New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Northwestern 31, Pitt 24, 5 Things That Matter, What’s Next For 2017?

New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Northwestern 31, Pitt 24, 5 Things That Matter, What’s Next For 2017?

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New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Northwestern 31, Pitt 24, 5 Things That Matter, What’s Next For 2017?

New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Northwestern 31, Pitt 24, 5 Things That Matter, What’s Next For 2017?

Northwestern was able to hang on to get by Pitt 31-24 in an entertaining New Era Pinstripe Bowl. What are the five things that matter, and what’s next for 2017?

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Go you Northwestern

Pitt’s James Conner was the star running back coming into the game, but the other guy was better.

Northwestern’s James Jackson is about as big as your Aunt Millie, but he’s a tough-as-nails workhorse who has the open-field juking ability, quickness and speed to hit the home run, too.

Clayton Thorson and the passing game was supposed to rip apart the shaky Panther secondary, but it was Jackson who turned into the star running for 224 yards and three scores. Combine the running of Jackson with the giant performance from the defense that knocked out Conner and QB Nathan Peterman, and this was a special moment for a program not used to winning big bowl games.

Northwestern outcoached Pitt

This was a Pitt team that holds the distinction of beating two Power Five conference champions – Penn State and Clemson. It was good enough to hang around with the big boys, and even though the defense was suspect all season long, the offense was able to make up for it by bombing away in game after game. Even though the O lost Conner and Peterman, Ben DiNucci did just enough to keep the game alive despite the two costly interceptions, with the Panthers having a real shot to pull off the win late – or at least tie.

But Northwestern was always a half-step ahead, it always converted when it had to – hitting on all four of its fourth down tries – controlling the clock for over 35 minutes, and winning the turnover battle with a +2. Pat Fitzgerald and his staff got the job done.

Sorry, but this matters more and more

James Conner is a talented, bruising back who’ll be a factor in the NFL, but with his style, he’ll take plenty of big shots. He already declared himself eligible for the draft a year early after this game, but he got knocked out with an apparent head injury. Take a guess at what NFL scouts are going to red flag now.

It’s not just about the potential Jaylon Smith knee injury, or the possibility of a broken leg. Knees and legs heal, but head injury concerns are going to play a bigger and bigger role. All NFL players are going to have head trauma of some sort, but can they play with it? How many shots can their brains take before they can’t pass the concussion protocol. It’s sad to put games in this context, but Conner just lost money by playing.

What’s next for Northwestern in 2017?

The offense might lose star WR Austin Carr, but just about everyone else who matters is back for an emerging attack that should be more explosive. RB Justin Jackson continues to be among the best all-around players in the Big Ten, while Clayton Thorson will continue to rise up the ranks in NFL circles. A dangerous No. 1 target has to emerge, and right tackle Eric Olson is gone, but four starters are back on the O line and the receiving corps is full of veterans.

The defense should be a killer. Anthony Walker has NFL talent, but he could be the best linebacker in the conference from his spot in the middle. Godwin Igwebuike will play on Sundays, but he should be back as the main man for a loaded secondary with all four starters back. DE C.J. Robbins is gone as is Ifeadi Odenigbo, but depending on the alignment, ten starters are back.

What’s next for Pitt in 2017?

There are just enough huge losses to think the offense will take a step back from its terrific 2016. Hoping for USC transfer Max Browne to rise up at quarterback is Job One, but he has the targets to throw to with Quadree Henderson and Jester Weah back. James Conner is leaving early for the NFL, but the combination of Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison should be fine as long as the line comes together. The left side of Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson are gone – that’s a killer – but the other three starters are back. Losing TE Scott Orndoff is a problem.

If Pitt is going to make a big step forward, the defense needs the defensive backs to do what the coaching staff is looking for. With three starters gone, several new faces will get their chances. In all, seven starters are gone including star pass rusher Ejuan Price and MLB Matt Galambos.

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