NUmbers Guy: Pinstripe Bowl Preview
After finishing the regular season at 6-6, the Northwestern Wildcats head to the Bronx where they’ll take on the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28. The Panthers are a formidable foe for the Wildcats, finishing the season 8-4 with wins over two teams ranked in the College Football Playoff committee’s top five, Penn State and Clemson. The Wildcats will be looking for their first bowl win since 2012 and just their second since 1949, so let’s take a look at the NUmbers that could determine who’s victorious in the Bronx on Wednesday.
While the Wildcats do allow over 400 yards of offense per game, Northwestern has bent but not broken on defense, allowing an average of just 22.1 points per game, No. 24 in the FBS. But in the Bronx, the ‘Cats will be facing a Panthers offense averaging almost 450 yards of offense and 42.3 points per game, No. 10 in the FBS. Quarterback Nathan Peterman and running back James Connor can and probably will give the Wildcats all sorts of struggles on defense, but if the Wildcats are able to bend but not break, they could give their offense – No. 91 in the FBS averaging 25.6 PPG – a chance to keep up with Pitt.
Along with the bend, but not break defense, the Wildcat defense was able to get off the field on third downs this season, allowing just 33.94 percent of third down conversions, No. 34 in the FBS. However, with a talented offense that ranks No. 4 in S&P+, the Panthers convert third downs at an astonishing 45.34 percent rate, No. 23 in the FBS. If the Panthers are able to pick up third downs and keep the Wildcat defense on the field, it could be a long day for the purple and white. In almost every game the Wildcats lost this season, the time of possession battle was skewed towards their opponent.
Among the areas the Wildcats struggled in this season was their red zone offense: the ‘Cats scored on just 77.55 percent of their red zone trips and scored touchdowns on just 51.02 percent of those possessions. Coming away with field goals, and not touchdowns, proved to be the difference in a few of the Wildcats’ contests, and it could be the same against the potent Panther offense on Wednesday. However, Pitt’s defense really struggled in the red zone this year, allowing scores on 92.59 percent of possessions, No. 120 in the FBS, and touchdowns on 70.37 percent of them.
Each of Northwestern’s losses had a similar theme, Northwestern struggled on offense, and the defense eventually tired out with a huge gap in time of possession. One of the many reasons for their struggles was the Wildcats’ offensive line play, which allowed 35 sacks this season, No. 108 in the FBS. It won’t get any easier for the Wildcats in New York as they’ll be facing a defense that was No. 11 in the nation with 39.0 sacks, led by Ejaun Price’s 12.0. The Wildcats’ offense line will have to do a better job against Price and the Panthers defensive line if they want to walk out of Yankee Stadium with a win.
If the Wildcats are able to keep Thorson upright though, Northwestern may be able to take advantage of a Pittsburgh pass defense that ranked No. 127 in the FBS, allowing 343.1 passing yards per game. Northwestern averaged just under 250 passing yards per game, but the Panthers have had all sorts of trouble in the secondary this season and if Thorson, Austin Carr and co. are able to take advantage, the ‘Cats could find their offensive groove. The Panthers allowed 57 passing plays of more than 20 yards this season, No. 127 in the FBS, and 13 different receivers surpassed the 100 yard mark against Pitt this season.