Northwestern’s roller-coaster ride of a season will end in New York City, where the Wildcats will grace the confines of Yankees Stadium with an opportunity to salvage a winning record.
Two and a half months ago, the chances of a winning record looked dim for the Wildcats, but here they are. Aside from pushing the team’s record to above .500, a win would be just Pat Fitzgerald’s second bowl victory in six tries. There would be a tangible momentum for the Wildcats heading into next season, which would be a complete reversal of the narrative heading into this season after last season’s 45-6 loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.
A daunting opponent stands in the way of all of these possibilities.
The Pittsburgh Panthers (8-4, 5-3 ACC) will come into the Big Apple as the No. 23 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, and boast some extremely impressive wins on their résumé.
Pitt beat current No. 5 Penn State 42-39 at home early in September and upset No. 2 Clemson in a 43-42 thriller in Death Valley a little under a month ago.
Preparing to play Northwestern won’t be uncharted territory for the Panthers. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator at Michigan State from 2007-2014, and faced the Wildcats every season during that stretch.
Below is a scouting report for the Panthers.
Simply put, Pitt has one of the most dynamic offenses in the nation.
At quarterback, Nathan Peterman has been stellar this season. The 6-foot-2 Tennessee transfer has quietly put together a monster season with 26 touchdown passes and just six interceptions, and is quickly rising up NFL draft boards. Sports Illustrated even called him the top candidate to be this year’s Dak Prescott.
Peterman only averages about 24 pass attempts per game, but he has averaged a whopping 15.1 yards per completion this season, which is seventh in the country. Three of the guys ahead of him are Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and Trace McSorley. He has thrown a pass for 50 yards or more in eight of 12 games this season, and he’s a good athlete too; he has 291 rushing yards this season, including a 42-yard run.
Also, the protection for Peterman has been strong all season, as he’s taken just nine sacks.
The main cog in the offense is a guy with one of the best stories in sports, let alone college football. After sitting out last season with an MCL injury and Hodgkin’s lymphoma—a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system—running back James Connor is now cancer-free, and he’s the leading the charge for the potent Panther offense.
His numbers aren’t as astronomical as they were in the 2014 season (1765 yards, 26 touchdowns and 5.9 yards per carry), but they’re still still solid. This season, Connor has rushed for 1060 yards and 16 touchdowns on 5.1 yards per carry. His return to the field has re-energized a Pitt offense that is scoring over 14 more points per game than it did last season.
The Panthers give wideout Quadree Henderson the ball on jet sweeps often, so he actually has more carries than receptions. He has 555 rushing yards this season (10.3 yards per carry) to go along with 247 receiving yards. He also returns punts and kickoffs.
Continuing on the outside, the Pitt passing attack is a balanced one. Five Panthers have caught at least 20 passes, and no player has more than 34 receptions. Jester Weah—who stands at 6-foot-3—is the team’s leading receiver with 795 yards and nine touchdowns, and is a big-play threat down the field. He averages over 23 yards per reception, and is the Panthers’ main target in the red zone.
Tight end Scott Orndoff also gets involved in the passing game, and has the ability to get down the seams and make contested catches using his 6-foot-5 frame. He has 558 receiving yards and five touchdowns on the year.
Even the fullback, George Aston, is a threat. He has 20 receptions this season, and has scored nine total touchdowns on just 41 touches.
And then there’s offensive tackle Brian O’Neill, a Piesman trophy finalist, who scored two of the most fun touchdowns you’ll see in college football this season. The first came against Georgia Tech, and his legend continued to grow with a reverse against Virginia Tech. Trick plays are common in bowl games, so watch out for O’Neill—he’s a weapon.
Pitt’s defense has been shaky this season, especially on the back end.
But the Panthers do have a star on defense in Ejuan Price, and he has the potential to ruin Northwestern’s day by himself.
Price—a smaller defensive end in Pitt’s 4-3 system at 6-foot-1, 255 pounds—has flown under the national radar in his career, but he’s a beast on the edge, and has put together two of the best seasons in all of college football in his junior and senior years. From the beginning of 2015 season until now, Price has amassed 22.5 sacks, 12 of which have come this season. He also leads the nation in tackles for loss with 21, and has forced three fumbles and blocked a kick this season.
The rest of the defensive line is solid without being great—the Panthers are 41st in the country in defensive rushing S&P+. Also, watch for Tyrique Jarrett in the middle of the Pitt defensive line. Jarrett wears number six for the Panthers, and, at 6-foot-3, 335 pounds, he’s a load to deal with in the middle, and a fun player to watch. He doesn’t start, but he’ll be in the mix.
The Pitt linebackers are good run defenders, but aren’t as solid in coverage. Paired with the defensive line, the Panther front seven ranks ninth in the country in rushing defense, giving up 108.9 yards per contest.
The problems with the defense begin and end with the secondary.
It’s not great when four of your six top tacklers are DBs, and that’s exactly the case for the Panthers right now.
To put just how bad this defensive backfield has been in context, the Panthers allow 343.1 yards per game through the air, which is 127th in the FBS, or second-to-last in the entire country.
And to make matters worse, the team’s best defensive back, cornerback Jordan Whitehead, missed the last two games of the regular season, and his status for the bowl game is still uncertain.
A staple of Narduzzi’s defenses is man-to-man coverage on the outsides, often without safety help. This worked for Michigan State with NFL first-round picks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes at cornerback, but Pitt’s corners are a far cry from MSU’s ‘no fly zone.’ Narduzzi likes his safeties to patrol the box and intermediate areas of the field, so deep throws are open if the corners get beat, which has been an ongoing issue for the Pitt defense this season.
There’s a decent chance the weather will be bad in New York City in late December, so special teams execution becomes all the more important.
For Pitt, special teams has been a strength of the team all year.
Chris Blewitt is the team’s kicker, and while he has only made 9 of 15 kicks this season, he made arguably the biggest kick of the college football season against Clemson, avoiding what would’ve been countless jokes about his name by nailing the game-winner from 48 yards out.
That wasn’t the first clutch kick of Blewitt’s career, though. Last season against Georgia Tech, Blewitt drilled a school-record 56-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter to give Pitt a 31-28 victory.
He has made over 70 percent of his kicks since arriving in the steel city, and has one of the strongest legs in college football.
At punter, the Panthers are also good. Ryan Winslow was on the Ray Guy Award Watch List entering the season, and averages 42.6 yards per punt. He has a punt of 50 or more yards in six games this season.
And, as mentioned earlier, Quadree Henderson handles all return duties. As a returner, Henderson is among the most explosive players in the country. He has three kickoff returns for touchdowns this season, and four total in his career, plus a punt return for a touchdown this season. He averages over 30 yards per kick return, and nearly 18 yards per punt return.
Northwestern has a tall ask ahead of it in the Big Apple.