The Northwestern Wildcats knew they could establish a run game against the Illinois Fighting Illini. John Moten’s breakout game showed off the team’s depth.
If there was one shining light to Northwestern’s anemic offense last year, it was their run game. In fact, it was done to a fault. Teams loaded up against the run as the Wildcats’ most effective play was to run tireless worker Justin Jackson into the offensive line and hope for the best.
His ability to squirt past the line of scrimmage and get positive yards on seemingly every carry was something that got him to 1,000 yards rushing for the second straight year despite the Wildcats’ poor offense overall.
Jackson was a star. But Northwestern knew it could not run him 25-30 times per game and be at the team’s best. NU needed to find better run-pass balance and a capable backup for Jackson to lighten his load, keeping him fresh for the fourth quarter and deeper into the season.
The Wildcats hoped Warren Long would shoulder that burden. He broke his arm in the opening game and Jackson again was the lone guy in the backfield. The Wildcats were searching for help.
Because Jackson does get better as the game goes on. As his carries increase, he wears defenses down and he seems to get stronger. But the human body has its limitations. Even Justin Jackson, the ball carrier.
Slowly throughout the season freshman John Moten IV stepped up into that role. He was never completely consistent. He would put up a big game and then disappear as Jackson gobbled up all the carries.
In the Wildcats’ best games, though, Jackson got help. Whether it was from Clayton Thorson through the air or from Moten behind him. And in the Wildcats’ two biggest offensive explosions this season, it was with a strong one-two punch in the backfield.
Moten had his breakout game this season in a 42-21 win over Illinois at Ryan Field on Saturday with 128 yards on 14 carries, taking two to the end zone for touchdowns.
And these were not simple runs. These were gashes through the defense. Granted Illinois does not have the strongest run defense to begin with.
Jackson got his work in too. He ran for 173 yards on 21 carries and three touchdowns, doing everything that he does in destroying opposing defenses with his mix of power, speed, burst and vision.
Northwestern entering the game had the 97th ranked rushing offense in S&P+. Jackson has racked up yards but the offense has had its struggles establishing the run in a way it did not last year and was not expected to.
Jackson having to carry a larger load is certainly a part of that. He averaged 22.2 carries per game this season (down from 24.0) on his way to 1,300 yards total. He was still one of the top individual running backs in the conference.
Jackson though had his best games when he was still running strong in the fourth quarter.
This is where the injury to Long loomed so large when it happened early in the season. Jackson could not carry the entire offense and the entire ground game on his own.
Thorson picked up his slack through the air. But against Illinois, and toward the end of the season, Northwestern relied more and more on its run game. And Moten delivered.
The Wildcats’ rallying to make a bowl game was a good boost for the team and the program. The school needed to reach back-to-back bowl games. There is tremendous talent on the roster returning — including Jackson.
All of a sudden, Northwestern is positioned with a solid group of running backs. Jackson will return for a senior year that will be high on expectations. But he will have support in a duo of backs behind him. Moten and Long should give Northwestern a more dynamic running attack.
The Wildcats have carved an offensive identity. Their run blocking is better than their pass blocking. And with Austin Carr graduating, they may need Clayton Thorson to be more a game manager and occasional big thrower. The Wildcats will have plenty of talent in the cupboard.
And that bodes well for next season as the Wildcats hope to make a big splash following this season’s step back record-wise.
There is still one more game to go. One more game to pick up yards and roll through the offensive line time and time again on the ground.
Jackson and Moten will get their hits during the bowl game. And in that extra week of practice, Northwestern will begin to see two of its biggest offensive weapons continue to develop the right chemistry for what seems to promise to be a big 2017 for the Wildcats.
First things first for Northwestern. The team has to get that third all-time bowl win