Just one season removed from a record-setting rushing performance at Yankee Stadium, Northwestern junior Justin Jackson set a new standard.
Jackson rushed for 224 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Wildcats to victory against Pittsburgh in the 2016 New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Wednesday.
Although this year's game didn't come within sniffing distance of last year's Pinstripe Bowl record 651 combined rushing yards by Duke and Indiana, Jackson's 224 yards comes up just three yards short of the Individual record set by Indiana running back Divine Redding last season.
Jackson's stellar performance, particularly in his 149-yard, two-touchdown first half, seemed that it would set up a battle between a pair of elite running backs.
Pitt has relied heavily on James Conner and the senior running back has not failed to produce. Conner was named first-team All-ACC for his 1,060-yard, 16-touchdown performance this season. His 56 career touchdowns and 52 career rushing touchdowns are the most in ACC history. Amazingly, he's done it all after announcing he had overcome Hodgkins lymphoma this past May.
"He is a legacy player at Pitt," head coach Pat Narduzzi said. "He's going to have a heck of an NFL career, I can tell you that."
However, Conner did play at all in the second half, much to the dismay of Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi. Narduzzi seemed suspicious that Conner was the victim of targeting on a play in which he was not involved.
"He's moving on," Narduzzi said. "He got a shot to the head, let's just say.
"He got a hit to the head without the ball in his hands. I guess one of the defenders turned around and went for him, I guess, instead of going for the ball. Kind of interesting."
Without Conner and eventually without quarterback Nathan Peterman, Pitt netted their lowest point total of the season Wednesday. Northwestern made three interceptions, two of which came against freshman Ben DiNucci in relief of Peterman.
Despite being without two starters on offense, Pitt twice forced Northwestern to gamble on fourth down on their go-ahead scoring drive and the Wildcats proved to be successful when rolling the dice.
Northwestern converted on fourth down a total of four times in the game.
"Anytime you give an offense four downs, it almost should be illegal," Narduzzi said. "You got to make those plays and we weren't good enough to make those plays today."
"We've done a lot of research on some things in the offseason," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We felt like we needed to be a little bit more aggressive in that situation all season. The guys went out and executed, did a terrific job."
The Wildcats' victory comes as good news to Yankees manager and Northwestern alum Joe Girardi. Girardi spoke about being close to the program and friendly with Fitzgerald in a press conference prior to the game and Fitzgerald echoed that sentiment after the victory.
"[Girardi]'s been incredibly gracious to myself and my family and to our Northwestern football family. He's been an honorary captain for us. He's been at multiple games of ours," Fitzgerald said. "He's been a great sounding board for me. There's been a lot of times I've asked him questions about leadership, how he handles things. I think he's got a little bit brighter spotlight on him from that standpoint than I do. To see the grace and humility he demonstrates on a daily basis is really inspiring as another leader."
Pittsburgh came out of the gates firing on offense to open the game. Peterman connected with Dontez Ford for a 38-yard pass down the sideline on their first play from scrimmage, which ended with a field goal.
Conner entered bowl season on a hot streak, rushing for at least 100 yards in four of the final five games of the regular season, but Pitt fueled its first-half offense with big passes. On their second drive, Peterman connected on three consecutive passes to get the Panthers into the red zone. Northwestern then made a huge goal-line stand, dragging Conner down just short of the end zone on fourth down.
"Huge change in the momentum of game, right?" Fitzgerald said. "They made a play. Their young man slipped and fell."
Jackson broke his first long run, a 68-yarder on the ensuing drive to set up a score for Northwestern. Thorson prevented the drive from stalling on Pittsburgh's 10-yard line with a keeper on fourth and one. Jackson then put the finishing touches on the 99-yard scoring drive with an 8-yard scamper to the pylon.
"We're in the shadow of our end zone. To be able to go get that done today, I think in that setting right there, that was huge," Fitzgerald said. "That changed momentum. I think it gave our entire squad great confidence. Then when we needed to step up and get a stop defensively, we could. You could drive a truck through that one hole that [Jackson] went through. It was spectacular."
After a short kick gave Pitt the ball near midfield, the Panthers needed just two plays to get into the red zone. A 36-yard gain on a flea flicker to Quadree Henderson was followed by a 10-yard rush from Conner. But on second and goal from the 10-yard line, Peterman threw a pass to the end zone that was picked off by Northwestern safety Godwin Igwebuike at the 3-yard line.
"Just to have some guys play in this big moment experience," Northwestern safety Kyle Queiro said. "Especially at the start of the game, some struggles, rebound from that, which I think is the story of our whole team."
Just before the two minute warning, Pitt scored on their first and only play of the drive as Peterman hit Jester Weah for 69-yard touchdown.
Northwestern's final drive of the second half was filled with penalties before ending with a strange turnover. Thorson tried to hit Jackson with a pass out in the flat, but the throw was wild and Jackson could only get a finger on it. Jackson chased after it, but Pitt linebacker Matt Galambos jumped on the ball. The play was ruled a fumble and Pitt was given one more opportunity before halftime, but failed to score. The first half concluded with Northwestern leading a 14-10.
On the first play of the second half for Pittsburgh, Henderson broke free for a 57-yard run to set the Panthers up in the red zone. Peterman cleaned up the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run to regain the lead.
Northwestern started the ensuing drive with difficult field position, but marched down field for an 86-yard scoring drive, capped off by a 40-yard touchdown run by Jackson.
"Coach putting trust in the run game is pretty cool," Jackson said. "Just have to go out there and get a play because we're not just happy to be here."
Pitt started the next drive with excellent field position after Henderson returned a short kick to the Pittsburgh 46-yard line. The Panthers then attempted a 43-yard field goal but Chris Blewitt missed wide right.
Pitt's biggest defensive feat was holding Jackson and Northwestern to negative yardage on the ensuing drive before Chawntez Moss blocked the punt to set up the offense on the Wildcats' 23-yard line. However, Peterman was relieved for the drive by DiNucci. In the first action of his college career, DiNucci inched the Panthers closer to the end zone with short passes and finished the drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to fullback George Ashton.
On the ensuing drive, Northwestern rolled the dice on fourth and three from Pittsburgh's 46-yard line, with Macan Wilson going low for a pass and scooping the ball up just before it could hit the ground to earn the first down. They again went for it on fourth down, this time from the Pitt 21-yard line. Thorson hit Garrett Dickerson with a pass in the flat and Dickerson cruised untouched into the end zone to give the Wildcats the lead.
Pitt had been dominant on special teams all game, but Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell surprised both the Pitt return unit and the Wildcats' fans when he sent the opening kickoff through the back of the end zone for the first time in the game.
Henderson took a handoff on a reverse but fumbled on the opening play. Northwestern tackle Tyler Lancaster jumped on the ball to set the Cats up on Pittsburgh's 27-yard line. The Wildcats needed a 37-yard field goal from Mitchell to take a 31-24 lead with 6 minutes remaining.
Looking to come back on the following drive, DiNucci scrambled 16 yards for a first down on third and seven to put the Panthers within striking distance. Pitt nearly scored when DiNucci tried to sneak a pass in to tight end Scott Orndoff on a seam up the middle but it was batted away. On fourth down, DiNucci was looking for Darrin Hall in the corner but was picked off by safety Jared McGee to give Northwestern possession with a seven-point lead and less than three minutes remaining.
Pitt forced the Wildcats to go three and out before the two minute warning. After the punt and a 10-yard holding penalty, Pitt started their final possession from their own 35-yard line. DiNucci was then picked off by Quiero to ice the game for Northwestern.
After the game, Jackson and Quiero were gushing over the opportunity to play at such a historic venue.
"I mean, it's really just the aura about it," Jackson said. "Great people have gone through here. I think a lot of people, 'Derek Jeter has peed in this urinal,' just stupid stuff like that. But it is true. It's crazy. Great players have went through here. It's just cool to be in the home locker room and to get a win in Yankee Stadium."