Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson stiff arms Pittsburgh Panthers Dennis Briggs at the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York City on December 28, 2016. Northwestern running back Justin Jackson had a record-setting performance against Pitt with 224 rushing yards against the Panthers to set a Pinstripe Bowl record and his three touchdowns lead the Wildcats past the Panthers in a 31-24 victory. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
NEW YORK -- Justin Jackson didn't realize he was closing in on the record for most yards rushing in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Nor did he care.
Northwestern's junior running back ran for 224 yards, three shy of the record, leading the Wildcats to a 31-24 win over the Pittsburgh Panthers before 37,918 at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday.
Jackson, a junior, carried 32 times for a 7-yard average in just Northwestern's third bowl game victory ever and only the second since the 1948 Rose Bowl. The other win was at the Gator Bowl to cap the 2012 season.
Indiana's Devine Redding holds the Pinstripe Bowl record with 227 yards against Duke in the 2015 game.
"I wanted to win the game," Jackson said. "We don't worry about statistics. It was so back and forth you felt you had to make a play offensively.
"(Northwestern) coaches putting trust in the run game was pretty cool."
Wildcats quarterback Clayton Johnson was 23 of 36 for 214 yards passing and coach Pat Fitzgerald's riverboat gambler attitude were also a difference.
The Wildcats were 9 of 19 on third downs and 4 of 4 on fourth downs. They also held Pittsburgh -- the best red-zone offense in the country in terms of touchdown percentage -- to two touchdowns in seven trips inside the 20.
"We felt like we needed to be more aggressive," Fitzgerald explained. "My concern was if we got behind more than one possession it would be tough."
It was a risky fourth-down call that moved the Wildcats ahead for good in the back-and-forth affair at 28-24 with 8:23 left in the game. On fourth-and-1, Thorson found 'superback' Garrett Dickerson wide open in the flat for a 21-yard touchdown.
Pitt (8-5) quarterback Nathan Peterman was 13 of 18 for 253 yards and a touchdown pass before leaving the game in the third quarter.
Junior running back James Conner, who overcame cancer and a torn MCL to rush for 1,060 yards this season, sustained an injury late in the first half and didn't return. He finished with 32 yards on eight carries.
Conner declared himself eligible for the 2017 NFL Draft earlier in December.
"He (Conner) got a shot to the head, let's just say," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi. "We'll look at the tape and see what it was.
"I think it was a pass completed, he's running on the field without the ball and got whacked. Kind of interesting."
Panthers freshman quarterback Ben DiNucci had his team in position to tie the score, but Northwestern safety Jared McGee picked off his pass near the goal line with 2:49 left.
Jack Mitchell tacked on a 37-yard field goal to move Northwestern's lead to 31-24 with 6:14 to play.
DiNucci, who replaced Peterman late in the third quarter after the latter took a hit to the helmet, gave the Panthers their third lead of the day. He rolled right and hit fullback George Aston with a 6-yard toss that gave Pitt a 24-21 lead with 13:15 to play.
A blocked punt by Pitt freshman Chawntez Moss shortened the field for the Panthers to 22 yards for the scoring drive.
Jackson's third touchdown, a 40-yard dart up the middle, moved Northwestern back in front 21-17 with 7:47 remaining in the third quarter.
Pitt took a 17-14 lead on their first possession of the second half. Peterman sprinted in from 5 yards with just 1:47 elapsed. The score was set up on a 57-yard sweep by wide receiver Quadree Henderson on the first play of the 68-yard march.
The Panthers cut the Northwestern lead to 14-10 with a 69-yard strike from Peterman to wide receiver Jester Weah down the right sideline with 2:51 left in the first half. Weah had one step on Northwestern cornerback Montre Hartage.
Jackson went 16 yards around right end, bouncing off a few tackles near the goal line, to score his second touchdown of the game, giving the Wildcats a 14-3 edge with 3:08 left in the first half. Northwestern went 74 yards in eight plays for the score.
Northwestern stopped Pitt on fourth-and-goal at the end of the first quarter and marched 99 yards in 10 plays in 4:19, culminating with Jackson scoring his 28th career touchdown from 8 yards. The point-after gave the Wildcats a 7-3 lead.
"That was a 14-point swing," Narduzzi said. "So many points we just left out there. They (Northwestern) didn't leave any out there. That's how you lose a game."
Jackson rushed for 91 yards, the most in a quarter in his career, but Northwestern trailed 3-0 after the first quarter thanks to a 46-yard field from Chris Blewitt.
-- Northwestern RB Justin Jackson became only the second player to run for at least 4,000 yards in school history, joining Damien Anderson.
-- Pitt was 0 of 2 on fourth down and 6 of 13 on third down.
-- Northwestern leads the series 4-3 with Pitt.
-- Former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was an assistant football coach for one season (1955) under head coach Lou Saban.
-- New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi was a catcher at Northwestern from 1983 to 1986, landing three All-Big Ten selections.
-- Pitt is the only team to knock off two Power 5 conference championship teams, Clemson (43-42) and Penn State (42-39).
-- Junior RB Justin Jackson is the first player in Northwestern history to rush for 1,000-plus yards in three straight seasons.
-- The two schools hadn't met since 1973 when Panthers running back Tony Dorsett was a freshman and rushed for what was then a school-record 265 yards in a 21-14 Pitt win.