Heading into Saturday, all eyes were on Melvin Gordon. The Heisman hopeful posted huge numbers again, but it was another running back who stole the show in Evanston.
Justin Jackson put the Northwestern offense on his back, carrying the ball 33 times for 162 yards. He showed his quickness, vision, patience in finding the hole and more than anything, his power in breaking tackles.
After practice Wednesday, Jackson said the team was doing a good job managing his workload and working him in. "Slowly each week I'm ready to handle more," he said.
This week he was a workhorse, handling 33 of the 39 carries out of NU's backfield. Jackson touched the ball more times than Melvin Gordon, so credit the Wildcat defense for forcing the Badgers to pass, but really it shows how much Pat Fitzgerald trusts his true freshman. The 33 carries were the most by a Wildcat since Tyrell Sutton had 33 in 2007.
"I was expecting to come in here and do what the coaches told me to, you know. Whether it's getting 10 carries, 15 carries or 30 carries, I just go in there and do what I can when I get in and try to help our team win," Jackson said post-game. "I feel pretty crappy, but we won, so that's all that matters."
While he may not have the breakaway speed of Gordon, Jackson was still a model of consistency. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry with a long of 18 yards, and he fought for a ton of yards after contact.
Jackson's big day would not have been possible without the performance of the offensive line. The guys up front got a good push and solidified holes for their backs. Wisconsin's o-line always gets plenty of attention for its size and strength, but Northwestern's o-line was much more impressive Saturday.
Jackson said, "Our offensive line did a great job today. I'd say this was probably the biggest holes I've seen." He added that Wisconsin's defense was the best Northwestern has faced, and it shows how good the gameplan was.
Through the first four games of the season, Northwestern was extremely dependent upon the pass. They ranked 108th in the nation in rushing coming into Saturday, and only once had Jackson posted more than 52 yards on the ground. The offense was completely in the hands of Trevor Siemian.
Finally, the Wildcat offense became multi-faceted. In fact, NU had more yards rushing than passing. Sure, it was cold, windy, and rain trickled down. However, Northwestern played Wisconsin's game, and they beat them at it.
Losing Venric Mark seemed like a big loss, but perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. Jackson is already NU's number one in the backfield and a solid all-around back. If he continues on his current trajectory, Big Ten country will soon be talking about Justin Jackson just like they do now about Melvin Gordon.