Does it matter which carry was the one that broke Northwestern’s all-time rushing record? It was probably some nondescript run. A classic Jackson carry where it looked like he would get caught in the backfield and yet somehow he squirmed forward for three yards.
That was always Jackson’s great skill. He somehow always found a way to turn a negative play into at least a neutral one. That is the understated brilliance of Justin Jackson.
Throughout his career, Pat Fitzgerald has worried about managing Jackson’s carries. He finally had his “bell cow” back but was afraid to overwork him. Games are long. Seasons are long. Careers are long.
That is the contradiction with Jackson, though. He gets better as the game wears on. He relishes contact — he reportedly hates that the coaching staff makes him wear the no-contact jersey in practices — and takes on bigger defenders and beats them consistently.
Jackson set the Northwestern all-time rushing mark in Saturday’s 37-21 victory over Maryland on Saturday. For the first time all season, Jackson had all the hallmarks of the all-Big Ten running back. The sharp cuts. The constant positive plays. And loads of carries.
If anything, there were times where Northwestern probably could have gone to him more — or trusted his increasingly reliable backup Jeremy Larkin. That is Jackson, though, no one can get enough of him.
Jackson rushed for 171 yards on 28 carries, scoring twice. He was, at long last this season, Justin Jackson, the Ball Carrier.
It has not been easy for Jackson. He has totaled only 339 total rushing yards prior to Saturday’s game this season. To say Jackson has struggled to get himself going this year is an understatement.
A lot of that has to do with the team’s offensive line and its well-chronicled struggles. The unit finally opened up some running holes for Jackson and gave him the space for his devastating jump cuts. It was their best game of the year.
But more than that, the Wildcats actually gave Jackson the ball. His 28 carries were two shy of a season high and just the second time in six games he received more than 20 carries.
Let’s repeat that: The leading rusher in the Big Ten from 2016 and now Northwestern’s all-time leading rusher as had 20 carries in just two games this season.
Injuries slowed Jackson down starting with the Week Two loss to Duke. He was limited in practice and limited on the field. Jackson rushed for 18 yards on seven carries in that game. The way Northwestern simply abandoned the run in that game was astounding and a bit frustrating, especially with how tight Northwestern keeps its injury information.
Jackson reported to the media he was fully healthy ahead of last week’s game against Penn State. He still only had 16 carries for 66 yards.
The statement for Northwestern is clear — get Justin Jackson the ball. Even if it means overworking him and overusing him. So long as he is healthy, he is the one who can finally make the Northwestern offense go.
This was by far the Wildcats’ most successful offensive game of the year. It is no coincidence it came with Jackson getting so many carries.
Northwestern racked up 531 total yards and dominated time of possession and number of plays in the first half. With the mix of run working well for the Wildcats, they were able to pick up the tempo, helping Clayton Thorson get into a rhythm.
He was far from perfect on the day, his two interceptions were both killers including one in the end zone, but he was still able to get into a rhythm and get the Wildcats into their offense. He finished with 293 yards on 27-for-49 passing. A pass attempts number that still seems too high.
But it is hard to ask Jackson to do much more than he did. The Wildcats still need to find a second back to share the load. But even then they cannot forget he is there. It is easy to overuse Jackson. And just as easy to forget he is there.
When the Wildcats forget he is there, it is clear they are a worse team. That has been the case throughout the season so far. Even with a shaky offensive line, Jackson needs his touches.
As Jackson has proven in his record-setting career, good things happen when he gets the ball.
Saturday that finally happened and Northwestern celebrated for it.