That’s why they play the game.
Despite facing the No. 23 team in the country, Northwestern came into historic Yankee Stadium and shut down the dominate Pitt Panthers’ offense, leaving New York with a 31-24 victory and only its third bowl win ever.
The story of the day was Northwestern running back Justin Jackson who came up just short of the Pinstripe Bowl rushing record with 224 yards on 32 carries. For Pitt, star running back James Conner only had 32 yards on 8 carries after getting hurt early on in the game.
Pittsburgh also had to play most of the fourth quarter with its backup quarterback Ben DiNucci after Nathan Peterman was knocked out of the game on a controversial hit by Xavier Washington. DiNucci threw two interceptions late in the game to seal the game for the Wildcats.
The game got off to an inopportune start for Northwestern as it received the opening kickoff, promptly gave up a sack, and punted. Then, the first play from scrimmage for Pitt was a 38-yard pass down the sidelines to Dontez Ford. Things looked like they were going to get out of hand quickly, but Northwestern managed to hold Pitt to a 46-yard field goal.
Northwestern got the ball back but Pitt quickly forced another punt. Pitt put together a longer drive this time around, getting all the way down to the Northwestern one yard line. But after fullback George Aston fell down on third down, James Conner was stuffed at the goal line by Nathan Fox and Anthony Walker and Pitt was held scoreless.
Despite the stop, Northwestern was still pinned deep in its own territory. But Justin Jackson broke off a 68 yard run all the way to the Pitt 30. Northwestern would get all the way to the Pitt 10 yard line before being forced to convert a fourth down of its own with a Thorson sneak. Jackson proceeded to outrun two Pittsburgh defenders to the pylon for Northwestern’s first touchdown. Thirty seconds into the second quarter, Northwestern led 7-3.
That 99-yard Northwestern TD drive apparently woke up the Pitt offense as three plays and a minute later Pitt was down to the Northwestern 10. On the next play, Nathan Peterman tried to hit Quadree Henderson up the seam, but Godwin Igwebuike read it perfectly and intercepted the pass. For the second straight red zone trip, Pitt came away with no points.
Northwestern once again started deep in its own territory, but it had Justin Jackson to bail the Wildcats out. Jackson ripped off a 17 yard run to get the Wildcats out of the shadow of its own goalposts and then Thorson hit Flynn Nagel to convert a big third-and-18 later on in the drive. After methodically marching down the field, Thorson took a shot to the endzone looking for Austin Carr and under threw him. Pittsburgh’s Avonte Maddox came down with the ball in the endzone and Northwestern left the redzone with no points.
The Panthers may have held Northwestern scoreless, but were forced into their first punt of the day. On the ensuing drive, Thorson hit Macan Wilson deep for 32 yards and Jackson took it to the house from 16 yards out. Despite the shaky start, Northwestern now led 14-3.
Pitt’s offense looked asleep for much of the first half, but the second Northwestern touchdown was an immediate spark. The next play from scrimmage was a 69-yard touchdown to Jester Weah. 11 seconds after Northwestern had gone up by 11, the lead was cut back down to 4.
Northwestern attempted to respond with a two-minute drill heavily aided by Panther penalties. Highlighted by a 17-yard pass to Andrew Scanlan, the Wildcats drove drown into Pittsburgh territory before Thorson threw the ball behind Jackson on a swing play. The ball hit the ground and Pitt recovered the fumble. Pitt was able to drive into Northwestern territory, but the Wildcats held the Panthers to a harmless Hail Mary at the end of the quarter.
Out of the break, the Panther offense picked up right where it left off in the second quarter as the first play was a 57-yard rush from Henderson. Three plays later Peterman rushed for a 5-yard touchdown and in less than two minutes, Pitt had retaken the lead, 17-14.
However, Northwestern stayed resolute. The Wildcats responded with a clinical, 89 yard touchdown drive capped off by another outstanding run from Jackson. He finished the drive by destroying Dennis Briggs’ ankles and scoring from 40 yards out. Pitt answered quickly, driving down into the redzone for the fourth time but a botched snap led to a loss of 18 on second down, forcing a 43-yard field goal attempt. Blewitt hooked the field goal wide right and Northwestern escaped again.
On the ensuing Northwestern drive, the Wildcats went three-and-out. Unfortunately for Northwestern, Hunter Niswander’s punt was blocked and Pitt was once again in the redzone. This time the Panthers took advantage and the lead as Aston scored on a 6-yard touchdown pass. Early in the fourth quarter Pittsburgh led 24-21.
But Northwestern offense just kept coming. The Wildcats used a methodical 14 play, 76 yard drive to retake the lead 28-24 with 8 minutes left in the game. The drive consisted of two different fourth down conversions, with the second being a 16 yard touchdown to Garrett Dickson on fourth-and-one.
Then, disaster struck for the Panthers.
On the first play of the ensuing Pitt drive, Anthony Walker forced a Henderson fumble and Northwestern recovered the ball deep in Pitt territory. Northwestern could only manage a 37-yard Jack Mitchell field goal, but Wildcats were up 31-24.
Still, Pitt would not go down easily. The Panthers drove into the redzone for the sixth time on the day. Pitt tied the game for a split second on a catch up the middle, but Jared McGee broke up the pass at the last minute. On fourth down, backup quarterback Ben DiNucci threw the ball up into the endzone and McGee intercepted it at the 2-yard line.
However, Northwestern was still pinned deep in its own territory and a three-and-out gave Pitt the ball with 1:55 remaining and a timeout. But the defense came up big yet again, as Kyle Queiro picked off DiNucci, it was the fourth Pitt turnover and sealed the game for the Wildcats.