Under the lights of Yankee Stadium, the Northwestern Wildcats topped the Pittsburgh Panthers, 31-24 to win the Pinstripe Bowl, just their third bowl win in program history. The Wildcats came into the Bronx a 5.5-point underdog, but the ‘Cats, led by Justin Jackson’s monster day, pulled out a victory over the Panthers. So let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the Wildcats’ Pinstripe Bowl victory over Pitt.
There’s a reason why Justin Jackson was named the Pinstripe Bowl MVP. The junior had a monster day, rushing for 224 yards and three touchdowns against a Pitt defense that ranked No. 10 in the FBS against the run coming into the matchup, allowing just under 109 yards per game. Jackson also had seven rushes for 10+ yards and two for 40+ yards. Pro Football Focus gave him the highest grade of any Wildcat in the matchup, as Jackson broke 11 tackle en route to a season-high, 83.1 grade. Jackson gave the Wildcats offense when the ‘Cats needed it, scoring three of their four touchdowns, and simply put, Northwestern wouldn’t have won without him.
Pittsburgh may have dialed up more trick plays then the Wildcats, but Pat Fitzgerald was as aggressive as ever on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. The ‘Cats attempted and converted all four of their fourth down attempts, including two in the red zone. Northwestern didn’t settle against the Panthers, converting to huge fourth downs on the drive where they eventually took the lead for good in the fourth quarter. Northwestern was facing a Pitt team that allowed almost 60 percent of their fourth down conversions, and the Wildcats rightfully took advantage.
The turnover battle was always going to be key, but the Wildcats forced four Panther turnovers, including two in the red zone and three in the fourth quarter. Northwestern’s defense stepped up when it counted with interceptions by Jared McGee and Kyle Queiro in the fourth quarter to seal it, along with Anthony Walker Jr.’s forced fumble. And while the Wildcats did only score three points off their four turnovers offensively, Northwestern’s defense prevented Pitt from scoring a lot more on their seven red zone trips.
Coming into the Pinstripe Bowl, Pittsburgh ranked as one of the best red zone teams in the country, scoring on 92 percent of their drives, and touchdowns on almost 83 percent. But the Wildcats stepped up their defense, especially in the red zone, allowing the Panthers to come away with points on just under half – 3 of 7 – of their red zone possessions. Godwin Igwebuike and Jared McGee came up with two huge interceptions in the red zone, while the Wildcats stopped James Conner on fourth down and goal early on in the fourth quarter, turning the tide when early on it looked bleak for the Wildcats. Northwestern’s defense was able to bend but not break once again, and the 21 points Pittsburgh left on the board ended up being one of the key differences in the game.
In the regular season, the Panthers averaged over 225 yards per game on the ground, No. 26 in the FBS. But the Wildcats allowed just over 145 yards per game and they held their ground against James Conner and a fearsome Pitt rushing attack, allowing the Panthers to rush for just 169 yards. Pitt did average 5.3 yards per carry, and Conner did leave the game near the end of the first half, but the Wildcats were able to slow down the Panthers bread and butter, forcing them to throw more and run via trick plays.
The one area where the ‘Cats struggled on defense against Pitt was in their secondary. Montrae Hartage, Trae Williams and co. struggled, especially early on, against Nathan Peterman and the Panthers, allowing an average of 16.8 yards per completion. It was the big passing plays that kept the Panthers in the game in the first half: a 69 yard touchdown pass to Jester Weah, a 38 yard pass to Dontez Ford and a 37 yard pass to Quadree Henderson. The Panthers had six passing plays of 15 or more yards, five of which came in the first half. Northwestern, however, did shore up their secondary as the game went on, allowing just 52 passing yards in the second half compared to 217 in the first.
The Wildcats won their third bowl game in program history. There are no ugly NUmbers.