Pittsburgh's offense had scored with such frequency all season that, at times, the Panthers resembled something of a basketball team on grass. So the biggest question entering the New Era Pinstripe Bowl seemed to center on whether Northwestern would be able to keep pace to give itself a chance.
The Wildcats proved up to the task behind the strength of running back Justin Jackson and a staunch defense that punished Pitt running back James Conner and quarterback Nathan Peterman, who both left the game with injuries. In the end, Northwestern held on for a thrilling, 31-24 victory against short-handed Pitt on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium in one of the Wildcats' most complete efforts this season.
Pitt lost Conner, one of the ACC's best running backs, before halftime and Peterman late in the third quarter. Panthers backup quarterback Ben DiNucci immediately led a scoring drive by throwing a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end George Aston -- the first of DiNucci's career -- to give Pitt a 24-21 lead with 13:15 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson connected with tight end Garrett Dickerson for a 21-yard touchdown to put the Wildcats in front 28-24 with 8:23 left. It marked the fourth consecutive fourth-down conversion of the game for an aggressive Northwestern offense that was ready to sprint with Pitt from the outset.
Pittsburgh (8-5) began the day ranked 11th in the country in scoring offense (42.3) and had already secured two of the most impressive wins of the season by any team. Pitt defeated Penn State 42-39 and handed Clemson its only loss, 43-42. Pitt had scored at least 28 points in every game this season, and during the regular-season finale, the Panthers defeated Syracuse 76-61 to set the FBS single-game record for combined points. For perspective, Pitt's basketball team won a game by scoring 73 points three days later.
Northwestern (7-6) ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed this season (264.9) after being decimated by injuries to the secondary, which included losing both projected cornerback starters from fall camp. Keith Watkins II suffered a season-ending knee injury during an August practice. Matthew Harris played in the first two games before retiring from football due to repeated concussions.
But the Wildcats' defense came up huge in critical moments to shift momentum. Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker stuffed Conner on fourth-and-goal from the 1, pulling him back before he crossed the goal line in the first quarter. The tackle kept the score at 3-0 Pitt and negated a 12-play, 76-yard drive.
Later, Northwestern safety Godwin Igwebuike intercepted Peterman at the 3-yard line as the Panthers were driving in for the potential go-ahead score. Wildcats safety Jared McGee recorded a fourth-down interception of DiNucci at the 3-yard line with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. And, finally, safety Kyle Queiro picked off DiNucci to seal the game.
Meanwhile, Jackson torched the Pittsburgh defense. He scored on runs of 8 and 16 yards to help give Northwestern a 14-10 halftime lead. Jackson added a 40-yard, third-quarter score and finished with 32 carries for 224 yards and three touchdowns.
Northwestern orchestrated a solid turnaround to reach a bowl game for the second consecutive season despite beginning 1-3. The Wildcats opened with losses to Western Michigan and FCS foe Illinois State and did not qualify for a bowl until a victory against Illinois in the regular-season finale.
The Wildcats finally righted themselves at midseason, when they exploded for 92 points combined in victories against Iowa and Michigan State. They saved one of their best all-around performances for last, helping the team's fifth-year seniors become the first senior class to win two bowl games in program history.