Justin Jackson walked off the field for the final time as a Northwestern Wildcat a champion. A two-time bowl game MVP, actually. And the 10th leading all-time rusher in Northwestern history.
In four years, he set a tone for Northwestern. From the first season, it was clear the direction Northwestern’s offense would go. It would move from Trevor Siemian’s throwing to Justin Jackson’s running for the next three years.
And indeed, that is where it went. Reliably, Northwestern would turn to Jackson 20 or even 30 times per game and he would just pick up yards. There are very few Northwestern players on offense who delivered so consistently over four years. Again and again and again.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald for much of the first half of his coaching tenure lamented not having a “bell cow back.” It seemed he always wanted someone he could hand the ball off to 20 times a game and just beat players at the line. That was what Jackson did, always finding a way to fall forward.
Northwestern’s most successful teams in the last decade all had amazing running backs — from Tyrell Sutton to Venric Mark to Justin Jackson. Their lack of a strong running game always seemed to put them behind the 8-ball. It forced them to be a bit more innovative with their pass offense. But slowly they morphed into a more traditional run-based offense, albeit out of the spread.
The legacy Jackson leaves behind is a team that will be dominant in the run.
In the time Jackson was in school, Northwestern loaded up on running backs, recruiting Auston Anderson, Warren Long and Jeremy Larkin to try and find someone to spell Jackson a bit. All three of those players were highly touted and the team continues to recruit strong running backs. Eventually one will break through.
In the 2017 season, that breakthrough came from freshman Jeremy Larkin. He is the heir apparent and even Fitzgerald seems to recognize it.
Jackson said the joke going around the facility from Fitzgerald was that he needed to get all the yards he could because Larkin is coming for many of his records.
It will be tough, of course, for Larkin to break Jackson’s all-time rushing yards mark at Northwestern. Larkin will not have the chance to rush for 1,000 yards in all four of his seasons at the school.
As a freshman, Larkin rushed for 503 yards on 84 attempts, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. His first 100-yard game against Kentucky brought a lot of optimism for his future as he takes the reigns.
But Larkin’s 503 yards is also another important mark. It was the most rushing yards from the team’s second-leading rusher since 2012 when quarterback Kain Colter had 894 rushing yards behind Venric Mark’s 1,366. He has the most rushing yards for the second-leading running back since Noah Herron rushed for 739 yards in 2003.
That is all to say, it would seem, the Wildcats have always had a passing bent to their strategy (don’t look at the team’s rushing totals in the late 2000s) and now finally seem to have established themselves as a running team. That was a big piece of what Jackson established — completely transforming Northwestern into a running team.
Now the baton goes to Larkin. A runner who proved himself capable of handling the secondary role and showing promise that he can take on that feature role. He holds the legacy Jackson built and seems like a strong heir.
And Northwestern will need to maintain a strong running game to keep this momentum in their program going. It was always the missing piece for some stellar teams in the late 2000s. Now Northwestern appears to have it.
With quarterback Clayton Thorson’s injury status still unknown (and not much proven quarterback talent behind him), the running game will again be important for the team next year. If the Wildcats want to get to that mythical next level, they will need a lot from the ground.
That will be headed by Larkin. It will also include promising prospect Auston Anderson and the injured John Moten. Freshman running Isaiah Bowser may also get a chance depending on how quickly he takes to the offense.
It seems very quickly, Northwestern’s margin of error gets small. And with uncertainty at quarterback, Larkin needs to quickly take that mantle Jackson has left him.
Fortunately, that foundation is already laid.