For the third time ever, Northwestern won a bowl game.
Yes, entering Wednesday afternoon's Pinstripe Bowl in New York, the Wildcats had just two postseason victories in program history: the 1949 Rose Bowl and the 2013 Gator Bowl.
But perhaps one of the biggest wins the program has ever seen came at Yankee Stadium, a 31-24 victory over 23rd-ranked Pittsburgh.
Running back Justin Jackson showed a national audience what Big Ten fans already knew, that he is one of the best running backs in America. The junior rushed 32 times for 224 yards and a trio of touchdowns, putting on a dominating performance in the Cats' victory.
Northwestern's defense also took center stage, coming away with four takeaways and standing tall even when Pitt, which entered with one of the highest-scoring offenses in the country, used big plays to get deep into Northwestern territory. The Panthers were just 3-for-7 on red-zone trips and saw drives into the Cats' territory end on downs, twice on interceptions and on a missed field-goal try.
Pittsburgh started the scoring with a first-quarter field goal, and after a whole lot of nothing by the Northwestern offense on its first two possessions, the Cats got going behind Jackson, who dashed in twice in the second quarter on touchdown runs of eight and 16 yards. Jackson's first half also featured an eye-popping 68-yard run.
But the first half was also partially defined by Pitt's missed opportunities, coming away with no points on back-to-back drives that reached inside the Northwestern 10-yard line. Anthony Walker Jr. came up with a sensational fourth-and-goal stop of Panthers running back James Conner to force a turnover on downs at the goal line, and Godwin Igwebuike picked off Nathan Peterman to bring an end to the following drive.
Pitt did score on a huge 69-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, and Northwestern took a 14-10 lead into the break.
The Panthers grabbed the lead back early in the third quarter, Quadree Henderson rushing 57 yards on the second half's first play and Peterman rushing in for a touchdown three plays later. The Cats, though, answered with an 89-yard touchdown drive capped by a highlight-reel 40-yard touchdown rush by Jackson. Pitt missed its field-goal attempt later in the third but blocked a Northwestern punt to set up a short field, getting a touchdown pass from backup quarterback Ben DiNucci to make it 24-21.
Clayton Thorson took the reins from Jackson on the ensuing drive, leading the Cats down the field on a 76-yard drive capped by a go-ahead touchdown pass from Thorson to Garrett Dickerson, who was uncovered and scored from 21 yards out. Walker came up with another huge play on the very next snap from scrimmage, stripping Henderson and forcing a fumble that Northwestern recovered. The Cats turned that turnover into a field goal to go ahead by seven.
Pitt once more drove deep into Northwestern territory, reaching inside the red zone when DiNucci threw an interception to Jared McGee. The turnover was another drive stopper but came inside the Northwestern five-yard line, and Pitt got some more good field position after forcing a punt. But again DiNucci was off the mark, Kyle Queiro reading the pass brilliantly and making another interception to seal the game.
The Cats gained 462 total yards on the game, getting 248 rush yards and 214 pass yards. Northwestern was 9-for-19 on third down and a spectacular 4-for-4 on fourth downs. The Cats had a more than 10-minute advantage in time of possession.
Jackson had a monster day, his 224 rushing yards a career high. It was his first game over 200 yards in his career and boosted his season rushing total to 1,524 yards.
The bowl victory marked the program's third all time and the second of the Pat Fitzgerald Era, the first coming four seasons ago. Fitzgerald has taken Northwestern to seven bowl games in his 11 seasons as head coach.
The win sent the Cats to a 7-6 finish on the season, the school's 24th season of seven or more wins. Fitzgerald has coached six of those teams.