Justin Jackson’s entire career at Northwestern is was encapsulated in the several moments at Ryan Field on Saturday against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
There was the 40-plus yard run out of the shadow of his own end zone that got the Wildcats to midfield. His constant drive in short-yardage situations leading some to think he could not break away.
And then the doors opened and Jackson ran through.
It all seemed so anticlimactic. The gradual wearing away of the defense into that one moment of seeming glory.
And, of course, the Wildcats would fail to make good on that run. The punt would come a few downs later. Jackson’s hard work was for naught. Other players around him seemingly letting him down.
Then again, the end result said a lot too.
Northwestern shut down Minnesota 39-0 on Senior Day at Ryan Field on Saturday. For all the work Jackson seemed to do in futility, his career was marked with a lot of victories.
A 10-win season in 2015 and a trip to the Outback Bowl. A bowl victory against Pitt to salvage a sometimes disappointing 2016 season. And now this year — a potential nine-win regular season. The Wildcats have experienced nothing but success in a team sense, even if their team’s offense seemed in constant struggle.
Jackson remained a workhorse. Just grinding away those yards waiting for the chance to break through. Working against loaded boxes and still falling forward to gain yards, giving something positive to his team.
His final act at Ryan Field? 166 yards on 31 carries. A masterful performance of will and doggedness.
On a rainy day at the stadium, the Wildcats knew they could not throw the ball effectively. They would put the ball in Jackson’s hands again and again, knowing full well their own offensive line’s weaknesses and the likelihood the Gophers would load the box.
It did not matter. NU lined up against Minnesota, gave Jackson the little bit of crease he needed and to burst through. Again and again and again. Like clockwork. All with certainty.
Jackson was the one certain thing for the Northwestern offense the last four years. And he was that way again in his finale at home.
That is why he is one of the few running backs in Big Ten history to eclipse 5,000 yards. Why he became, against all odds with his struggles to start this season, the first Wildcat to rush for 1,000 yards in four seasons.
He reached those milestones on memorable runs. Not the familiar four- or five-yard gains. He burst through the line to gain huge chunks of yards.
In the great irony of Jackson’s career, he seemed to deflect the glory.
Everyone recognized the Ball Carrier’s greatness. But he was never the one finishing the deal. Others always scored the touchdowns. Jackson got the Wildcats to the doorstep, but never across the finish line — not as much as his yardage would suggest.
His understudy, Jeremy Larkin, rushed for 36 yards on nine carries with a touchdown run. Jelani Roberts had a jet sweep. Clayton Thorson had three touchdowns all in the end zone.
All of it set up by Jackson. Everything the last four years on offense has been set up by Jackson. He handed off the baton and made everyone else’s life easy. They always had to get across the goal line.
Throughout this season, Northwestern has finally made its way across the goal line. Maybe not the way they wanted ultimately. But Northwestern’s six-game win streak was nothing to sneeze at. The whole gravity of Jackson’s play mattered in giving the Wildcats the space they needed.
The defense was working on its own track, establishing its base and asserting its own dominance.
Saturday, Nate Hall dominated the line of scrimmage seven tackles, three for a loss and 2.5 sacks. He was all over the backfield to help hold Minnesota to 182 total yards. The Wildcats dominated all three phases of the game.
Northwestern’s defense was all over Minnesota all game. Two lost fumbles and three interceptions only furthered the hole Minnesota dug itself in.
The Wildcats shut out the Gophers again. The defense deserves that credit.
But the Northwestern world revolves around Justin Jackson. It always has. And no one could stop him. Not Saturday and not the last four years.
Of course, the humble Jackson did not want that recognition. As he got peppered with questions after the game, he nudged the media to ask his teammates more questions.
That is all Jackson did in his career at Ryan Field — make others look good. And for sure, Northwestern will not see another like him.