Jackson powers Northwestern past Pitt in Pinstripe Bowl
NEW YORK -- Justin Jackson has the last name made for the bright lights at Yankee Stadium.
He had the kind of postseason game worthy of the setting.
"Big city. Big stage," he said. "We walked into Yankee Stadium and everything kind of really hit us."
Jackson made his case in the home of the Yankees to become Northwestern's Mr. December.
Unlike Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson, the Wildcats' stud running back did his damage one step at a time instead of one swing. Jackson ran for 224 yards and three touchdowns to power Northwestern to only its third bowl victory, 31-24 over No. 22 Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl on Wednesday night.
"Justin's day will go down as one of the great performances by a Northwestern running back," coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Jackson was the straw that stirred Northwestern's offense in the Bronx and helped etch this performance alongside the 1948 Rose Bowl and 2012 Gator Bowl victories in the program's oft-futile history.
Jackson, the game's MVP , was awed by the lights and monuments at the stadium. But it was a more discreet spot in the locker room Northwestern borrowed from the Yankees that really bowled over Jackson.
"Like, Derek Jeter has peed in that urinal," he said.
Jackson had TD runs of 8 and 16 yards in the second quarter, then went deep on a 40-yard burst in the third that left one defender face down on the turf following a fantastic fake and gave the Wildcats (7-6) a 21-17 lead.
Rallying without injured quarterback Nathan Peterman and running back James Conner, Pitt yanked the lead away in the fourth on a short TD pass before it collapsed the rest of the quarter.
The Wildcats turned a fourth-and-1 into a 21-yard play-action TD pass that made it 28-24 and a hit late field goal for a seven-point lead.
The Panthers (8-5), who had wins over No. 2 Clemson and Big Ten champion Penn State, still had time to spoil Northwestern's upset bid with a late drive for the tying score. Scott Orndoff failed to hang on to backup quarterback Ben DiNucci's strike in the end zone on third down. DiNucci had his fourth-down pass picked off by Jared McGee, who helped bust up the previous pass play, to clinch the win for the Wildcats.
Northwestern's defense made the stops late. Jackson carried the Wildcats to a celebration on a purple-glittered baseball field .
"We didn't tackle a really good tailback," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said.
Jackson stiff-armed one defender, then bowled over a second for a 16-yard score that helped Northwestern take a 14-10 lead into halftime.
After some confusion over his final rushing total, Jackson fell just shy of setting the Pinstripe Bowl mark of 227 yards by Indiana's Devine Redding.
"We'll go over every yard," Fitzgerald said.
Peterman, who threw for 253 yards, gave Pitt a 17-14 lead on a 5-yard scamper in the third. Peterman's solid outing ended late in the quarter when he was sandwiched between two defenders and his head slammed the turf.
DiNucci was picked on Pitt's final drive with 30 seconds left in the game and the Wildcats would get their kicks from storming the field in a frenzy.
Conner, who capped a triumphant return from Hodgkin lymphoma, suffered a brutal helmet-to-helmet blow to the head late in the first half and did not return. Unlike some draft prospects, Conner played the bowl game even though he decided to skip his senior season and declare for the NFL draft. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Conner, who had 1,060 yards rushing and 20 total touchdowns entering the game, was far from a sure-fire early NFL pick.
"One of the defenders turned around and went for him, I guess, instead of going for the ball. Kind of interesting," Narduzzi said.
Conner was stuffed when he tried to go over the top on a failed fourth-down try in the first quarter.
Northwestern: The Wildcats were stout all around. Clayton Thorson was 23 of 36 for 214 yards passing and had the winning TD pass. Garrett Dickerson caught the go-ahead TD and had five catches for 46 yards. The Wildcats can chalk this one up to a fantastic four: 4 for 4 on fourth-down conversions.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers may have pulled out a victory had their offensive stalwarts not been sidelined late with injuries. Losing to a 6-6 Big Ten definitely ends the year on a down note.
Pitt will fall out of the Top 25 and failed to finish the season ranked and with nine wins for the first time since 2009.
Northwestern can only hope Jackson's latest breakout game in the national spotlight will propel the program to great heights in the loaded Big Ten.
Jackson led the Big Ten with 1,300 yards rushing and became the first Wildcat to rush for 1,000-plus yards in three straight seasons. He said he would return for his senior season. "You don't come here and not get a degree," he said.
Fitzgerald cracked: "There's no way. Your dad will kill you."
Pitt has to replace Conner in the backfield and find a new offensive coordinator. Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada called the shots for the final time before packing up for the same position at LSU.
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