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Pinstripe Bowl: Justin Jackson powers Northwestern past Pittsburgh

Northwestern running back Justin Jackson runs for a 16-yard

Northwestern running back Justin Jackson runs for a 16-yard touchdown run in the second quarter while avoiding the tackle of Pittsburgh's Dennis Briggs during  the  Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016. Photo Credit: Errol Anderson

Northwestern running back Justin Jackson said that, like the rest of his team, he was awestruck by his first glimpse of Yankee Stadium on Tuesday. He was happy to have gotten that out of the way so that for the Pinstripe Bowl on Wednesday, he was able to concentrate completely on the game. By the time that was over, he had emerged as Mr. December.

Jackson ran for three touchdowns and gained 224 yards as his team upset Pittsburgh, 31-24, earning the George M. Steinbrenner Trophy, named for the former Northwestern assistant football coach who went on to own the Yankees. Steinbrenner, of course, planned the new stadium and envisioned an annual bowl game that would serve as a showcase for players such as Northwestern’s junior tailback.

“It’s really just the aura about it, how many great people have come through here,” said Jackson, who was named Most Valuable Player. Recalling his thoughts about being in the home team’s clubhouse, he added, “Derek Jeter has (used) this urinal. Stupid stuff like that, but it is true, it’s amazing. Great players have come through here and it’s great to be in the home locker room and get a win.”

The Wildcats (7-6) made many clutch plays in the manner of Jeter, forever known as “Mr. November” for a walk-off home run after midnight of a World Series game that had begun on Oct. 31, 2001. Both coaches cited a sequence in the first quarter, when Northwestern stopped Pittsburgh star running back James Conner’s fourth-down run at the goal line. That was no small feat because Pitt (8-5) was the only team to beat two top-five opponents (Clemson and Penn State) this season largely because of its ability to convert in the red zone.

Northwestern then went on a 99-yard drive, capped by Jackson’s 8-yard run for the first of his touchdowns. That march included the first of four times the Wildcats converted on fourth down.

“We felt like we needed to be a little aggressive,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You’re playing an outstanding offense and my concern was if we got behind more than one possession it was going to be tough.”

Careful college football watchers could not have imagined Pitt pulling starting quarterback Nathan Peterman for freshman Ben DiNucci, who had not thrown a pass all year. Nor could they have foreseen DiNucci being intercepted twice in the final 2:49 — once by Jared McGee at the Northwestern 3-yard line. Logic turned out to be high, far and gone.

Pittsburgh was hindered by the loss of Conner, a standout back and inspiring cancer survivor, who sat out the second half after taking what coach Pat Narduzzi called “a shot to the head without the ball in his hands.”

Also, Northwestern had karma in the presence of Yankees manager Joe Girardi, an ardent Northwestern alumnus and friend of Fitzgerald, and the knowledge that university president Morty Schapiro once taught Hal Steinbrenner at Williams College. “He was a good student,” Schapiro said before the game.

Still, it wasn’t sentiment that spurred the victory. It was performance, and preparation. The latter was particularly intense for a bowl game.

“The first day, it was kind of a surprise to a lot of people,” Jackson said. “After that, I think people really stepped up to the plate.”

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