While the big boys got ready for New Year's Day and the battle for the national championship, four teams in the bottom half of the Top Twenty-Five played their bowl games Saturday.
No. 23 Pittsburgh beat No. 16 Texas A&M 31-28 in the John Hancock Bowl, while Washington beat Florida 34-15 in the Freedom Bowl and Syracuse beat Georgia 19-18 in the Peach Bowl. In a night game, No. 14 Clemson beat No. 17 West Virginia 27-7 in the Gator Bowl.Paul Hackett was elevated from interim status to Pittsburg's head coach just before the Hancock Bowl, which used to be the Sun Bowl. Alex Van Pelt then threw a 44-yard, game-winning touchdown to Henry Tuten.
"We were just looking for the first down," Van Pelt said of the pass with 2:19 left. "They blitzed and they bumped up on Henry Tuten and he just ran a go route, ran perfect, the line held out, and he caught it."
Van Pelt, a redshirt freshman, hadn't played a down until being thrust into a starting role when former starter Darnell Dickerson became an academic casualty.
Under Hackett's tutelage, he passed for 15 touchdowns and 2,527 yards, a total surpassed at Pitt by only Dan Marino.
Van Pelt was so concerned about Pitt's plans for the Hancock Bowl - and about Hackett's future - "that he called me about 15 times," the day Mike Gottfried was fired as coach, Hackett said.
"The players are all for him," Van Pelt said. "I mean, he's a hell of a coach."
Hackett was a finalist for several jobs, including twice at Stanford, but wondered if he might be stereotyped as a cerebral, astute offensive tactician best suited to being somebody else's top aide. He is credited with developing Joe Montana, Brian Sipe, Danny White and Steve Bartkowski.
After Van Pelt's touchdown put Pittsburgh ahead, Texas A&M's following drive fizzled on an interception. Pittsburgh finished with an 8-3-1 record and Texas A&M fell to 8-4.
On Sunday, North Carolina State (7-4) plays Arizona (7-4) in the first Copper Bowl. And then on Monday the top 12 teams go at it: No. 9 Auburn (9-2) plays No. 21 Ohio State (8-3) in the Hall of Fame Bowl, No. 15 Virginia (10-2) plays No. 11 Illinois (9-2) in the Citrus Bowl, No. 10 Arkansas (10-1) plays No. 8 Tennessee (10-1) in the Cotton Bowl, No. 6 Nebraska plays No. 5 Florida State (9-2) in the Fiesta Bowl, No. 3 Michigan (10-1) plays No. 12 Southern California (8-2-1) in the Rose Bowl, No. 1 Colorado (11-0) plays No. 4 Notre Dame (11-1) in the Orange Bowl and No. 2 Miami (10-1) plays No. 7 Alabama (10-1) in the Sugar Bowl.
Washington 34, Florida 7
Cary Conklin threw two touchdown passes in the first quarter and Greg Lewis upstaged All-America Emmitt Smith as Washington beat Florida in the Freedom Bowl.
The game was likely the last for Florida interim head coach Gary Darnell. Steve Spurrier, who won the Heisman Trophy as Florida's quarterback in 1966, is expected to be named the Gators' new coach in the next few days.
Florida finished 7-5 and was 3-4 under Darnell, who got the job when Galen Hall resigned on Oct. 8 after admitting two NCAA rules violations.
Washington (8-4) won its second Freedom Bowl. The Huskies also beat Colorado in 1985.
Lewis, a second-team All-Pacific-10 Conference pick, gained 97 yards on 27 carries. Smith, who will decide soon whether he'll return for his senior season or turn pro, had 17 yards - his lowest since gaining 16 in his debut as a freshman - on seven carries. He carried only twice in the second half as the Gators were forced to go to the air after falling behind 27-7.
Conklin looked sharp directing Washington's new short-passing game, leading the Huskies to scores on their first three drives. He threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Mario Bailey on the Huskies' first possession, which was kept alive on a penalty for running into the punter.
It looked like it would turn into a wild game. On Florida's second play from scrimmage, quarterback Donald Douglas faked a handoff to Smith and turned upfield on a 67-yard scoring run that tied it at 7.
Syracuse 19, Georgia 18
John Biskup kicked a 26-yard field goal with 25 seconds remaining as Syracuse rallied for a victory over Georgia in the Peach Bowl.
Syracuse (8-4) moved 64 yards in 11 plays to set up Biskup's game-winner. The key play was a 29-yard pass from Mark McDonald to Michael Owens that moved the ball to the Bulldogs' 29.
Georgia (6-6), playing in a bowl game for the 10th consecutive year, got two touchdown passes from Greg Talley and led 18-7 before Kiskup kicked a 32-yard field goal with 1:44 left in the third period.
The Orangemen cut the deficit 18-16 when Rob Moore caught a 19-yard TD pass from McDonald 4:52 into the final period. But McDonald, who replaced starter Bill Scharr early in the third period, overthrew Andrew Dees in the end zone in a bid for the two-point conversion.
Talley connected on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Kirk Warner to cap a 66-yard drive on Georgia's opening possession of the game and threw a 4-yard TD to Rodney Hampton midway in the third period to put the Bulldogs up 18-7. Georgia's bid for a two-point conversion failed.
Syracuse tied it at 7-7 on a 1-yard run by Owens before the Bulldogs took a 10-7 lead at intermission on a 20-yard field goal by John Kasay.
Georgia made it 12-7 at 5:08 of the third period when Syracuse's Matt Greco, from the Orangemen 23, snapped the ball over punter Ken Hawkins' head and out of the end zone for a safety.
Clemson 27, West Virginia 7
Joe Henderson and Wesley McFadden scored on short runs and 14th-ranked Clemson forced four Major Harris turnovers as the Tigers defeated West Virginia in the 45th annual Gator Bowl.
The four Harris turnovers all came in the second half as Clemson broke open a close game with 17 points in the fourth quarter.
Harris was intercepted once and he lost three fumbles, the last fumble being recovered in the end zone by Clemson's Chester McGlockton for a touchdown that gave the Tigers a 24-7 lead with 8:08 left in the game.
Chris Gardocki's second field goal of the game, a 24-yard kick with 3:16 left, completed the Clemson scoring.
Clemson closed out a 10-2 season with its fifth straight victory and fourth consecutive bowl win, while 17th-ranked West Virginia fell to 8-3-1, losing its third straight bowl game. It was the first time the two schools have met on a football field.
Henderson's 4-yard touchdown early in the fourth period gave the Tigers a 17-7 lead. The scoring drive was set up when Harris fumbled at the West Virginia 43.
West Virginia managed to move into Clemson territory just twice after scoring on its initial drive of the game. And on both of those occasions, Harris turned the ball over on the following play.