all season (special teams being the best example). Is that the result of the coaching change and the uncertainty of the coaching staff? It might have been, and it might not have been … but those factors certainly didn’t help.
TRICK QUESTION: Pitt’s James Conner ran for 229 yards on 26 carries, while Bowling Green had a net 10 yards rushing on 34 attempts. If you exclude sacks (the Panthers were sacked twice, BG allowed seven sacks), which team had more rushing plays that gained less than three yards?
OFFENSE: While Pitt's Aaron Donald finished with five tackles, including two for loss, he wasn’t statistically a huge factor in the contest. He was a factor, though, in that BG slowed him with double-teams (and occasional triple-teams) and forced other Pitt defenders to make plays. And those other defenders DID make plays. There were seven sacks (including two by defensive lineman Tyrone Ezell) and 12 tackles for loss overall. What’s more, Bowling Green’s running game was basically impotent because Travis Greene had very few plays where he broke free of a defender for extra yardage. By my unofficial tally, Greene gained just 27 yards after first contact (on 18 rushing attempts), and on NINE of those plays he went down the moment he was hit. That’s not a knock on Greene, who spent the entire season avoiding tackles and making big plays; that’s a tribute to Pitt’s tackling. In the passing game, Matt Johnson had some success on roll-outs and plays where he was able to avoid the rush, but there were a number of plays where he was under duress (as seven sacks would indicate). I thought the Falcons’ second drive, which reached the end zone but resulted in just a field goal, was a bad way to start the game. BG also was just 5-of-15 on third down, but were just 3-for-7 converting third downs of six yards or less. Three of the Falcons’ first four drives were three-and-outs, although Bowling Green improved its drive efficiency after that (the only other three-and-out came at halftime). But the lack of a running game (even setting aside the sacks) made the Falcons one-dimensional, and ultimately stop-able.
DEFENSE: The Falcons allowed 487 yards, although 30 points doesn’t sound as bad (especially when seven came on a punt return). But Pitt was missing one of its two top receivers, and its starting quarterback was knocked out of the game at halftime. Given those parameters, the BG defensive effort just wasn’t good enough. James Conner finished with 229 yards rushing on 26 attempts, which ain’t good (for the Falcons, that is). I watched the film and unofficially credited him with 160 yards AFTER the point where a BG defender had a chance to make the tackle. Listen, I understand that Conner is a load; but all season BG has done a GREAT job of tackling, especially stopping runners where they are hit, and BG’s inability to do that in the bowl game was startling. And in the passing game Tyler Boyd had eight catches for 173 yards despite being the primary (and some times the lone, in terms of being a threat) receiver to cover. I know the Falcons made getting Freddie Barnes open into a science, but BG's inability to cover Boyd also was startling. Bowling Green forced nine of Pitt’s 61 plays to result in no gain or negative yardage (14.8 percent), but the Panthers also had 17 plays gain at least 10 yards (27.9 percent), or basically one of every four. Pitt’s first two drives were both three-and-outs, but there never was another three-and-out after that. And the dagger? Not only did the Panthers cover 98 yards to score their last touchdown, they did it in just six plays. There were little victories for the Falcons (Pitt was just 3-of-12 on third down, for example), but not enough victories to make up for the losses.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Brian Schmiedebusch had arguably his best game as a Falcon, averaging 54.6 yards on five punts, including three that traveled at least 56 yards. And yet the Panthers had the 54-yard punt return for a touchdown by Tyler Boyd as well as a 17-yard return by Boyd. Also, Schmiedebusch had two punts downed inside the 20, and could have had a third if one of the BG punt cover players had been able to spot the ball quicker. I’m no expert on special teams coverages, but I pin the problems on the cover unit players, not Schmiedebusch. And before you say the senior “outkicked his coverage” on the return TD, note that the punt in question traveled just 46 yards. … It was a solid night for Tyler Tate, who connected on field goals of 28 and 46 yards and made all three PAT kicks. … Ryan Burbrink had two fair-catches on Pitt punts, although the Panthers twice forced BG to start drives inside its own 20. … Anthony Farinella posted two touchbacks on six kickoffs and averaged 62.7 yards on those kickoffs. But Pitt had 107 yards on its four kickoff returns, an average of 26.8 yards per kickoff. On the six kickoffs, the Panthers started on the 25 or worse four times, and one of the three outside the 25 began on the 28, which is pretty good. The one outlier? The 43-yard return by Lafayette Pitts that gave the Panthers the ball at midfield and led to their first touchdown. …The Falcons BooBoo Gates gave BG fans one last look at his kickoff return skills with the 94-yard TD return to start the second half. But the Falcons struggled on Pitt’s other six kickoffs, starting at the 25 (three times, including two touchbacks) or worse (twice) five times. The other “good” return was a 33-yard return by Gates in the second quarter that set up BG’s first touchdown drive.
ANSWERS TO THE TRICK QUESTION: Above I asked which team had more rushing plays that gained less than three yards, my measure of a “negative” play? The stats would tell you Bowling Green, since the Falcons had just 10 net yards rushing while Pitt finished with 255 yards. But remember that I told you not to include sacks, and BG was sacked seven times (Pitt QBs were sacked twice). The answer, believe it or not, was Pittsburgh, which had 14 rushing plays gain less than three yards while BG had 13. The reason for the rushing difference? The Panthers also had 10 running plays gain at least 10 yards, while the Falcons had only two.
THE LAST WORD: The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl was a forgettable finish to a memorable season. So let's forget about it and begin to focus on 2014. In short, can new coach Dino Babers and the returning players match, or even improve, on the successes of the 2013 season?
WANT MORE? Here you go … First, click here to read this Blade game story from the bowl game and click here to read The Blade notebook, featuring player reaction to the new uniforms. Click here to read the BiG Look at the contest. Click here to read Blade columnist Dave Hackenberg talking about the 2013 season ending on a sour note. And click here to view Jeremy Wadsworth's photo gallery from the contest.