Northwestern is set to take on the Pitt Panthers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, so here are some predictions and storylines for the Wildcats ahead of the game.
1. Weather Dictates Wildcats Offensive Plans
If it’s windy on Wednesday in the Bronx, Northwestern will be in trouble. The Cats certainly could run the ball with Justin Jackson, but Pitt is far more beatable through the air, ranking next to last nationally at 343 yards per game allowed. If gusts are calm inside Yankee Stadium, Northwestern will want to unleash the pitch-and-catch tandem of Clayton Thorson to Austin Carr on a Panther secondary that’s gone from bad to worse without star S Jordan Whitehead. Plus, Jackson will hit a wall when running up the middle against NT Tyrique Jarrett and MLB Matt Galambos.
2. Individual Defensive Stars Shine
True, the Pitt offense is a tough draw. However, coordinator Matt Canada is now in Baton Rouge and the Wildcat D should benefit from weather that will, well, feel as if it’s Canada. Northwestern is really talented on the defensive side of the ball, even if the individuals didn’t get a lot of love and attention nationally. Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, LB Anthony Walker and S Godwin Igwebuike will use the Pinstripe Bowl to audition for NFL scouts. And acrobatic S Kyle Queiro will play with the added motivation of knowing that a large contingency of friends and family will be heading across the Hudson from New Jersey to watch him in action.
3. Ejuan Price Adds to Northwestern’s O-Line Woes
Save for maybe OG Tommy Doles, who has a promising future, the Wildcat front wall was a liability this season, allowing 35 sacks and inconsistently creating space for Jackson on the ground. Now the unit must face one its toughest tests of the season, Price, the shot-from-a-cannon end who has 21 stops for loss and a dozen sacks. And a chip on his shoulder. Price is undersized, underappreciated outside of the ACC and poised to use the Pinstripe Bowl and the leaky Northwestern O-line to shed some of his national anonymity.
4. Clayton Thorson Goes Toe-to-Toe With Nathan Peterman, Takes Tailwind Into Junior Year
Thorson was quietly one of the better Big Ten quarterbacks in 2016. And he was only a sophomore in his first full season as a regular. He threw three touchdown passes in five separate games, and his accuracy improved as the campaign wound down. Weather permitting, Thorson will pick apart the Pitt secondary for 250 yards and his sixth three-touchdown game. Carr will again be his preferred target, running circles around the Panthers for 10 receptions and a couple of those Thorson scoring strikes.
5. Pat Fitzgerald’s Postseason Drought Continues
Fitz has been revelatory at his alma mater, routinely overachieving at one of the toughest Big Ten schools to be a head coach. The bowls, though, have not been his friend. In fact, he’s 1-5 overall, getting ambushed by Tennessee, 45-6, in last year’s Outback Bowl. Fitzgerald will fall to 1-6 in the postseason, unable to keep up with the Pitt offense. Northwestern will move the ball behind the Thorson-Jackson-Carr triplet. It just won’t score enough to offset the Arena League production of Pitt, which upset Clemson and scored 175 points in its final three games.