Northwestern got it done in the Bronx, prevailing over a favored Pitt Panthers squad 31-24. The Wildcats got contributions from all over the place in the bowl win. Here’s how we evaluated them.
Stats: 23/36, 214 yards, one touchdown, one interception; 12 carries, 16 yards
Early on, it appeared as if it was going to be a long afternoon for Thorson, who was sacked four times total in the game. Northwestern’s offensive line appeared overmatched on its first two possessions, especially in pass protection, but things opened up substantially for the unit after a 68 yard Justin Jackson run late in the first quarter. Thorson is always good for his fair share of miscues and in this game these mistakes manifested themselves in a badly telegraphed interception looking for Austin Carr and an incomplete lateral that turned into a Pitt fumble recovery (both in Pitt territory). But for the most part Thorson protected the ball and kept the down and distances manageable throughout. He also officially set a new program record for touchdowns in a single season (22) with a TD toss to Garrett Dickerson in the fourth quarter and had a hand in successfully converting each of Northwestern’s four fourth-down attempts on the afternoon. It wasn’t the perfect game for Thorson, but he made plays when he needed to, both with his arm and with his legs, as he has for most of the season.
Stats: 32 carries, 224 yards, three touchdowns; two catches, nine yards
‘The Ball Carrier’ earned Pinstripe Bowl MVP honors for his phenomenal performance, and he earns an A+ from us. Jackson effectively shifted the tide of the contest late in the first quarter by ripping off a 68 yard run from Northwestern’s two yard-line and punching in the Wildcats’ first score of the game from eight yards out eight plays later. The junior tailback never looked back, setting a new career high (and nearly a Pinstripe Bowl record) with his 224 yards on the ground and adding three scores for good measure. It’s no secret that this offense has gone as Jackson has gone all season and this game was no exception; he utilized his rare brand of physicality and shiftiness in the open field to gash Pittsburgh’s normally stout run defense all afternoon. He was Northwestern’s most important player in 2016 and will continue to be moving forward into his senior season, and performances like these are the reason why.
Stats: Six catches, 51 yards
Northwestern’s top receiving target struggled to get going in this one; his first target was a Thorson interception in the corner of Pitt’s end zone and his 51 receiving yards falls well below his season average of 99.7 yards per game. Carr also failed to find pay dirt for only the fifth time this season. It was clear Pitt had a gameplan shifted toward limiting him, but the senior wideout remained a safety blanket for Thorson; three of his five catches came on the fourth-quarter drive that put Northwestern on top 28-24 and in the lead for good.
Stats: Three catches, 47 yards
Wilson had only three catches on the afternoon, but he makes it into grades for two monumental plays on crucial Northwestern touchdown drives: first, a 32-yard third down reception late in the second quarter (the Wildcats would score on a Jackson run just two plays later) and a high difficulty, low-to-the-ground five yard reception on a fourth down from near midfield early in the fourth quarter with his side down 24-21. Wilson isn’t a guy Pitt put all or much defensive focus into, and he made his limited opportunities count Wednesday.
Stats: Five catches, 46 yards, one touchdown
Dickerson’s five receptions were second on the team only to Carr, and he hauled in Thorson’s only touchdown pass of the afternoon on a critical fourth-and-one from the Pitt 21 yard-line to put Northwestern up 28-24 with 8:23 to play in the fourth. This proved to be the final lead change in a back-and-forth contest. Dickerson also once again made himself useful as a run-blocker, sealing the edge on a number of Jackson’s biggest runs of the game.
This unit’s play has been up and down all season and early in the game, as alluded to earlier, it appeared as if it was going to be an uphill battle for them early on. They proved more effective in the run game than in protecting Thorson throughout, but the line gave him enough time to make the plays he needed to in key spots and opened gaping holes for Jackson en route to his career day. It’s also worth mentioning that Northwestern was four-for-four on fourth down conversions for the afternoon, and all of them were within three yards. In the big moments, the big guys stepped up.
Stats: Seven tackles, four solo, one forced fumble
It wasn’t a standout performance by the numbers for ‘The Franchise’ but two colossal plays earn him an A-. With Pitt driving inside the Northwestern one-yard line late in the first quarter and already leading 3-0, the Panthers decided to go for it on fourth down just inches away from Northwestern’s end zone. Star running back James Conner got the carry, but his leap over the scrum at the goal line was stopped by a diving Walker, who leveled Conner just short of thrusting Pitt into a commanding 10-0 lead early in the contest. Northwestern took over on downs and went on to score 14 unanswered in the following 15 minutes to effectively shift the momentum of the game. Pitt had looked dominant before the defense’s stand and without this play from Walker the game we saw could have played out entirely differently. He was at it again in the fourth quarter, forcing a fumble on the first play of Pitt’s first drive of the final period with NU leading 28-24. Northwestern had just scored to go up by four and a Walker hit on Quadree Henderson forced the ball out and gave the Wildcats the ball back deep in Pitt territory. Jack Mitchell buried a 37-yard field goal four plays later to put Northwestern up 31-24.
There were no tweets forecasting it before the game, but the Northwestern safety unit epitomized NU’s opportunistic afternoon on this side of the ball. Godwin Igwebuike, Jared McGee and Kyle Queiro all had interceptions in the contest; Igwebuike and McGee’s halted Pitt drives deep in Northwestern territory and Queiro iced the game by intercepting Panther backup Ben DiNucci with just over a minute remaining in the fourth.
We’re looking primarily at Trae Williams and Montre Hartage here, who had 12 tackles between the two of them, but also had their fair share of blunders. On the first series of the game, Williams failed to get his head around and was beat for a 38 yard completion down the sideline to Dontez Ford that set Pitt up to take a 3-0 lead. Hartage was flagged for a hold that negated a McGee interception early on and, with Northwestern leading 14-3 and gaining momentum, he was burned for a 69 yard score to Jester Weah close to the halftime break. It’s no secret corner is a position of inexperience for NU and a few of their young guys were exposed out there at times in this one.
The defensive line wasn’t able to get a ton of consistent pressure on whoever was under center for Pitt throughout — this unit mustered only one sack on the afternoon (albeit a bone-crushing one that knocked Nathan Peterman out of the game). Pitt also rushed for 169 yards in the game. Top to bottom, it was a bend-but-don’t-break kind of game for Northwestern’s defense, which, for much of the afternoon, was susceptible to the big play and were victim to more than one methodical Pitt drive. But in the red zone, the defensive line was fantastic, and getting stops in that area is what gave Northwestern the victory.
It was clear Pat Fitzgerald didn’t have a ton of confidence in Mitchell based on his propensity to go for it on fourth down throughout the game, but the senior made the one kick he was called upon to take to put NU up seven in the fourth quarter. And for that he deserves credit.
Northwestern employed an interesting strategy in this one in terms of kickoff return coverage, squibbing virtually every kickoff they took in an attempt to keep the ball out of the hands of the dynamic Henderson. Northwestern’s coverage unit has had its struggles in 2016, but they did an excellent job executing this gameplan; Pitt wasn’t really able to get anything going in the return game throughout.