Northwestern (6-6 overall, 5-4 Big Ten) will take on Pittsburgh (8-4, 5-3 ACC) in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, December 28th at 1:00 p.m. CST.
The Panthers, led by running back James Conner and quarterback Nathan Peterman, have been one of the FBS’ most explosive teams this season while Northwestern has used big years from Justin Jackson and Austin Carr to turn around a campaign that once looked dead in the water. Let’s dig into how Pittsburgh got to this point:
1. This isn’t your usual Pittsburgh offense
A college linebacker, Pittsbugh head coach Pat Narduzzi was a defensive coordinator for Miami (OH), Cincinnati and Michigan State before he was hired by Pitt two years ago. In his first season as a head coach, Narduzzi led the Panthers to a 8-5 record with both a middling offense (38th nationally according to S&P+) and middling defense (50th). Then, when star receiver Tyler Boyd left for the NFL after his junior year and Pitt’s offensive coordinator bolted for Georgia, it appeared as if the offense would suffer due to a lack of playmakers.
However, Conner — who barely played in 2015 due to a torn MCL suffered in the season opener and a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which he later beat — returned to his Heisman-like form, rushing for 16 touchdowns and over 1000 yards under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Also, Peterman became one of the nation’s more efficient passers, throwing 26 touchdowns to just six picks. The Pittsburgh offense rose to No. 4 in the country in S&P+, good enough for LSU to poach Canada for its offensive coordinator job (he’ll still coach in the Pinstripe Bowl).
2. Don’t let the Panthers get into field goal range with the game on the line
Pittsburgh’s offensive skill position players are very good, including mixed-use wide receiver Quadree Henderson, who averaged over 10 yards a carry for 555 yards out of the backfield. However, the Panthers boast one of the nation’s top kickers to boot, even if he has an unfortunate name.
Chris Blewitt, who infamously shanked a potential game-winner against Duke two seasons ago which led to a Pittsburgh loss, has actually been almost perfect in clutch situations since that game. Earlier this year, Blewitt drilled a 48-yarder in Death Valley as time expired to send the Panthers to a stunning upset win over Clemson.
Considering Pitt’s offense has been so dominant, Blewitt has only lined up for 15 field goals in his senior year (making just nine) but he is 63-for-66 on extra point attempts, a 95.5 percent conversion rate. That’s pretty good, but it looks even better when you consider Blewitt’s 66 attempts was tied for the 9th-most in the FBS.
3. They give up a lot of points, but always hang around
Even with Narduzzi’s impressive defensive credentials, the Pittsburgh defense has been the only thing holding the Panthers back from having more than eight wins. In its four losses, Pitt has allowed an average of 43 points. However, those games were close—three of those defeats were by a combined 11 points.
Pittsburgh’s explosive offense, both through the air and on the ground, has given Narduzzi’s defense a much greater margin of error. If a few plays swung Pitt’s way in the Oklahoma State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech games, the Panthers likely wouldn’t be in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Still, the defense has relied on the offense to back it up often this season, like in Pitt’s season-ending 76-61 win over Syracuse (Of note: both Syracuse-Pittsburgh men’s basketball games last season featured less total points). We’ve seen that same situation with Northwestern at times, so the Wildcats’ offense could post 40+ points on Monday.