Drink it in: Northwestern wins its second bowl game in 68 years
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NEW YORK — Northwestern won a bowl game here on Wednesday.
The score was 31-24, the opponent was No. 23 Pittsburgh, the bowl was the Pinstripe and the venue was way-cool Yankee Stadium, but you know what? Those details are almost beside the point.
For a moment, let’s just focus on five words. Let’s swirl them in a glass, sniff them and slosh them around in our mouths like a fine wine. Yes, let’s really drink them in.
Northwestern won a bowl game.
When something happens for only the second time in 68 years, you have to appreciate its specialness. Northwestern hasn’t exactly been Alabama, Ohio State or even Pittsburgh when it comes to football.
“This will be an experience that they’ll share for the rest of their lives,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said of his players. “It’s an experience that they’ll be talking to their kids about.”
Early in the game, a bunch of current NFL players who are Pitt alums were shown on the centerfield video board sending good wishes from afar to the Panthers. Among them were Larry Fitzgerald, LeSean McCoy, Darrelle Revis — big-time stars.
A bit later came Northwestern’s version of that video display. There were encouraging words from former Wildcats Dean Lowry (now with the Packers) and Corbin Bryant (Bills) — not exactly household names — followed by a few ESPN talking heads and, of course, the delightful Jerry Springer.
Nerd U.? A football school, Northwestern is not.
Yet that’s precisely what makes it quite the spectacle when the Wildcats take the field and beat — surprise the hell out of, really — what is presumed to be a superior opponent.
Make no mistake, Pittsburgh was supposed to win this game. The Panthers came in as the only team in college football to have knocked off two Power 5 conference champions. For crying out loud: If they could take down Clemson and Penn State, what were they going to do to a 6-6 Wildcats team that — no offense, Illinois State — lost to Illinois State?
“I think all of us really wanted to go out there and prove against a big team, a team who beat Clemson (and) Penn State as well, that we deserved to be here,” running back Justin Jackson said. “We’re not just happy to be here. We were here to win it.”
Jackson was perhaps the biggest reason why they were able to do it. The junior rushed 32 times for a career-high 224 yards and three touchdowns and became only the second 4,000-yard rusher in school history, joining former All-American Damien Anderson.
“Brutally consistent,” Fitzgerald called him.
Jackson was named Pinstripe Bowl MVP, but the real MVP may have been ESPN analyst Danny Kanell. Definitely not an NU alum, that guy. There are 40 bowl games in all, and Kanell put 40 confidence points on the Panthers. If you don’t know what that means, suffice it to say he gave the Wildcats utterly no shot to win.
“That’s the last thing we saw video-wise today (before the game),” Fitzgerald said. “I greatly appreciate the external motivation.”
Whatever works, right?
The Wildcats weren’t the least bit intimidated by their opponent or awed by Yankee Stadium, although Jackson admitted to wondering if the urinal where he’d relieved himself had been visited at any point in time by Derek Jeter.
They came, they saw, they kicked Pittsburgh’s butt. Offensively, the Wildcats were clutch all day, going 9-for-19 on third downs and 4-for-4 on fourth downs. Defensively, they held Pitt’s best-in-the-nation red-zone offense at bay with a fourth-down stop and a pair of interceptions near their own goal line.
And they did it all in a bowl game. Savor that awhile before you swallow it.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.