The Northwestern Wildcats (6-6, 5-4 Big Ten) will play the Pittsburgh Panthers (8-4, 5-3 ACC) in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York City on Dec. 28 at 1 p.m. CT.
Northwestern’s season has been quite the rollercoaster ride. The Wildcats started 0-2 with losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State, but then came back to win four of their next five, a stretch that included wins over bowl-bound teams Iowa and Indiana. Northwestern then finished 2-2 over the final third of the season, losing to Wisconsin, beating Purdue, losing to Minnesota and finishing the year with a blowout win over Illinois to keep the Land of Lincoln Trophy.
The Wildcats boast two All-Big Ten first-teamers on the offensive side in running back Justin Jackson and wide receiver Austin Carr, who is also a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award. On the defensive side of things, junior safety Godwin Igwebuike and junior middle linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. are the team’s leading tacklers, and defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo led the conference with 10.0 sacks.
Pittsburgh beat ACC champ and College Football Playoff participant Clemson as well as Big Ten champion Penn State. The Panthers have a high-powered offense led by running back James Conner and quarterback Nate Peterman. The Panthers put up 76 (!!!) points in their regular season finale, a win over Syracuse. The Orange scored 61 points themselves. Given these two teams’ offensive capabilities, this one could be a shootout in the making.
Northwestern vs. Pittsburgh at a glance:
S&P: 50 vs. 26
Offensive S&P: 69 vs. 4
Defensive S&P: 32 vs. 66
Special Teams S&P: 106 vs. 90
Northwestern’s strengths: The Wildcats can run the ball well and throw the ball well, and when both happen in the same game, they are difficult to stop. Austin Carr has been fantastic all season; he leads the Big Ten in nearly every receiving category. Pat Fitzgerald will mix and match both Justin Jackson, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, and speedy redshirt freshman John Moten IV at you from the backfield. Defensively, the Wildcats hold up relatively well against the run and are deep both on the line and in the linebacking corps.
Northwestern’s weaknesses: Northwestern struggles mightily in the redzone offensively, and its offensive line has surrendered 12 sacks in the past two games combined. The Wildcats are young at the cornerback position and play well off the line to prevent big plays. When the defensive line can’t get pressure, opposing quarterbacks can have success. Kicking has been a major issue this season: Jack Mitchell is 7 for 11 this year, and coaches have not trusted him with longer kicks. He’s also missed an extra point.
Pittsburgh’s strengths: The Panthers have one of the best offenses in the nation and boast star running back James Conner in the backfield. The senior, who made an incredible comeback from cancer, ran for 1060 yards and 12 touchdowns this year. Quarterback Nathan Peterman is very efficient. Quadree Henderson has three kick return touchdowns this year. Basically, the Panthers can score in bunches from a lot of sources.
Pittsburgh’s weaknesses: The Panthers give up some big plays and struggle in passing down situations in general. Kicker Chris Blewitt is just 9 of 15 this year, but he has hit some big kicks, including the game-winner versus Clemson. He has had two kicks blocked. The Panthers allow 6.1 yards per play, 94th in the nation. They also struggle on third down, ranking 74th in the nation in conversion percentage allowed.
Players to watch for Northwestern: WR Austin Carr (84 catches, 1196 yards, 12 touchdowns), RB Justin Jackson (266 rushes, 1300 yards, 12 touchdowns; 33 receptions, 210 yards), QB Clayton Thorson (257 for 442, 2968 yards, 21 touchdowns, 8 interceptions; 5 rushing TDs), DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (22 tackles, 12 TFL, 10 sacks, 2 forced fumbles), LB Anthony Walker Jr. (98 tackles, 10 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 3 forced fumbles), S Godwin Igwebuike (101 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 interception, 6 pass breakups, 1 fumble forced, 1 fumble recovered)
Players to watch for Pittsburgh: RB James Conner (208 rushes, 1060 yards, 16 touchdowns; 20 catches, 299 yards, 4 touchdowns); QB Nathan Peterman (172 for 288, 2602 yards, 26 touchdowns, 6 interceptions; 69 rushes, 291 yards, 2 touchdowns), DB Ryan Lewis (77 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 8 pass breakups), LB Matt Galambos (70 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 pass defended, 2 fumbles recovered)