Wildcats run over Panthers for 31-24 Pinstripe Bowl victory

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Wildcats run over Panthers for 31-24 Pinstripe Bowl victory

Northwestern running back Justin Jackson (21) tallied 224 yards and three touchdowns in the Wildcats' 31-24 win over Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl. Elaina Zachos | Senior Staff Photographer

Northwestern running back Justin Jackson (21) tallied 224 yards and three touchdowns in the Wildcats' 31-24 win over Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl. Elaina Zachos | Senior Staff Photographer

Northwestern running back Justin Jackson (21) tallied 224 yards and three touchdowns in the Wildcats' 31-24 win over Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl. Elaina Zachos | Senior Staff Photographer

Northwestern running back Justin Jackson (21) tallied 224 yards and three touchdowns in the Wildcats' 31-24 win over Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl. Elaina Zachos | Senior Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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The Pitt football team closed out the regular season as one of the hottest teams in college football, but finished its year with a dud of a performance against Northwestern in New York City.

The Panthers (8-5) fell to the Wildcats (7-6), 31-24, in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York. Pitt held star wide receiver Austin Carr to six catches for 51 yards, but Northwestern running back Justin Jackson was an unstoppable force throughout the game, racking up 224 yards and three touchdowns against the Panthers’ top-ten rushing defense.

“Our number one goal is always to stop the run, and we didn’t do that today.” Pitt linebacker Matt Galambos said. “When you stop the run, you usually win, most of the time. And as you can see, we didn’t stop it, and we didn’t win.”

The 24 points scored marked a season low for the Panthers.

“Not the way you want your senior class to go out,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Left a lot of points off the board, didn’t tackle a real good tailback … so many points we just left out there. They didn’t leave any out there. That’s how you lose a game.”

The Panthers lost several key starters to injury during the game, including quarterback Nathan Peterman and running back James Conner. But Pitt never seemed to be in control of the game, even before the departures of Peterman and Conner.

The crowd made it feel like a makeshift home game for the Panthers, with roars of approval for every Pitt touchdown and chants of “Let’s Go Pitt,” after big plays. But Northwestern made fewer mistakes and made more big plays in big moments to secure the win.

The Panthers’ oft-criticized defense made a statement to start the game, forcing a three-and-out on Northwestern’s first possession as defensive linemen Allen Edwards and Shakir Soto combined on a third-down sack.

Pitt immediately moved the ball deep into Wildcats territory, as Peterman rolled to his right and launched a deep ball to senior wide receiver Dontez Ford, who made a highlight-reel catch on the sideline for a 38-yard gain to Northwestern’s 20-yard line. But after a 10-yard loss by sophomore Quadree Henderson, Pitt had to settle for a 46-yard field goal attempt by kicker Chris Blewitt.

Blewitt drilled it right down the middle with plenty of distance to spare, and the Panthers took an early 3-0 lead. Then, after another impressive stop on defense, Pitt took over at its own 23 and again moved the ball downfield with ease.

A defensive holding penalty extended the Panthers’ drive, then a pair of completions from Peterman to tight end Scott Orndoff and wide receiver Aaron Mathews moved Pitt inside the red zone. Northwestern then stopped Panthers fullback George Aston just short of the goal line, setting up fourth-and-goal.

As he has done so many times over the course of his 56-touchdown career, Conner tried leaping over the goal line to secure six points. But the Wildcats defense stood him up and stopped him, and the Panthers came away without any points.

Northwestern then started from its own 1-yard line, but quickly flipped the field — and the momentum of the game — on a 68-yard run by running back Justin Jackson.

Pitt cornerback Phillipie Motley saved what would have been a 98-yard touchdown with a tackle from behind. Eight plays later, though, Jackson found the end zone from eight yards out to cap the 99-yard drive and give the Wildcats a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter.

The Panthers stormed right back to the red zone on just two plays, but once again came away with nothing, as Wildcats safety Godwin Igwebuike intercepted Peterman on a pass to the end zone.

Northwestern put together another impressive drive, marching inside the red zone. But cornerback Avonte Maddox provided a huge momentum swing for the Panthers, making a leaping interception at the goal line to prevent a touchdown and give Pitt the ball back.

The Panthers failed to pick up a first down though, and the Wildcats drove right back down the field. Another touchdown run by Jackson, this one from 16 yards out, made it 14-3 Northwestern with just over three minutes remaining in the half.

With the Wildcats threatening to turn the game into a blowout, Pitt’s explosive offense picked the team back up. On the first play of the drive, Peterman found junior wide receiver Jester Weah on a deep ball down the sideline, and Weah broke a tackle and strolled into the end zone for a 69-yard touchdown.

Northwestern again marched into Panthers territory, but an alert play by Pitt linebacker Matt Galambos prevented the Wildcats from putting points on the board. Galambos recovered a fumble on a dropped lateral that Northwestern’s players seemed to think was a forward pass, and the Panthers took over with 28 seconds left in the half.

Pitt drove across midfield before halftime, but Peterman’s pass into the end zone fell incomplete, and the score remained 14-10.

After racking up 269 total yards in the first half with only 10 points to show for it, the Panthers struck quickly to start the second half. Henderson broke loose for a 57-yard run on the first play of the third quarter, then Peterman scrambled into the end zone on third down to give the Panthers took a 17-14 lead less than two minutes into the half.

The Wildcats responded on their next drive, picking up a pair of key third-down conversions followed by a fourth-down conversion. Jackson then delivered the finishing blow on a 40-yard touchdown run — his third touchdown of the game.

“It’s risky,” Narduzzi said about Northwestern going for it on fourth down. “Again, I think they played with that attitude they had nothing to lose.”

Pitt drove inside the red zone again on the ensuing possession, but a botched snap resulted in an 18-yard loss and a punishing helmet-to-helmet hit on Peterman, moving the Panthers back to the 31-yard line. After a six-yard gain on third-and-28, Blewitt missed a 43-yard field goal attempt wide right, and the score remained 21-17 in favor of the Wildcats.

The Panthers’ defense came out with a crucial three-and-out, then true freshman running back Chawntez Moss blocked Northwestern’s punt. That set Pitt up at the Wildcats’ 22-yard line, but the Panthers were missing their veteran signal caller, as redshirt freshman quarterback Ben DiNucci entered the game in place of Peterman.

“The coaches called down from up top and said, ‘Get ready. This is your time. Everything you’ve been working for this year, everything you’ve asked for, nothing to be nervous about now. Just go do what you do,'” DiNucci said.

Seeing his first game action of his college career, DiNucci looked like a seasoned vet. Facing third-and-6, he completed the first pass of his career for a seven-yard gain and a first down. Then, on third-and-goal, DiNucci made it 2-for-2 with a six-yard touchdown pass to Aston, giving Pitt a 24-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Northwestern answered with another methodical drive, converting twice on fourth down and scoring a go-ahead touchdown on a 21-yard pass by Thorson with 8:23 left in the game. Henderson then lost a fumble on the first play of the ensuing drive, and the Wildcats tacked on a 37-yard field goal to take a 31-24 lead.

The Panthers put together a promising drive, as DiNucci led them down inside the red zone, but the drive stalled there. Orndoff dropped a perfectly thrown game-tying touchdown pass on third down, then DiNucci threw an interception on fourth down.

Pitt’s defense came away with a crucial three-and-out, giving the offense one more chance to drive for the tying touchdown. But DiNucci threw another interception, sealing the 31-24 win for Northwestern.

“I hold myself to a high standard. Any time you throw two interceptions and any of that stuff happens, you’re down on yourself,” DiNucci said. “I’m just mad I couldn’t do it for the seniors and these guys who played their last games today.”

The Panthers finish their season at 8-5, matching the team’s record from 2015.

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