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Can Northwestern stop Pitt?

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Or will we have a different kind of shooutout in the Bronx? We preview the Pinstripe Bowl!

NCAA Football: New Era Pinstripe Bowl- Indiana vs Duke Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

For the second consecutive bowl game, Northwestern has drawn a sneaky-good 8-4 team that is likely better than its record indicates. This year, though, instead of traveling to the sunny climes of Florida, the ‘Cats head to New York City ["you can just say ‘New York’"] to take off the Pitt Panthers.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl

Vitals

Date: Wednesday, December 28

Time: 1pm CT

TV: ESPN

Venue: Yankee Stadium, New York, NY

Line: Pitt -6, O/U 65

Statistical Profiles

W-L S&P+ Rk Off S&P+ Rk Def S&P+ Rk ST S&P+ Rk
Pitt 8-4 10.5 26 40.5 4 29.3 66 -0.7 90
N'western 6-6 5.4 49 29.8 67 23.3 27 -1.1 103

Players to Watch

Pitt

Nathan Peterman: The senior quarterback put up outstanding numbers for the Panther offense, completing 172 of his 288 passes (59.7%) for 2602 yards (that’s 9.03 ypa), 26 TDs, and just 6 INTs.

James Conner: One of the feel-good stories of the season, the senior RB has come back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma (fuck you, cancer) to put up another 1,000-yard season, rushing for a 5.1 ypc average (208 carries, 1060 yards) and 16 TDs. He’s also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield (299 yards and 20 catches for 4 TDs).

Ejuan Price: The senior DL may only rate 8th on the team in tackles (42), but half of those are for losses, and 12 of those are sacks. He’s also forced three fumbles and leads a Pitt defense that likes to pin its ears back and disrupt opposing backfields.

[LPW] Quadree Henderson: I’ll let our friends at InsideNU take it away:

Quadree Henderson is a blur.

That’s the best way to describe Pittsburgh’s 5-foot-8, 190-pound sophomore out of Delaware who ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash out of high school and is somewhere in the 4.3-something range right now.

He’s listed as a wide receiver, but where Henderson really does his damage is on fly sweeps and in the kick return game. He caught 23 balls this year but ran it 54 times for 555 yards — over 10 yards per attempt — and five touchdowns. He added in four return touchdowns — three on kickoff returns and one on a punt return — to boot, and he earned several All-American honors for his efforts in that area.

Northwestern

Justin Jackson: Northwestern will rely on The Ball Carrier®™, who racked up 1300 yards on 266 carries (4.89 ypc) and added 12 TDs. He’s also become more of a receiving option for Clayton Thorson, grabbing 33 passes out of the backfield.

Austin Carr: This is the name to know. Future President Austin Carr hauled in 84 passes for 1196 yards and 12 TDs, nabbing Biletnikoff consideration and Big Ten Receiver of the Year honors. He’s especially a threat on third downs, as he has shown great rapport with Thorson on out routes and has turned into a contortionist getting his feet down near the sidelines.

Anthony Walker: While safety Godwin Igwebuike (6 PD) merits attention, Walker is the heart and soul of the defense. His 10 tackles for loss, 5 passes defended, and 3 forced fumbles underscore just how important it is for Northwestern’s defense to get into the backfield and disrupt opposing offense.

When Northwestern has the ball...

The ‘Cats have relied much more on the arm of Clayton Thorson than most would have predicted before the year. The sophomore threw 442 times, completing 57% for almost 3000 yards, 21 TDs, and 8 picks. He’s had fumbling issues, losing 5 on the year, primarily when he tries to do too much after contact.

John Moten IV has been a nice change-of-pace for the ‘Cats, coming on late in the season to average 6.1 ypc, and superback Garrett Dickerson found his form late as well, grabbing 3 TDs in his last 5 games.

Anchored by the 12 sacks of Ejuan Price, the Pitt defense thrives in standard down situations. Per Football Study Hall, the Panthers rate above-average in primarily-run situations, allowing just 2.49 yards per carry. It’s on passing downs, though, where Pat Narduzzi’s club is feast or famine—the Pitt secondary ranks 116th in passing down success rate but still gets to the QB 9% of the time. Against Carr and Thorson, there will be points to score for the ‘Cats offense, but don’t be surprised to see Price on top of the Northwestern signal-caller a few times.

Advantage: Northwestern

When Pitt has the ball...

Who from the Pitt offense can’t hurt you? Matt Canada will surely make quite an exit in his last game at the helm of the Panther offense before leaving for LSU. Peterman and Conner are a formidable one-two punch out of the Pitt backfield, but the Panthers spread the ball around nicely—while Jester Weah has 9 TDs, seven different players have notched receiving touchdowns. Pitt doesn’t allow a ton of sacks (6th in adjusted sack rate) and uses the big play to its advantage.

Quadree Henderson is a little speed demon who does damage on kick returns and on sweeps. Someone on NU’s defense, maybe Anthony Walker, will have to spy him all day and attempt to shut him down. I hope.

Pitt TE Scott Orndorf is a bona fide receiving threat (33 catches for 558 yards and 5 TDs), drawing 20% of Pitt’s targets and challenging linebackers across the middle. It’ll require a strong afternoon out of the Northwestern linebacking corps of Anthony Walker (1 INT), Jaylen Hall, and Nate Prater, who will have to remain disciplined on Pitt play-action and keep Orndorf accounted for.

The bend-don’t-break Wildcat defense has relied on a "next man up" attitude in the secondary, as losses of top corners Keith Watkins II to injury and Matthew Harris to concussion-induced retirement forced Pat Fitzgerald and Mike Hankwitz to cobble together a secondary which somehow has managed to turn in a passing downs defense which yields just a 25.8% success rate, 1.63 ypc average, and allows rushers like Ifaedi Odenigbo (10 sacks) and Xavier Washington (7 sacks) to get to the quarterback.

The ‘Cats rush defense has left something to be desired, though, yielding high totals to Minnesota and wisconsin, and Conner’s bruising running style should open up a lot of passing lanes for Peterman. Big cushions on standard downs, too, should allow the Panthers to march down the field while chewing up yards.

Advantage: Pitt

"Writer" Thoughts

LincolnParkWildcat: This one is going to be a shootout. We need to score like we did against Purdue (45-17, with 21 points in the third quarter) to have a chance against that dynamic offense. This late in the season, I think everyone’s a little beat up, and we’re going to need all the breaks we can get. Our offense needs to be balanced between power running of JJTBC and efficient spread the field passing from Clayton Thorson.

On defense, I want them to play tight and aggressive, not loose off the ball. It’s probably not going to happen. I’ll be drinking plenty of beer, because it’s going to be a long afternoon. Pitt, 49-35

MNW: Take the over and pass me the booze. While I think Northwestern can make some hay on offense, with Austin Carr having another big day unless a Minnesota player cheap-shots him again, I don’t like the defense in this one. Pitt doesn’t just beat you with big plays, they beat you by lining up and pounding James Conner over and over, and there’s some weakness in stopping the run between the tackles (see: wisconsin and Minnesota).

It’s imperative that Northwestern establish the pass early, getting Carr loose but also imposing Garrett Dickerson and Flynn Nagel on the Pitt secondary. If Clayton Thorson gets in a groove, running lanes with open up for Justin Jackson the Ball-Carrier and the Northwestern offense can gash Pitt. They won’t put up 61 like Syracuse, but they’ll get theirs if they can avoid a slow start.

Unfortunately, I think the defense lets the ‘Cats down in this one. Against Illinois and Minnesota, the most maddening tendency of the Northwestern defense was their willingness to start plays 10 yards off the wide receivers, giving up quick outside passes and yards after the catch. Pitt’s got the offensive playmakers to make that hurt and the RB/TE combo to bruise you up the middle. I can see Northwestern trying to avoid giving up the big play and yielding lots of yards...only I think this time the bend-don’t-break style snaps at the wrong times. Pitt, 42-35.


OTE Picks:

MNW is also taking booze recommendations for the game. Beer and liquor welcomed. Let us know your picks and predictions in the comments!