The Northwestern Wildcats have played their best when their backs are against the wall. In the Pinstripe Bowl they thrived under the pressure.
Northwestern spent most of its season with its back against the wall, mostly of its own doing. A fumble at the goalline against Western Michigan and an anemic offensive effort against Illinois State brought the team’s urgency all the way up from the very first week of the season.
The Wildcats were not going to experience the kind of luck and dominance they did in reaching 10 wins for just the second time in school history a year before. This team, despite returning many of those players, had to carve out a new identity and fight just to make it to a bowl game.
When the Wildcats finally clinched that bowl berth, they still had a lot to prove. This was not a celebration of a season exceeding expectations, this was a chance to prove they were better than their record and their program was healthier than it looked those first few weeks in the season.
This was their chance to make a statement bigger than their season. To bring home something meaningful — with just two bowl wins in program history and a long record of futility — and a chance to build toward an offseason and a season that could bring promise in the always unpredictable Big Ten West.
The Wildcats would have to do it with their backs against the wall time and time again. No one gave Northwestern a chance to slow down Pitt’s stellar offense in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
There the defense was on multiple occasions with is backs against the wall holding onto a lead. After getting burned a few times on deep passes, the Wildcats did what they always do. They kept everything in front of them and used sure tackling to hold the explosive offense down.
With Pitt driving early in the first quarter, Northwestern held the team to a field goal. With the Panthers knocking on the door to tie the game, Jared McGee knocked the ball out of the receiver’s hands in the end zone and then picked off a pass near the five-yard line.
After punting following a three-and-out, Kyle Queiro intercepted a pass to give Northwestern the chance to kneel down for its third ever bowl win and a 31-24 win at the Pinstripe Bowl on Wednesday.
The Wildcats had been a team that responded to adversity and desperation throughout the season. And every time their defense needed to make a stop or force a turnover they did.
Nothing is ever easy for Northwestern, of course. The Wildcats gave up plenty of yards — 438 of them, to be exact — and three possessions that ended in the red zone without a score. Pitt took the lead late and Northwestern had to respond.
The Wildcats offense did not even get started until Justin Jackson made a 68-yard run from Northwestern’s own one yard — after a goalline stand from star linebacker Anthony Walker.
Northwestern always seemed to play its best when the chips were down and the stakes were highest. When it felt like the team was facing impossible odds and needed to muster some energy to prove everyone wrong.
That is where Northwestern was in Week Three when the team took on Duke. That is where Northwestern was heading to Iowa and Michigan State. Northwestern faced this pressure traveling to Ohio State (where the team lost by seven points) and at home against Illinois in the finale.
The Wildcats were never good at being comfortable.
Heading to the Pinstripe Bowl — playing on a baseball field in the cold — were just more reasons to feel uncomfortable (even playing out of the Yankees’ locker room. Doing so against a ranked Pitt team that defeated Big Ten champion Penn State and put up video game numbers on offense? Even more of a challenge to overcome.
This was where Northwestern would make its statement. And the team did in every way.
Justin Jackson poured in a career game in winning MVP — 224 yards and 32 carries for three touchdowns. Jackson, as he always does, just seemed to get more powerful as the game went on, cutting and juking his way past Pitt’s aggressive, speedy defenders. He planted and turned up field in a hurry, taking hits and dragging players to the first down line.
Anthony Walker had the big goalline stop, finishing with seven tackles. His forced fumble on an end around from the speedy Qadry Henderson helped set up Northwestern’s insurance field goal and final score of the game.
After a slow start, Austin Carr made six catches for 51 yards, a slow afternoon for him. But he took a lot of attention defensively — often double covered — that freed up Macan Wilson. And ultimately freed up Garrett Dickerson on a wheel route for the go-ahead, game-winning touchdown for Northwestern.
Dickerson was wide open with no player within five yards of him as he walked toward home plate and the game-winning score.
With all the cards stacked against Northwestern, the team responded. Facing a deficit and all the athleticism on offense in the world, the defense bent but did not break. The Cats got beat, they lost a double-digit deficit, but they did not stay down for long. When their team needed a turnover, they delivered.
And when the offense needed to score, the offense delivered. Whether it was Clayton Thorson through the air making a third-and-long conversion to Macan Wilson. Or Justin Jackson juking his way through the hole for a score.
Northwestern had it all. The team played like it was playing for everything. Like its season depended on it. Like the program’s legacy depended on it.
Urgency and motivation can be everything in a bowl game exhibition. It is why there are so many surprises each year.
Northwestern can add its name to the list. The Wildcats never let the pressure get to them. They thrived on it. And they perhaps turned out the best performance this season.