Seemingly destined for a disappointing season after an 0-2 start, Northwestern is back in the postseason for the second straight year. Beating a team with one of the nation’s most explosive offenses would be the perfect way to cap off the turnaround.
With both teams looking to avenge a bowl loss from last season, Northwestern takes on Pittsburgh Wednesday afternoon in the 2016 New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York City.
Few thought the Wildcats (6-6, 5-4) would be playing in a bowl game when they fell to 0-2 after dropping a home game to FCS foe Illinois State on Sep. 10. Northwestern then rattled off four of their next five games, however, and beat Illinois in the regular season finale to notch six wins and clinch a postseason berth.
A bounce back season for quarterback Clayton Thorson is part of the reason Northwestern found success in 2016. The redshirt sophomore has already nearly doubled his passing yardage from last season, throwing for just under 3,000 yards to go along with 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions this year. Thorson managed only seven passing touchdowns and nine picks during his freshman campaign.
Aiding Thorson’s development was wide receiver Austin Carr’s breakout season. The senior and former walk-on was the class of the Big Ten in 2016, pulling in 84 catches for 1196 yards and 12 touchdowns en route to being named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Trophy. Carr is 50 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown away from breaking D’Wayne Bates’ single-season school records in each category.
Pittsburgh (8-4, 5-3) boasts an impressive offense of its own. The Panthers score over 42 points per game, the 11th-best mark in the country. Running back James Conner battled a serious knee injury and was diagnosed with cancer last fall. Now in remission, the junior has returned to the field and has had an outstanding 2016 season, topping 1,000 rushing yards and scoring 16 rushing touchdowns.
Quarterback Nathan Peterman has also been effective in 2016, tossing 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions on the year. His top target is junior wideout Jester Weah, who leads the Panthers in catches, yards and touchdowns. Both Peterman and Conner have benefitted from a stout offensive line that has only allowed nine sacks this season, and should provide a challenge for Big Ten sack leader Ifeadi Odenigbo and the Northwestern front seven.
Pitt’s most dangerous offensive weapon may be speedster Quadree Henderson, a dynamic threat that scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and on kick and punt returns this season. Many of those rushing touchdowns came on jet sweeps, something that Northwestern will need to account for on Wednesday.
One area where Northwestern may have an advantage is in the passing game. Arizona State was the only FBS team to surrender more passing yards per game than Pitt did this season, and the unit could take another hit if safety Jordan Whitehead is unable to return to the field from an arm injury that kept him out during the season. That bodes well for Thorson and Carr, but other receiving options like Flynn Nagel and Garrett Dickerson must step up for the Wildcats.
It figures to be a high-scoring affair at Yankee Stadium. WNUR Sports will have coverage of the game at 89.3 FM in the Chicago area and online at wnursports.com. Pre-game coverage begins at Noon central time and kickoff is set for 1 p.m. central.