Using a backup quarterback and a backup running back, the Pittsburgh Panthers had moved into the redzone one final time, down 31-24 with under three minutes left as the sun disappeared over the massive video board at Yankee Stadium.
Ben DiNucci, he of one career play, a kneel down, prior to the Pinstripe Bowl, lofted a pass up the seam to tight end Scott Orndorff, who had beaten the linebacker.
It went into Orndorff’s hands.
He bobbled it.
It went back in to his hands.
Then Jared McGee came in and raked the ball away. One play later, he picked off DiNucci’s desperation floater to earn the Wildcats’ third takeaway. Fellow safety Kyle Queiro sealed the deal with an interception of his own.
“To be able to step up, Jared especially, he was just reading the quarterback really well today, making breaks while we were playing man-to-man defense,” Queiro said.
While several of Northwestern’s stars rightfully drew the headlines — from both myself and others — it was the play of Northwestern’s lesser-known starters and some backups that pushed the Wildcats to victory. That back-to-back sequence McGee produced was just a small part of the bigger picture.
Offensively, the Wildcats needed wide receivers not named Austin Carr to step up. Given over a month to defend the Biletnikoff finalist, Pitt used double teams, jams at the line to limit the Wildcats’ leading receiver to six catches and 51 yards, both well below his season average (though he still led the team in both categories on the day) And those wide receivers not named Austin Carr obliged with an outstanding group effort.
Andrew Scanlan, playing his final game in a Wildcat uniform in the stadium his childhood heroes played in, caught four passes for 35 yards, not eye-popping numbers by any stretch, but hugely important because of when they occurred. His first catch, a difficult one that forced him to go to the turf to haul it in, went for just four yards, but it came on 3rd and 3. Later in the second quarter, he got open on 2nd and 10 for 17 yards up the middle of the field. In the third quarter, he reeled in two more catches, including a 10-yarder on 3rd and 7. Three of his four catches moved the sticks, and Northwestern scored on two of the three drives he had a catch.
Fellow wide receiver Macan Wilson caught three passes, all three of which went for first downs on either third or fourth down. None was bigger than his 4th and 3 conversion at the 46. Wilson cut in, fought off some contact and made a diving stab at a ball inches from the turf. He secured it cleanly — even replay couldn’t overturn it — and kept alive the game-winning drive.
Even Solomon Vault and Bennett Skowronek, both of whom were held without a catch, made important contributions, none more so than when they both laid crucial blocks on a wide receiver screen to Carr that went for a first down.
“I thought that whole room improved this year,” Pat Fitzgerald said. “It starts with the leadership of the seniors. I thought the guys took this mindset in the off-season that for that room to get a different identity and to gain respect, they're going to have to go out and earn it every rep, every day.”
It was Garrett Dickerson who finished off the game-winning drive. The beastly superback is better known for his blocking exploits, but he’s shown his pass-catching ability on a few occasions, and it was on display once again against Pittsburgh. He caught five of his six targets and was a reliable safety valve for Clayton Thorson throughout. And his blocking was still superb: He was the one out in front opening up a gaping hole on Justin Jackson’s 68-yard run out of the shadows of his own goal posts.
While Dickerson often acts as a sixth lineman, the five guys who play there every down did a solid job as well. Yes, Thorson had to deal with a decent amount of pressure, but the linemen generally did a good job of warding off a dangerous Panther pass rush. But flip to the run game, and the offensive line shined. Jackson can’t make the jaw-dropping moves he does without getting to the second level. That’s a unit that features four non-seniors, by the way.
Defensively, too, the Wildcats got contributions from all over. Nate Hall flew around and made seven total tackles. Joe Gaziano recorded a half sack and a quarterback hurry and made four total tackles. Fellow defensive end Xavier Washington picked up the other half of the sack and had a hurry of his own. Backup linebacker Nathan Fox was in on the goal-line stand.
Pat Fitzgerald has always been keen on building “competitive depth,” and in 2016 that depth was paramount to Northwestern even reaching a bowl game, much less winning one.
The Wildcats lost its top two corners, Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins II, early in the year and certainly went through some growing pains. But there’s a difference between growing pains and falling apart, and the Wildcats certainly never did that. Montre Hartage and Trae Williams performed admirably in their place, and McGee’s abilities at safety allowed Godwin Igwebuike to play as essentially a third cornerback for a lot of the season.
When Connor Mahoney, a senior captain, went down, J.B. Butler stepped in and paved the road for Justin Jackson and John Moten IV. In his first career start, he played just about as well as anyone all season has against Michigan State defensive lineman Malik McDowell as the Wildcats racked up 54 points, most ever in Spartan Stadium.
When Jaylen Prater got hurt, the Wildcats’ depth at linebacker — mainly Brett Walsh, but also Fox, Joe Jones, and Nate Hall — allowed for little dropoff, if any at all. And when Jackson was banged up, Moten IV exploded on the scene.
Building competitive depth isn’t something that happens overnight. It doesn’t even happen in a year or two, for that matter. It requires years of recruiting solid players — not always rankings-wise, but getting the guy who fits — and more importantly, player development once they arrive. We saw that competitive depth during the ups and down in 2016 and throughout the bowl victory, Northwestern’s best win of the year.