The Daily Northwestern

Football: Pinstripe Bowl propels Northwestern to unprecedented recruiting surge

Superback James Prather celebrates in confetti. Northwestern’s success in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl gave the team momentum heading into recruiting.

Superback James Prather celebrates in confetti. Northwestern’s success in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl gave the team momentum heading into recruiting.

Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Superback James Prather celebrates in confetti. Northwestern’s success in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl gave the team momentum heading into recruiting.

Ben Pope, Assistant Sports Editor

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Northwestern junior superback Garrett Dickerson had a highlight-reel performance in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl, catching five passes for a career-high 46 yards and a critical fourth-quarter touchdown under the New York City lights.

Eight hundred miles away in Dunlap, Illinois, Charlie Mangieri was watching on TV. And the Dunlap High junior tight end was impressed — not by Dickerson’s big day, but by the Wildcats’ offensive schemes.

“The biggest thing for me was seeing how much they used their superback in their bowl game, and seeing how well I’d fit into their offense. That really caught my eye,” Mangieri told The Daily this spring. “Every high school player really wants to win a bowl game. They have dreams of doing that.”

Two months later on March 8, Mangieri committed to play football at NU. At the time, his addition expanded coach Pat Fitzgerald’s 2018 recruiting class to three players.

It now stands at 13 members, ranking No. 9 in the nation in 247Sports’ composite rankings and featuring the second four-star recruit — defensive end Devin O’Rourke — to pick the Cats in the past four years.

“The momentum that’s going for us right now on the recruiting trail is kind of unmatched. Northwestern is cool now,” Fitzgerald said in late April. “Kids want to play for a winner. They want to compete for championships.”

The robust spring of commitments was likely driven by Fitzgerald’s oft-mentioned ability as a great recruiter, NU’s ever-present academic excellence and the under-construction Walter Athletics Center, which will be open by the time the current high school juniors arrive in Evanston.

And, to an extent, by a noteworthy four hours on the afternoon of Dec. 28, when the Cats downed No. 23 Pittsburgh in an exciting, back-and-forth 31-24 upset at Yankee Stadium.

“They beat a team that beat Clemson, and I was excited how well they played that game,” said Wyatt Blake, a three-star offensive lineman who committed to NU on March 17. “That was a little while ago, so I wasn’t really sure where I was going to go at that point, but it definitely helped (me decide).”

Of the eight commits who responded to interview requests by The Daily, six said they watched the Pinstripe Bowl, which totaled more than 2.4 million viewers on ESPN. Although none said it was one of the biggest factors that led to their commitment, the game evidently made some impact, with several describing specific parts or aspects of the game that they remembered or particularly enjoyed.

“I thought that their linebackers played well, and I could see myself doing that,” said Grayson Mann, a three-star linebacker who committed on April 7. “I loved how physical they were all over the place.”

The postseason win — at least theoretically — also helped set NU apart from other schools competing for the same recruits. Of the 23 other power-conference schools to extend a scholarship offer to one or more of NU’s 13 commits prior to their commitments, only 14 received bowl invitations last season, and only six won those games.

Such was the case for Brian Kaiser, a three-star tight end who chose NU over rival offers from Duke, Vanderbilt and Iowa State on March 10. Kaiser’s father played for the Cats in the 1980s, and the two have traveled together to every NU bowl game in his lifetime.

“When I was younger … I was just so excited seeing my team,” Kaiser said. “When the recruitment started happening, I went to a bowl game and I was like, ‘Wow, that could be me out there. That could be me getting hype and catching a game-winning touchdown’.”

And that realization soon led to another — one echoed by an unprecedented number of other widely sought-after recruits this spring.

“That got me thinking, ‘That could be me and that should be me’,” Kaiser said, “so I committed.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how many four-star recruits have committed to Northwestern in the past four years. O’Rourke is the second to do so. The Daily regrets the error.

Twitter: @benpope111