Something is different for Northwestern.

Northwestern’s offense became fun to watch somewhere along the line. Even though it was sloppy at times, big plays, deep passes and a few risks paid off for the Wildcats in a 31-24 win over Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl.

It wasn’t that typical ground-and-pound style of offense. Sure, that still played a role in the scheme, but it wasn’t the complete identity of this team. The Wildcats didn’t have to rely on stout defense and milking the clock to come out of a big game with a win.

Clayton Thorson’s development at quarterback, Austin Carr’s emergence as the league’s leading receiver and Jackson’s explosiveness helped the Wildcats shed that “three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality.

That’s significant.

During most of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, the Wildcats have been expected to be a dominant team defensively. That’s no surprise, because without Fitz, the program likely wouldn’t have been smelling the roses on the way to a B1G title in 1995. It’s a pretty safe assumption that he’s going to field stout defenses.

Issues and question marks usually are aimed at the other side of the ball. Because of that, we enter almost every season completely clueless about Northwestern’s capabilities.

That was the problem entering this season.

Dec 28, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald celebrates with teammates after the Pinstripe Bowl against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Yankee Stadium. Northwestern won, 31-24. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern was obliterated in the Outback Bowl last season, losing 45-6 to Tennessee. The Wildcats were disjointed and dysfunctional offensively. It really made you wonder how in the world that team was able to tally 10 wins in 12 tries.

That Outback Bowl performance kept us scratching our heads as this season began. It’s almost fitting how the Wildcats posted just a 7-6 record after the win in the Pinstripe Bowl.

But this year ended much differently. There’s a completely new feeling about Northwestern as it enters this offseason. And it’s not just because the Wildcats are bringing a bowl victory back to Evanston for the first time since 2012.

Jackson rushed for a career-high 224 yards and three TDs – the first time in his career he eclipsed the 200-yard mark. Thorson completed 23-0f-26 passes for 214 yards and a TD, finding six different receivers in the game. Northwestern’s defense made a few big plays – two interceptions in the red zone and a goal line stand – but you could argue that the offense won this game for Fitzgerald.

RELATED: Watch: Jackson Eclipses 200 Yards with Long TD Run

And with most of those contributors returning, there’s a reason to be optimistic about next season. In a lot of ways, Northwestern’s performance in the Pinstripe bowl was more important than any of the other 12 games it played this season.

You couldn’t say that a year ago.

Northwestern is going to miss some key pieces, especially Carr who was such a reliable target this season, particularly on third down. There’s still going to be a few question marks hovering over this team when spring ball begins and into fall camp. That’s probably never going to change for the enigmatic Wildcats.

Jackson has only improved as the season’s continued, though. I mean, he did this against a defense that ranked ninth nationally against the run:

Thorson didn’t have his best outing in the Pinstripe Bowl, but he took important steps as he matures into a high-caliber B1G quarterback throughout the year. He had an impeccable three-game stretch against Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana in the middle of the year, completing 64 percent of his passes and throwing nine TDs and just one INT.

Northwestern went 3-0 in those games.

After another big offensive outing, the Wildcats head back to Evanston with a bowl trophy riding in the cockpit.

Maybe they didn’t win 10 games this year, but the program appears to be trending in the right direction as the season concluded. That performance in the Pinstripe Bowl gives us some insight as to what we can expect from this team next year.

RELATED: Northwestern Players Spotted Doing ‘Rockettes’ Number in Pinstripe Bowl

This looks like an offense that will only be a bigger threat in seven months. This looks like a team that can compete at the top of the B1G West, maybe even the conference. Northwestern is capable of causing some serious damage in 2017.

It’s a very different feeling from a year ago after the Outback Bowl.

Northwestern visited Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange as part of their trip to the big city. It looks like they’re taking a few lessons back with them, too.

Because for the first time the Wildcats’ are leaving New York with their stock on the rise.