Only one team in college football has knocked off two of the country’s top five teams. It’s not Ohio State or Alabama; it’s Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt Panthers. Pitt finished the season 8-4, which includes victories over third-ranked Clemson (12-1) and fifth-ranked Penn State (11-2). Two of its four losses were against top 20 teams: Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech.
So what’s the reward for such an outstanding season? The right to play the 6-6 Northwestern Wildcats for a trophy named after a baseball owner from Cleveland. Pitt will battle in the semi-prestigious Pinstripe Bowl in hopes of hoisting the George Steinbrenner trophy Dec. 28. It’s like a college-basketball team knocking off Kentucky and Duke and then playing for a trophy named after Mario Lemieux in PPG Paints Arena.
While Penn State and Clemson will bring their staffs, bands and cheerleaders to sunny paradises in Los Angeles and Phoenix, respectively, Pitt gets to go someplace even colder than Pittsburgh. On Dec. 28, the Panthers head to the Bronx. Pitt’s celebrated football history includes eight pro-football Hall of Famers; Northwestern boasts two, Otto Graham and Paddy Driscoll — both of whom were born before the Great Depression. They played in leather helmets and striped sweaters and had to get used to an innovation called the forward pass. Driscoll is somehow enshrined in Canton with 18 touchdown passes and 25 rushing touchdowns for his entire career. Carolina Panther Cam Newton had comparable numbers last season alone.
Northwestern does churn out the celebrities, however. It’s a list that includes presidential losers George McGovern and Adlai Stevenson, convicted felon Rod Blagojovich and white-trash royalty Jerry Springer. To be fair, the school also produced Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, or as I like to call her, the Meryl Streep of television. But that won’t help them with football.
Pitt averaged 42 points a game this year, fifth in the country. The Panthers scored more often than Northwestern alum Warren Beatty did in the 1970s. In the final three games, that average was a staggering 58 points a game; in the season finale, they hung 76 points on Syracuse. Pitt is certainly tested: It beat four bad teams (Marshall, Virginia, Duke and Syracuse), but the other eight opponents went 78-26. A .500 Wildcat team shouldn’t pose too much of a problem when you consider Pitt’s firepower.
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Pitt running back James Conner. He has more rushing and total touchdowns than anyone in the history of ACC football, and has played just three full seasons. He is second in Pitt history in rushing yards and touchdowns only to the legendary Tony Dorsett. All of this happened while he was overcoming a season-ending knee injury and triumphing over a terminal disease. Anyone who roots against James Conner probably roots for ISIS, Martin Shkreli and the New York Yankees.
Since 2000, the Panthers have returned 11 kickoffs for touchdowns. Quadree Henderson has four of them, including two that went 100 yards. He also threw in a punt return for a score just so he didn’t seem one-dimensional. He doesn’t run often, but when he does he averages more than 10 yards a carry. The sophomore from Wilmington, Del., is perhaps the most dangerous player in college football right now. Northwestern would be wise to kick the ball out of bounds and take the penalty every time. Henderson averages 33 yards per kickoff return.
Now, the Wildcats aren’t total pushovers. They almost upset No. 2 Ohio State, and they played in a tough Big 10 conference. The Pinstripe Bowl is one of only two bowl games played in cold weather; the other is the Military Bowl, in Annapolis, Md. But for Panther fans, the two highlights of the year were knocking off undefeated Clemson and, of course, ruining the season for Penn State. The George Steinbrenner trophy can be only the third-best thing to happen, but they’ll take it. The game is Wed., Dec. 28, at 3 p.m. on ESPN. It’s a chance to watch some football in Yankee Stadium, the “House that Derek Jeter built”; makes perfect sense, right?
Mike Wysocki is a standup comic and host of the Mike Wysocki Show, Mondays at 6:30 p.m. on Facebook Live; or hear it on TribLiveRadio.com