After two-straight years of being a losing bowl team, a couple of outstanding players helped deliver a winning season to Pittsburgh in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl.
Aaron Donald, who won every top college football award a defensive lineman could have, delivered a sack in the final minute of the game that preserved a 30-27 win over MAC champion Bowling Green (10-4) at Detroit’s Ford Field.
Donald fellow protagonist on the offensive side of the ball was teammate James Conner, who set a Pitt bowl game rushing record with 229 yards, beating a guy named Tony Dorsett. It was Pitt’s first winning season (7-6) after two straight bowl losing years put the Panthers at 6-7. Dorsett had 202 yards in the 1977 Sugar Bowl.
Now the next milestone in the program is to watch how fast Donald goes in the NFL draft. A senior defensive tackle, Donald is projected as a second-round draft despite winning the Bronko Nagurski Award (nation’s top defender) and the Bednarik Award, also signifying the nation’s top defender. That’s not bad for a school like Pitt, which came to a Power 5 Conference (ACC) after long stints in the Big East and AAC.
Donald, at 6-foot-0, 285 pounds, led the nation with an average of 2.3 tackles per loss, so maybe his performance on the field along with a strong combine will help him move that projection up to the first round. NFL teams like height and leverage, and Donald can offer only leverage at the point of attack. He’s explosive with a terrific first step and caused Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson trouble even when he did not get to sack him.
Another plus for Donald is that he has alternated between tackle and defensive end in the Panthers’ 4-3 scheme. That versatility has to appeal to the NFL because the league places a premium on interchangeable parts along the line.
The NFL also places a premium on guys who can make big plays and Donald has done that all year.