I hope everyone had a great holiday, whatever it is you may be celebrating. With guests in the house this year and hosting a Christmas dinner, that's sort of put me out of commission for the past several days.
Pitt's bowl, as it usually does, snuck up on me. The Panthers play tomorrow and while we looked at the matchup a little when it was first announced, I wanted to throw something together now that the game is upon us.
The big theme for me is that the Panthers have a great shot to win nine games, folks. And with this schedule, that's really saying something. The schedule looked daunting at the beginning of the year, but it actually was even tougher in hindsight. I don't know where Pitt's schedule ranks now with the season having been played, but it was a challenging one.
In the non-conference, Pitt played a Top 5 Penn State team as well as 9-3 Oklahoma State, who is now 12th/13th in the polls. In the ACC, things were plenty challenging, too. The Panthers had to face the conference champion and national championship contender, Clemson - another Top 5 team. On top of that, they battled three very good 8-4 teams in Miami, North Carolina, and Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech was sort of sneaky good this year and did more than I expected.
When you add it up, 1/3 of Pitt's schedule came against teams in the Top 15 and another 1/3 came against either currently ranked teams or teams getting votes. That's a very difficult half of a season and to be 8-4 under those circumstances speaks to how good this year's squad really was.
Getting back on track a little, Pitt has a chance to do even more and win a ninth game with the Pinstripe Bowl contest against 6-6 Northwestern.
That 6-6 record is a little deceiving. The Wildcats got off to a slow start and really had to rebound to even make a bowl game. After opening losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State, no one would have predicted the Wildcats would be in the postseason. But Northwestern was competitive the rest of the way and deserves the Panthers' full attention. They knocked off ACC team Duke by 11 points, beat an 8-4 Iowa team on the road, and hung 99 points on MIchigan State and Purdue in road wins, too, before dropping 42 on Illinois. Even one of the team's losses was very impressive - a four-point loss on the road to Ohio State.
We've talked a lot about Pitt's offense this year but Northwestern has done their fair share of scoring, too. They rank only 92nd in scoring but that is a bit deceptive as well due to the slow start. Northwestern scored a paltry 16.3 points in their first four games but has averaged more than 30 points per game since then. The Wildcats are a much improved team over where they were in the beginning of the year.
Northwestern also sports a Top 25 defense in terms of points allowed. They give up only 22.1 points per game and will be another solid defensive challenge for Pitt. They give up a lot of passing yards but are stout against the run, ranking 31st in the nation there. And giving up a first down only 36% of the time on third down situations, they rank 31st in that category and are generally doing a good job of getting off the field.
Finally, the Wildcats have played pretty mistake-free football. They average only about three and a half penalties per game and won't usually offer much help there. Their 3.58 penalties each time out is third in the entire nation.
Now, despite all of that, this is still a very winnable game for Pitt. Northwestern has given up a lot of passing yards this year and that's good news for Nathan Peterman and company. And while they have slowed teams down on the run, the Panthers' run game hasn't been contained very often this year. Add in the fact that it's James Conner's final game with the team and I like that matchup as well.
And while the Wildcats' third down defense has been very good, they've had trouble themselves on moving the ball on third down, converting only 39% of the time and ranking 82nd in the nation there. Their red zone offense has also been one of the worst in the nation. 26% of the time when in the red zone, they've failed to come away with points of any kind (conversely, Pitt is one of the best in the country in that category, failing to score on fewer than eight percent of its red zone opportunities).
Another telltale sign here that Pitt could be headed for a win is against the teams' lone same opponent. Both programs defeated Duke at home but the Wildcats did so by only 11 while Pitt routed the Blue Devils, 56-14. That Duke game was earlier in the year for Northwestern when they weren't playing as well, but what the Panthers did to the Blue Devils vs. what the Wildcats did are two different things.
I think Northwestern provides a good challenge for Pitt but I also come away from this thinking the Panthers have a great chance to win. Bowl games are fluky and you never know who will be caught not focused on the game and still in holiday mode. But the Panthers have a lot of motivation to finish strong here and they'll see off some pretty important players, such as Conner, Peterman, Dorian Johnson, Adam Bisnowaty, and Ejuan Price, among others.
Overall, I like Pitt's chances in this game.
Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.