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Pinstripe Bowl Preview and Prediction: Pittsburgh vs. Northwestern

James Conner

James Conner

The New Era Pinstripe Bowl has seen its share of high-scoring games in its relatively short past, with Duke defeating Indiana 44-41 in overtime in 2015. Heading into this contest that features Pittsburgh and Northwestern, it is entirely possible that the 2016 version may be another offensive shootout.

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Pittsburgh (8-4, 5-3 ACC) finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Coastal Division with Miami and North Carolina. Running back James Conner has inspired college football fans everywhere with his return to the gridiron after a successful battle against cancer. This game will mark the conclusion of Conner's collegiate career, as he has already declared for the 2017 NFL Draft. Pittsburgh was heavily involved in how the College Football Playoff field turned out, as the Panthers defeated both Penn State (42-39) and Clemson (43-42). The Tigers still got in, while the Nittany Lions were the first team out.

Northwestern began this season poorly, losing by one point (22-21) to eventual MAC champion and Cotton Bowl participant Western Michigan in the first week, followed up by a 9-7 loss to FCS member Illinois State 9-7, both of those coming at home. Since that inauspicious beginning, Pat Fitzgerald was able to rally his Wildcats, going 6-4 the rest of way. This stretch included a close loss (24-20) at Ohio State and victories over Duke, Iowa and Indiana, all bowl teams.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Pittsburgh vs. Northwestern (Bronx, N.Y.)

Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 28 at 2 p.m. ET

Where: Yankee Stadium (Bronx, N.Y.)

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Pittsburgh -5

Three Things to Watch

1. Northwestern's Passing Game vs. Pitt's Pass Defense

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Northwestern's Austin Carr is the leading receiver for the Wildcats and has been one of the most productive in the nation, hauling in 84 receptions for 1,196 yards and 12 touchdowns. Even though Pat Narduzzi is a defensive-oriented coach, the Panthers rank 127th in FBS against the pass. Only one team (Arizona State) has given up more yards through the air than Pitt’s 4,117 through 12 games (343.1 ypg). The Panthers also have surrendered 27 touchdown passes while registering just even interceptions. Look for Carr and quarterback Clayton Thorson to hook up early and often, hoping to connect on the appropriately named home-run play considering the game’s setting.

2. Pitt's Running Game vs. Northwestern's Defense

The best way for the Panthers to keep control in this game is to hold onto the ball. The aforementioned James Conner rushed for 1,060 yards and 16 touchdowns on 208 carries. Look for Pittsburgh to try to control the clock by using Conner, as well as wide receiver Quadree Henderson on jet sweeps; Henderson averaged 10 yards per carry this season when carrying the ball. As a team, Pitt’s ground game is averaging nearly 230 yards per game (26th nationally) and eight different Panthers have combined for 35 rushing touchdowns, a total that is surpassed by just seven other teams.

The Wildcats have done a decent job against the run, holding opponents to 137 rushing yards per game, but had trouble against Georgia Tech, another run-oriented team from the ACC. The Yellow Jackets plied up 241 yards and two touchdowns on 45 carries when they played Northwestern on Oct. 8. Will Pitt have similar success on the ground against the Wildcats?

Related: 20 Players on the Rise Entering College Football's 2016-17 Bowl Season

3. Both Teams Have Disruptive Pass Rushers

Pitt's Ejuan Price has 12 sacks this season and finished second to Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker in the voting for the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Northwestern’s top pass rusher is Ifeadi Odenigbo, who ranks second in the Big Ten with 10 sacks. Both have similar size (Price is 6-1, 255; Odenigbo 6-3, 265) and will loom large in the offensive game plans for each team to make sure they are accounted for in obvious passing situations.

To that end, the Panthers have been among the nations best in protecting the quarterback with just nine sacks allowed, while the Wildcats are on the opposite end of the spectrum (35). Does this set Price up for more success or can Odenigbo give the Wildcats an advantage by doing something that few teams have been able to against Pitt this season?

Final Analysis

Pittsburgh needs to keep this game at a tempo and pace that is conducive to success for the Panthers. If they allow this game to turn into a shootout, the likelihood of a win decreases. Pitt will want to keep Northwestern under 30 points, as the Wildcats averaged just 13.3 points per game in six losses compared to 37.8 in their six wins. Look for James Conner and the Panthers to grind out a close win at Yankee Stadium.

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Prediction: Pittsburgh 35, Northwestern 31

— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.