THE MATCHUP: PITT (8-4) VS NORTHWESTERN (6-6)
WHEN: 2:00 P.M. EST
WHERE: YANKEE STADIUM, BRONX, NY
HOW TO WATCH: ESPN
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
In many ways, the 2016 season already feels like an improvement over last year. Pitt earned a victory over arch-rival Penn State, upset #2 Clemson in Death Valley, and broke numerous offensive records in Matt Canada’s first (and only) year as offensive coordinator. However, the Panthers currently sit at eight wins, which is the same total as last year. With a victory Wednesday afternoon in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, the improvement can become more than just a feeling—it can become a measurable fact.
The Panthers will face Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats in the Pinstripe Bowl. The Wildcats hold a 6-6 record, with key victories over Duke, Iowa, and Michigan State. Although a 9-7 home loss to FCS Illinois State is tough to defend for a team that made the Outback Bowl last season, four of the Wildcats other losses came to teams currently ranked in the top 25 (Western Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Wisconsin). Wednesday’s game will influence the perception of Northwestern’s 2016 season as well, since it will dictate whether or not the Wildcats conclude the season with a winning record. Pat Fitzgerald, who holds a 1-5 record in bowl games as Northwestern’s head coach, will also look to recover from last season’s 45-6 loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. As with Pitt, Northwestern has plenty riding on this game.
The Wildcats operate out of a base offense featuring three receivers, a running back, and a superback (fullback/tight end/wide receiver hybrid). Although Pitt is a 5.5-point favorite Wednesday, Northwestern possesses the offensive ingredients that make an upset over the Panthers possible. While they rank 77th nationally in total offense with 392.9 yards-per-game, the Wildcats feature the type of quarterback-receiver duo that has bested the Panthers all season. Let’s look at the players to watch when Northwestern has the ball:
- Clayton Thorson, Quarterback: Part one in the formula for scoring on the Panthers’ defense is a capable quarterback. As Syracuse’s Zach Mahoney demonstrated in the regular season finale, you don’t need an extensive statistical résumé to throw for 400+ yards and 5 touchdowns on Pitt’s secondary; you just need to be able to get the job done. 6’4” 220-pound redshirt sophomore Clayton Thorson has proven to be able capable of just that. The Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection completed 257 of 442 passes for 2,968 yards, 21 touchdowns and 8 interceptions during the regular season. A former 4-star recruit, Thorson ranks as Mel Kiper’s ninth-best quarterback eligible for the 2017 draft. He throws behind an offensive line allowing 2.92 sacks-per-game (112th in the nation), so Ejuan Price and the Panther pass rush may present the best chance in limiting Thorson’s production.
- Austin Carr, Wide Receiver: The second part of the formula for scoring on Pitt is a talented receiver with above average size and respectable production. Once again, Northwestern features a player fitting this description. Austin Carr, a 6’1” 200-pound senior, earned First-Team All-Big Ten honors this season. The former walk-on was also named as a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, awarded to the nation’s top wide receiver. With 84 receptions for 1,196 yards and 12 touchdowns, Carr possesses the ability to become the 14th receiver to record over 100-yards receiving on the Panthers in 2016.
- Justin Jackson, Running Back: At running back, the Wildcats feature another All-Big Ten performer. Justin Jackson, a 5’11” 193-pound junior, earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors this season with 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns on 266 attempts. In order to reach 1,400 yards, Jackson will have to earn every inch. Pitt ranks 9th nationally in run defense, allowing just 108.9 yards-per-game, and they held the Big Ten’s top rated running back (Penn State’s Saquon Barkley) to under 100-yards this season.
Defensively, the Wildcats allow 401.6 total yards-per-game, ranking 59th nationally in that category. Statistically speaking, they are stouter against the run than they are against the pass. Northwestern ranks 31st nationally in rushing yards-per-game (allowing 136.7 ypg), and 108th in passing yards-per-game (allowing 264.9 ypg). Below are the Wildcats’ top performers on defense:
- Godwin Igwebuike, Safety: The Wildcats’ leading tackler, Godwin Igwebuike, earned second-team All-Big Ten honors this season. The 6’0” 205-pound junior recorded 101 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, and 1 interception. As the Wildcats’ leading tackler, he will play a pivotal role Wednesday if the Wildcats are to limit Pitt’s James Conner in his final game as a Panther.
- Anthony Walker, Jr., Linebacker: At the center of Northwestern’s defense roams Anthony Walker, Jr., a second-team All-Big Ten selection. Despite battling an injury early in the season, the 6’1” 245-pound junior has 98 tackles, 10.0 tackles-for-loss, 2.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, and an interception. His on-field play and classroom accomplishments even made Walker Jr. a featured subject on Sports Illustrated’s website this week. Should he receive a favorable projection from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, Walker Jr. may become the first Wildcat with eligibility remaining to be selected in the NFL draft since Darnell Autry in 1996.
- Ifeadi Odenigbo, Defensive End: Ifeadi Odenigbo, a 6’3” 265-pound pass rushing specialist, is enjoying a breakout season in his senior year. The former 4-star recruit earned second-team All-Big Ten honors by posting 10.0 sacks and 12.0 tackles-for-loss. Although his sack total is impressive, Odenigbo is listed as a second-teamer on Northwestern’s depth chart, and he does not register many tackles other than sacks (just 22 total tackles on the season). Also, 6.0 of his sacks came in a two-game stretch where the Wildcats’ earned road victories over Iowa and Michigan State. Odenigbo will face one of the most consistent offensive lines in the nation on Wednesday. The Panthers’ line allows a mere .75 sacks-per-game, ranking them as college football’s third-best unit in that category.
- Montre Hartage, Cornerback: Northwestern may struggle overall when stopping the pass, but quarterbacks must exercise caution when throwing towards sophomore Montre Hartage. In his first season as a starter, Hartage has intercepted 5 passes and defended 9 more. Even when a receiver gets a step on the 6’0” 190-pounder, he knows how to play the ball, as evidenced by the video below:
Here is how the two teams compare statistically:
|Points Per Game||42.3||35.6||25.6||22.1|
|Points Off Turnovers||82||51||52||56|
|Yards Gained Rushing||3015||1662||2056||1974|
|Yards Lost Rushing||258||355||313||334|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.4||3.4||3.9||3.7|
|Average Yards Per Game||229.8||108.9||145.2||136.7|
|Average Yards Per Pass||8.9||8.0||6.6||6.8|
|Average Yards Per Catch||15.1||12.6||11.5||11.1|
|Average Yards Per Game||217.8||343.1||247.7||264.9|
|Average Yards Per Play||6.7||6.0||5.3||5.3|
|Average Yards Per Game||447.5||452.0||392.9||401.6|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||34-987||63-1250||26-624||28-639|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||15-251||28-236||19-132||22-227|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||8-182||6-48||13-138||8-93|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||29.0||19.8||24.0||22.8|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||16.7||8.4||6.9||10.3|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||22.8||8.0||10.6||11.6|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||15-8||14-9||8-6||12-8|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||69-597||78-668||43-354||56-543|
|Average Per Game||49.8||55.7||29.5||45.2|
|PUNTS – YARDS||55-2344||61-2494||72-2901||67-2796|
|Average Yards Per Punt||42.6||40.9||40.3||41.7|
|Net Yards Per Punt||36.1||36.4||35.5||38.3|
|KICKOFFS – YARDS||88-5410||76-4737||59-3710||58-3514|
|Average Yards Per Kick||61.5||62.3||62.9||60.6|
|Net Yards Per Kick||40.5||37.2||38.9||37.8|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||31:25||28:35||28:05||31:55|
|4th Down Percentage||64%||71%||46%||58%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||39-279||9-57||26-171||35-204|
|PAT’S MADE / ATTEMPTED||63/66||50/52||38/39||24/27|
|Moten IV, John||54||329||6.1||2||43|
|Walker Jr., Anthony||58||98||10.0||3||2||1||2.0|
On the injury front, Northwestern will likely be without running back Warren Long, who has not played since their season opener against Western Michigan. Other than that, the Wildcats should have all other expected contributors ready to go. For Pitt, defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett, running back Chawntez Moss, wide receiver Tre Tipton, wide receiver Zach Challingsworth, defensive tackle Amir Watts, and safety Jordan Whitehead are all “questionable.” Cornerbacks Avonte Maddox and Phillipie Motley are “probable.” All other players who were previously lost for the season will remain out.
The New Era Pinstripe Bowl kicks off at 2:00p.m tomorrow at Yankee Stadium. The game will be aired on ESPN, and can be heard on 93.7 the Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.
The confidence in Pat Narduzzi and the Pitt football program seems to grow with each month. A win over Northwestern will give Narduzzi his first bowl victory as a head coach, an accomplishment all head coaches must reach on their way to success. If they can limit Northwestern’s Thorson-Carr connection, Pitt will have undoubtedly improved for the second year in a row, and will carry quite a bit of momentum into the off-season.
The Sports Now network is growing! Check out our two new sites: PittsburghHockeyNow.com for the best Pittsburgh Penguins news and opinion and PiratesTalkNow.com for the latest on the Pittsburgh Pirates.