Big Ten Bowl Preview: New Era Pinstripe Bowl

The Pittsburgh Panthers, from the ACC, and the Northwestern Wildcats, out of the Big Ten, will square off in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

In one of the more fledgling bowl games, the New Era Pinstripe Bowl has quickly become one of the better games leading up to the New Year’s Six.  Since it’s inception in 2010, the Pinstripe Bowl has featured teams like Notre Dame, Syracuse, West Virginia, Penn State, and Boston College.  Of course Penn State fans will not soon forget their thrilling 31-30 OT win over Boston College in 2014. In last year’s game, the Duke Blue Devils outlasted the Indiana Hoosiers in a wild 44-41 OT affair.  It was the second consecutive game ending in overtime.  What will be in store in this year when the high-scoring Pittsburgh Panthers battle the Northwestern Wildcats?

Game: New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Teams: Northwestern (6-6, 5-4 Big Ten) vs. Pittsburgh (8-4, 5-3 ACC)
Time: December 28, 2:00 PM
Location: Yankee Stadium – New York, New York
TV: ESPN

Season Recap

Both Pittsburgh and Northwestern enter the Pinstripe Bowl coming off season-ending victories.  However, that is where the similarities for these teams stops.  Northwestern needed a victory over Illinois to even qualify for a bowl game.  For Pittsburgh, they are riding the crest of three consecutive wins, including a 76-61 defense-optional win over Syracuse.

Pittsburgh Panthers

Pittsburgh had a roller coaster season.  In week 2, the Panthers garnered an emotional, hard-fought win over in-state rival Penn State (42-39).  After the win over the Nittany Lions, Pittsburgh then dropped their next two contests.  With the potential of a solid season in doubt, the Panthers then reeled off three consecutive wins to put them on the brink of securing a bowl birth.

The Panthers once again stumbled on hard times.  They lost their next two consecutive games against Virginia Tech and Miami, FL.  However, it was a contest at No. 3 Clemson that turned the fortune of the Panthers.  A slug fest in Death Valley and a last second field goal by Chris Blewitt propelled the Panthers to a 43-42 upset over Clemson.  The win over Clemson fueled the Panthers to a season-ending three game winning streak.

With a win over Northwestern, Pittsburgh will have a 9-win season for the first time since a 10-win season in 2009.  The Panthers also have the unique distinction of being the only team to defeat two teams currently ranked in the top-5 (Clemson and Penn State).

Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern, on the other hand, needed a win in their last contest over Illinois to secure a bowl birth.  The Wildcats typically fight hard under the leadership of head coach Pat Fitzgerald, and this year was no different.  The team, however, did not register a single win over a top-25 rated team.  Their biggest victory was a 38-31 win over Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.  The Wildcats then followed that win with a 54-40 road win over Michigan State.

Following their third straight consecutive win, a relatively low-scoring victory over Indiana (24-14), the Wildcats dropped their next two games – a thrilling 24-20 affair at Ohio State and a 21-7 defeat at home to Wisconsin.  Northwestern finished the season with two wins sandwiched around a loss at Minnesota.

The Pinstripe Bowl marks the second straight trip to a bowl game for the Wildcats and gives the Wildcats a chance to finish over .500 for the second consecutive season.  Northwestern will be in search of their first bowl victory since a 2012 Gator Bowl victory.

Pittsburgh Panthers

Nov 26, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner (24) leaves the field after defeating the Syracuse Orange at Heinz Field. PITT won 76-61. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 26, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner (24) leaves the field after defeating the Syracuse Orange at Heinz Field. PITT won 76-61. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Panthers Offense

The Panthers offense is worth the price of admission alone.  Whether it is the speed of wide receiver / kick returner Quadree Henderson, or the power of running back James Conner, Pittsburgh has multiple ways of beating you with offense.

In a conference with such national superstars as Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Lamar Jackson (Louisville), Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson (Clemson), and running back Dalvin Cook (Florida State), Panthers running back James Conner takes a back seat to no man.  The redshirt junior has overcome so much since his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in December of 2015 as Morgan Moriarty wrote about for SB Nation.

On the season, Conner rushed for over 1000 yards and scored 16 touchdowns.  His power running game was a perfect compliment to the speed of wide receiver Quadree Henderson.  The sophomore was “Mr. Do-It-All” for the Panthers.  He lined up at the wide out position, in the backfield or at quarterback in the Wildcat formation.  Because of his superior speed, he was the Panthers primary return man for kickoffs and punts.  With his speed and game-changing capability, his presence will need to be closely monitored by Northwestern.  However, the team’s leading pass catcher on the season was red shirt junior Jester Weah.  He hauled in 34 passes for nearly 800 yards and 9 touchdowns.

Under center for Pittsburgh is redshirt senior Nathan Peterman.  The Fruit Cove, FL native was middle-of-the-pack in the ACC in most passing statistics.  One area where he excelled was touchdown-to-INT ratio.  The Panthers signal-caller amassed 26 passing scores and only threw five interceptions.  Both statistics were good for top-5 in the ACC.  Petersen is your typical game manager.  He can makes plays when needs be, but he rarely called upon to win the game with his arm.

Panthers Defense

If the offense is Pittsburgh’s, then the Panthers defense is certainly the vulnerable spot.  The Panthers rank next to last in the ACC in total defense.  Furthermore, no team in the ACC gave up more passing yards than the Panthers.  In fact, they gave up nearly 1000 yards more then the next closest team.  No doubt the Panthers secondary will be tested by the Northwestern wide receivers.

While the Panthers rank 127th out of 128th nationally and are the worst pass defense in the ACC, they are the best rush defense in the conference and ninth in the nation.  They only permitted 1,307 rush yards on the season.  The Panthers stout defensive front is the primary reason for the top-notch rush defense.

The defensive line is anchored by redshirt senior Ejuan Price.  The defensive end led the Panthers and was third in the ACC with 12 sacks.  Not only was Price the team leader in sacks, but he was also the team leader with 21 tackles for loss.  His ability to disrupt the opposing team’s offense will be worth watching in the Pinstripe Bowl.

While the Pittsburgh secondary has been burnt to a crisp this year, both corner backs, junior Avonte Maddox and red shirt senior Ryan Lewis have each recorded two interceptions.  Both defenders also rank in the top-25 of the ACC in passes defended.  For the Panthers to win the Pinstripe Bowl, the secondary, especially Lewis and Maddox, will need to step up and limit the Wildcats passing attack.

Northwestern Wildcats

Oct 24, 2015; Lincoln, NE, USA; Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Zack Oliver (10) leads the cheers after a win against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium. Northwestern defeated Nebraska 30-28. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 24, 2015; Lincoln, NE, USA; Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Zack Oliver (10) leads the cheers after a win against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium. Northwestern defeated Nebraska 30-28. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Wildcats Offense

Quick!  Who are the only two teams in the Big Ten to have a quarterback, running back, and wide receiver ranked in the top-5 in total yards at each position?  The most logical guess would be CFB playoff participant Ohio State.  If you guessed them…you would be correct.  However, the other team is the Northwestern Wildcats.

Offensively the Wildcats possess some of the best playmakers in the Big Ten.  Led by quarterback Clayton Thorson, running back Justin Jackson, and wide receiver Austin Carr, the Northwestern offense was ranked in the top half of the Big Ten.

Red shirt sophomore Clayton Thorson paced Northwestern, throwing for nearly 3000 yards.  He threw 21 touchdowns against only eight interceptions.  What makes Thorson such a dangerous weapon is not only his throwing arm, but also his ability to scramble and use his legs.  On the season he rushed for five touchdowns.  To prevent Thorson from beating them with his mobility, look for the Panthers to keep a spy around the line of scrimmage.

One of Northwestern’s biggest offensive weapons is junior running back Justin Jackson.  The Carol Stream, IL native was the Big Ten’s third leading rusher.  He grounded out 1300 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.  In only three games this season did Jackson fail to record at least 20 rushing attempts.  Jackson’s ability to gain chunks of yards on the ground against a vaunted Pittsburgh rush defense could be the key to a Wildcats victory.

On the outside, the Big Ten’s leading receiver was senior Austin Carr.  The Benecia, CA native was the only Big Ten wide out to gain over 1000 receiving yards (1196).  Jackson also led the Big Ten in receiving touchdowns with 12. Look for Pittsburgh to roll extra coverage to his side of the field.

Wildcats Defense

The same issues that plague the Pittsburgh Panthers defense also hampers the Northwestern defense – pass defense.  The Wildcats are ranked 108th.  Also like Pittsburgh, Northwestern poses a formidable rush defense, ranking 31st nationally.  So, with each team possessing similar defensive styles, how will Northwestern slow down the Pittsburgh offense?  The answer may lie in the Wildcats ability to pressure Peterman.

MIKE linebacker Anthony Walker, Jr. and safety Godwin Igwebuike ranked in the top-10 in the Big Ten in tackles.  One aspect of any Pat Fitzgerald coached team is their ability to wrap up and make tackles.  The 2016 edition of the Wildcats is no different.

Defensively, one area where Northwestern may have an advantage is their third down and red zone defense.  Northwestern ranked in the top half of the Big Ten in opponent 3rd down conversion and red zone conversion percentages.  Conversely, Pittsburgh ranks in the bottom half of the ACC in both of those categories.  Keep your eye on which team can keep drives alive on 3rd down and which team can score when they get in the red zone.

Outlook

Nov 26, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Nathan Peterman (4) passes against the Syracuse Orange during the third quarter at Heinz Field. PITT won 76-61. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Some keys worth keeping your eye on are which defense is able to stymie the other’s passing game.  Both team defenses are the worst in their respective conferences.

Another area of interest worth noting is how Pittsburgh is able to corral the three-headed offensive monster from Northwestern.  Can Thorson make plays with his legs.  Will Jackson be able to make things happen against the Panthers stingy rush defense.  Will Lewis or Maddox be able to stay with Carr on the outside?  All questions that will likely decide the football game.

On special teams, watch out for the speed of Quadree Henderson.  I won’t be surprised if he takes a return to the house in this one.  In addition, the Panthers should have the advantage in the kicking game with senior place kicker Chris Blewitt. The senior only converted 60 percent of his attempts, but he has made some big time kicks, see Clemson 2016.

As has been the case in recent years, expect the 2016 New Era Pinstripe Bowl to be another fantastic match up of teams that can score points.

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