During a two-game stretch that helped turn around Northwestern's season, the Wildcats' offense exploded for 92 points in victories against Iowa and Michigan State. In those games, quarterback Clayton Thorson threw six touchdown passes, receiver Austin Carr caught five of them, and running back Justin Jackson rushed for 359 yards with three touchdowns.
That trio may have to accomplish more of the same in order for the Northwestern Wildcats to outlast the Pittsburgh Panthers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 28. The Panthers have shown all season they can put up points -- and surrender them -- in a hurry. For the latest example, just look at Pitt's regular-season finale against Syracuse on Nov. 26, which resembled a basketball game. The final score: Pitt 76, Syracuse 61 on a day that set the FBS single-game combined points record.
"Half of me is jumping for joy with what our offense did today," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said afterward. "The other half of me, makes me sick."
It has been the story of Pitt's exciting, up-and-down season, which features two of the most impressive regular-season wins on any team's resume: a 42-39 shootout victory against Penn State and a 43-42 takedown of Clemson. Pitt's four losses have come against teams that each won at least eight games: Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami. Even in those losses, Pitt averaged 35.3 points per game.
Northwestern's defense has some excellent pieces in place, led by safety Godwin Igwebuike (101 tackles), linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. (98 tackles) and defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo (10 sacks). If the Wildcats' defense can disrupt Pitt enough, Northwestern could pull out a win in what should be one of the more wild bowl games of the Big Ten postseason.
Here's an early look at the game:
Most intriguing matchup: They don't directly face each other, but watching the running back battle between Jackson and Pitt's James Conner will be fascinating. Jackson has amassed 1,300 rushing yards with 12 touchdowns, while Conner has 1,060 yards with 16 touchdowns. Expect both players to earn their share of carries, particularly in a game that figures to be played in New York's typically frigid December temperatures.
Northwestern player who could have a big game: Carr has been one of the top wide receivers in college football all season, and Pitt's pass defense should provide him ample opportunity to thrive. Pitt is allowing 343.1 passing yards per game, which ranks No. 127 out of 128 FBS teams. Thorson, who has produced some big games during his sophomore season, could have a field day spreading the ball around if Pitt loads up the box to stop Jackson.
Key to victory: Northwestern's pass defense will have to play better to give the Wildcats a chance against Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman. Northwestern finished the season ranked last in the Big Ten in pass defense, allowing 264.9 yards per game. Peterman has thrown for 2,602 yards with 26 touchdowns and six interceptions. Five different Pitt players have caught at least 20 passes this season.