WHO: No. 23 Pittsburgh (8-4) vs. Northwestern (6-6)
WHAT: The 7th NewEra Pinstripe Bowl
WHEN: 2:00 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: Yankee Stadium, New York, NY
THE SKINNY: Pitt running back James Conner will play his final college football game before turning pro in the house that Derek Jeter built, Yankee Stadium. Conner has been one of the true inspirations in college football this season as he has overcome cancer to remain one of the top running backs in the nation. Connor rushed for over 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns as a key cog in Pitt’s potent offense. How much they can keep that going in the bowl season will be something to watch after losing offensive coordinator Matt Canada to LSU to be a part of Ed Oregon’s coaching staff in Baton Rouge.
Pitt had the second-highest scoring offense in the ACC this season behind Louisville, with 42.3 points per game, highlighted by a road victory over ACC champion and No. 2 Clemson, an early-season victory over eventual Big Ten champion Penn State, and scoring at least 36 points in all but one game since the season opener. The defense, however, has been the polar opposite of the Pitt offense, giving up at least 30 points in all but two games this season. The season ended by giving up 61 points to Syracuse, although the Panthers managed to get the win.
Northwestern’s offense could struggle to keep up the scoring pace Pitt has been accustomed this season, although the Wildcats have some talent on offense to cause problems for Pitt’s defense. Justin Jackson ended the regular season as the Big Ten’s rushing leader with 1,300 yards (eclipsed only by Wisconsin’s Corey Clement with the benefit of the Big Ten championship game). Jackson averages 108.33 rushing yards per game. The Wildcats also have the Big Ten’s leading receiver, Austin Carr, the only 1,000-yard receiver in the Big Ten this season (84 receptions, 1,196 yards, 12 touchdowns all lead the Big Ten).
The Pinstripe Bowl has packed some fun games the last two years since the ACC and Big Ten paired up for the game. Penn State clipped Boston College in overtime (31-30) two seasons ago and Duke edged Indiana in overtime (44-41) last December. Expect some good offensive fireworks between the Panthers and Wildcats, and another one going the distance.
THE PREDICTION: Pitt 52, Northwestern 46
It had been 16 years since the last time Penn State and Pitt met on the football field. It was worth the wait.
Pitt’s Ryan Lewis picked off a bizarre deep pass to the end zone from Penn State’s Trace McSorley with just over a minute to play, allowing the Panthers to put the cap on a 42-39 victory over their in-state rivals. It was an awkward way for the game to end after Penn State appeared to be near field goal range for a possible tie at the very worst. It was the first interception thrown by McSorley, although he also lost two fumbles in the first half as well, with one giving Pittsburgh a short field early in the game to score a quick touchdown.
Pitt running back James Conner was looking good against the Penn State defense, rushing for 117 yards and a touchdown. He also added a touchdown reception and 29 receiving yards as Pitt’s offense took it to Penn State’s defense from start to finish with a few hiccups along the way. Pittsburgh pounded out 341 rushing yards against Penn State, averaging 6.1 yards per rushing attempt. Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman had a quietly efficient afternoon, completing 11 of 15 pass attempts for 91 yards and three touchdowns. Quandree Henderson was also a problem for Penn State all afternoon, using speed to his advantage to run for 58 yards and catch three passes for 47 yards.
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley scored five touchdowns in the losing effort, tying a program single-game record previously set by Ki-Jana Carter in 1994. Barkley had four touchdowns on the ground and one more on a pass.
Pittsburgh hits the road next week to venture into Big 12 territory. The Panthers head to Stillwater, Oklahoma to take on Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were clipped by Central Michigan on the final play of the game as this game was going on.
Penn State will return to Beaver Stadium next week in hopes of picking up some revenge against Temple. Yes, this may be the rare once-in-a-lifetime situation in which they are looking to get revenge against the Owls, who smacked Penn State around pretty good in the 2015 season opener in Philadelphia. Temple opened this season with a home loss against Army but has bounced back this week with a win over Stony Brook.
The rivalry between Penn State and Pittsburgh was worth the wait, if you are a fan of the Pitt Panthers. The first half was a dominating show of pure physical advantages against the Nittany Lions from the jump, as the Panthers have built a dominating looking 28-14 halftime lead. Pittsburgh had dominated the first half of the ballgame, but Penn State cut the lead to 14 points with a late first-half touchdown, which they hope will spark a momentum shift.
Penn State’s offense came out looking to establish some quick momentum on the opening drive, but opted to punt when the drive stalled at the Pittsburgh 35-yard line. Brilliant special teams coverage led to the Nittany Lions downing the ball at the one-yard line. That seemed like a good thing for Penn State, but then Pitt went on to execute a 10-play, 99-yard touchdown drive using a little bit of everything for the first score of the afternoon. James Conner ran for nearly 30 yards right down the middle of Penn State’s defense. Pitt used sweeps to take advantage on the edges. In all, Pitt piled up 98 rushing yards on the drive, and that doesn’t include overcoming a holding penalty along the way.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley would fumble the very next offensive play for the Nittany Lions on the ensuing possession, with the Panthers setting up shop right from the Penn State 12-yard line. Two plays later, it was 14-0 Panthers after Nathan Peterman completed a pass to Quadree Henderson.
Pitt would go on to pad their lead after Penn State got on the scoreboard shortly after a big special teams return. Saquon Barkley powered his way into the end zone on a short-yardage situation by the goal line, but the story of the first half has been the athletic advantage Pitt has, especially up front. Pitt has over 200 rushing yards at the half as well, and big plays have been used all afternoon so far by the Panthers.
The college football season may be months away from kicking off, but we already have a good idea what one of the feel-good stories will likely be. That would be the return of Pitt running back James Conner, who continues to battle with cancer, which was diagnosed last fall (Hodgkin lymphoma). Conner let the world know on Twitter he has completed his final chemotherapy treatment. Now all he can do is wait to find out the latest results.
Conner underwent 12 separate chemotherapy treatments. The final treatment was on Monday.
Conner is fighting to be back on the field for the Panthers this fall, as early as the season opener if all goes well. Even while undergoing chemotherapy, Conner remained as active as he could this spring. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi previously said he anticipated Conner would be back on the field this fall. The college football world will continue to root for that to be the case.
Helmet sticker to Jared Shanker of ESPN.com.
As Pittsburgh running back James Conner continues with his battle against Hodgkin lymphoma, 12 of his teammates will compete in a charity race in his honor this weekend.
A dozen Panthers players will be a part of the #ConnerStrong team in this weekend’s Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s annual charity race at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The race is a six-hour stationary bike race and players will take turns on the bike as teams try to accumulate more miles than other teams. Of course, this being a charity event, there are no losers and there are only winners.
Members of the team include Nathan Peterman, Qadree Ollison, Matt Galambos, Jaryd Jones-Smith, George Aston, Rafael Araujo-Lopes, Pat Quirin, Tony Pilato, Kellen McAlone, Manny Stocker, Tristan Cunha and Nick Goldsmith, according to Andrea Adelson of ESPN.com.
Conner has already been seen working out with the Panthers this offseason and head coach Pat Narduzzi is optimistic Conner will be back on the field this fall.