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Panthers out to silence doubters in bowl game

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 4:06 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Lafayette Pitts celebrates after recovering a fumble during the second quarter against Notre Dame on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Ray Vinopal pulls down a fourth-quarter pass intended for Notre Dame's DaVaris Daniels Saturday Nov. 9, 2013 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt tight end Manasseh Garner gain yards after a first-quarter catch againt North Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, at Heinz Field.

Before Little Caesars Pizza Bowl officials had settled on an opponent for the MAC champion, Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson hoped it would be Pitt.

Later, oddsmakers installed the Falcons as six-point favorites against the 6-6 Panthers. With the passage of time, the margin has dropped to 4 12 a day before kickoff Thursday at Ford Field in Detroit.

That's a lot of disrespect thrown into the face of a Pitt team that is 29-3 all-time against the Mid-American Conference.

“It definitely lights a fire under you a little bit,” Pitt junior safety Ray Vinopal said. “But you also can only take it for what it's worth. You can't let that determine how you are going to think. You approach every week the same, whether you are playing Alabama or a school no one's ever heard of.

“You definitely like to know that kind of stuff, but you brush it off.”

Freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd sounded a bit bemused by Johnson's wishes to take revenge on Pitt after previous coaching staffs failed to offer him a scholarship when he was attending Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg.

“They are talking a lot of trash,” Boyd said. “I don't like when people talk a lot of trash if they can't back it up. I guess he is going to try to put it all out on the field. We're going to see what he's got.”

There are reasons for Pitt's underdog status, possibly stemming from a 2-4 record in the second half of this season and its past two bowl performances. The Panthers lost to SMU and Ole Miss by a combined score of 66-23 with two unspectacular efforts in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

The other factor could be the possible absence of senior wide receiver Devin Street, Pitt's all-time leading pass catcher who has missed most of the past two games with foot and elbow injuries. Together, Boyd and Street could make a difference against a Bowling Green defense that allowed a total of 17 points in the final four regular-season games and has NFL prospect Boo Boo Gates patrolling the secondary at safety.

“I've been missing him,” Boyd said of Street. “Not being out there side-by-side with him doesn't feel right.”

What also feels wrong, according to Boyd, is the reputation that has been clinging to Pitt recently while it compiled an 18-20 record over the past three seasons. He said All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald started to change that perception by winning the Bednarik, Nagurski, Outland and Lombardi awards this month.

“Just because you are from Pitt doesn't mean you can't achieve anything,” Boyd said. “A lot of people talk, “Pitt (isn't) this. Pitt (isn't) that. Pitt (doesn't) have any athletes. Pitt (doesn't) have any playmakers.'

“After seeing Aaron Donald collect all those awards as a defensive lineman, it let everybody know we are working and striving for the same thing everybody else is working for.”

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