Feature graphic courtesy of Sarah Sopher
No. 23 Pittsburgh (8-4) vs. Northwestern (6-6)
Where: Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, New York
When: Wednesday, Dec. 28 at 2 p.m. EST on ESPN
No. 23 Pittsburgh
How they got here:
The Panthers went 8-4 with a 5-3 ACC record, finishing fourth in the Coastal Division. Their season featured two three-game winning streaks, as well as two statement wins to bolster their resume. They opened their season by blowing out Villanova 28-7. In their second game, they handed Penn State, who is currently ranked fifth in the College Football Playoff rankings, one of their two losses on the season, beating them 42-39. They then dropped two straight games to Oklahoma State and North Carolina to even their record at 2-2, before ripping off three straight wins against Marshall, Georgia Tech and Virginia. They suffered their only home loss of the season at the hands of Virginia Tech, who were ranked No. 25 in the AP poll at the time. They lost to Miami before winning three straight to end the season. Their biggest win of the season came on Nov. 12th, when they beat CFP No. 2 Clemson 43-42 on a 48-yard field goal from Chris Blewitt with six seconds left. It was Clemson’s only loss during the regular season. Pitt is the only team in college football with two victories against Power Five Conference Champions: Penn State and Clemson.
Why they can win:
Pittsburgh is led by a solid offense, specifically their rush offense, which ranks No. 26 in the nation. The Panthers have rushed for 2,757 yards, 5.41 yards per rush, 35 rushing touchdowns and are averaging 229.8 rushing yards per game. Led by running back James Conner, who rushed for 1,060 yards, 5.1 yards per carry, 16 touchdowns and averaged 88.3 rushing yards per game. Northwestern ranks 32nd in the nation in rush defense, however, they have given up 136.7 rushing yards per game and 19 rushing touchdowns.
The Panthers have a solid passing game, which has produced 26 touchdowns and 218.7 yards per game. Pittsburgh has not thrown for a ton of yards, just 2,613 on the season, but they have been very efficient. Quarterback Nathan Peterman completed 59.7 percent of his passes and only threw six interceptions, while throwing 26 touchdowns. The Panthers have the nation’s 11th ranked passing efficiency with a 158.07. Northwestern has a good defense but their pass defense is their obvious weak spot. They have the 108th ranked pass defense, which allows 264.9 yards per game. The Panthers should be able to move the ball down the field efficiently when they need to throw, which could be critical if this game becomes a shootout.
Defensively, Pittsburgh has the nation’s ninth ranked rush defense. They have only given up 1,307 yards. 3.39 yards per carry and 108.9 rushing yards per game. They will be facing a stagnant Northwestern rushing attack that averages only 3.86 yards per carry, 145.3 rushing yards a game and is ranked 102nd.
Pittsburgh also has the nation’s best special teams unit. They rank first in kickoff returns. They have returned kicks for 987 yards and averaged the nation’s best 29.03 yards per return. They have the fifth best punt return unit with 251 punt return yards for a 16.73 punt return average. Quandree Henderson scored a nation-leading three kicks for touchdowns and added a punt return to total four special team touchdowns. He was among the nation’s best return men and was recognized accordingly. He was named to the 2016 Coaches All-ACC First team. He was named First team All-American by five different organizations. He was also named an NCAA Consensus All-American. The sophomore is a huge weapon for the Panthers and will be a big part of their game plan.
Player to watch: RB James Conner
It’s hard to believe that after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in late 2015, that Conner would even come back and play football again, let alone have as big a season as he did. He was back playing for the Panthers on Sept. 3rd, less than a year after being diagnosed with cancer and four months after his final round of chemotherapy. Pittsburgh’s captain rushed for 1,060 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He scored a total of 20 touchdowns this season which ranks sixth nationally. The junior enters his final career game after declaring for the 2017 NFL Draft. He has 3,701 career rushing yards, 5.6 yards per carry, 52 rushing touchdowns and 56 total touchdowns. He ranks second, only behind Tony Dorsett, in school history in career rushing yards, total touchdowns and rushing touchdowns. He was 2016 Coaches All-ACC First Team. He also won numerous courage and spirit awards. He will be facing Northwestern’s tough rush defense, but should have some room to run as they give up 136.7 rushing yards per game. He is the Panther’s leader and best offensive weapon. He will be motivated to win his final game and help his draft stock.
How they got here:
Northwestern finished the season with a 6-6 record. They finished fifth in the Big Ten West with a conference record of 5-4. The Wildcats got off to a slow start this campaign, recording a 1-3 record in their first four games with losses to Western Michigan, Illinois State and the AP No. 20 Nebraska. Their only win during that stretch was a 24-13 win against Duke. They went on a three game run where they captured their three biggest victories of the season beating Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana. On Halloween weekend, the Wildcats took the AP No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes late into the fourth quarter before eventually losing 24-20. This game was significant because it really showed Northwestern could compete with the top of the Big Ten. The next week they lost to Wisconsin, who went on to win the West region and play Penn State for the Big Ten Championship. After beating Purdue and losing to Minnesota, they became bowl eligible in the last week of the season with a 42-21 victory over Illinois.
Why they can win:
Northwestern comes into this game with good matchups across the board. They have the 52nd ranked passing offense, throwing for 247.7 yards per game and 21 touchdowns. They will be facing the second worst passing defense in the nation, the Panthers, who have given up 343.1 yards per game and 27 touchdowns on the season.
The Wildcats do not beat themselves. They rank second in the nation in penalties with only 43 on the season for 354 total penalty yards. They also don’t turn the ball over much, turning it over just 14 times this year. They have a turnover margin of +7, which ranks 20th in the Nation.
Their defense is a big reason why they are playing in a bowl game. They have a top 60 total defense (59th) giving up just over 400 yards a game. If they are going to win this game, they will have to stop Pittsburgh’s dangerous rush offense. The Wildcats, who are coached by Pat Fitzgerald, a very accomplished linebacker for Northwestern in the 90’s, are ranked 32nd in rush defense. They have given up 1,640 yards on the season and give up less than four yards per carry (3.68). The Wildcats have a very good third-down defense, only allowing opponents to pick up a first down on 35.8 percent of their attempts. This game, in all likelihood, will come down to Pittsburgh’s offense versus Northwestern’s defense.
Player to watch: WR Austin Carr
Austin Carr had a decorated senior season. Carr was named First Team All-Big Ten as well as Academic All-Big Ten. He was also named Second Team All-American by Sports Illustrated and USA Today. He was one of three finalists for the 2016 Biletnikoff Award, which is awarded to the most outstanding wide receiver in college football. He was named the Richter-Howard Big Ten Receiver of the Year. He led the conference in receiving yards, receptions and touchdowns. He is the third player in Big Ten history to accomplish this feat joining Heisman Trophy Winner Desmond Howard (1990) and Allen Robinson (2012).
Carr is statistically a top-20 wide receiver in the nation. He had 84 receptions, 7.0 receptions per game (14th in the nation), 1,196 receiving yards (17th in the nation) and 12 touchdowns (16th in the nation). He averaged just under 100 receiving yards a game with 99.7 yards a game, which is 13th best in the nation. Carr has accounted for about 40 percent of Northwestern’s passing yardage and 25 percent of their total offensive yardage. He has also accounted for almost 30 percent of the touchdowns that the Wildcats have scored. He is responsible for 72 points on the year. He had six 100+ receiving yard games, and in 11 out of the 12 games this season, Carr recorded over 50 receiving yards.
He is a potential game breaker against Pitt. The Panthers have the second worst pass defense in FBS. Northwestern should have no problems moving the ball in the passing game. This game is shaping up to be a shootout and Austin Carr will be a crucial part of any success that Northwestern has throwing the football.
Edited by Joe Catapano