Justin Jackson was getting the ball yet again. With Northwestern clinging to a seven point lead after a disastrous pick-six to end the third quarter, there was little doubt that Mick McCall would start the next drive with Thorson handing the ball off to the sophomore running back. The game was now in the balance. Illinois had improbably swung the momentum in their favor after going down 21-7 in the first quarter. Northwestern needed to stabilize things, and the offense needed to do anything but go three-and-out. So what did the Wildcats do?
Turn to Justin Jackson of course, just as they have done all season.
Jackson got the ball well behind the line of scrimmage and quickly accelerated past two Illinois defenders to gain five yards. On the next play, the Northwestern offensive line opened up a gap that Jackson immediately exploited. Jackson burst into the hole, outran two Illini defenders and was run out of bounds after a 27-yard carry to put Northwestern in field goal range.
These two plays exemplified Jackson's immense contributions to Northwestern's offense this season. When Northwestern had to run out the clock against Duke or Nebraska, Jackson was always able to grind his way to first downs. When the passing game repeatedly struggled, Jackson consistently made big plays that rescued Thorson and the offense. Jackson has now been the team's best offensive player for two consecutive seasons, and he is well on his way to becoming one of the best running backs Northwestern has ever seen.
This season, Jackson has shouldered an incredible workload that has to be put into some perspective to be fully appreciated. Jackson led the country in rushing attempts during the regular season with 298, with 36 more carries than his nearest Big Ten competitor. When you factor in his 22 receptions, only Stanford's Christian McCaffrey received more offensive touches than Jackson. And it's not like he's the only talented running back on the team. Warren Long and Solomon Vault are both capable backups, but the coaching staff's faith in Jackson appears to be unshakeable. Somehow, he has only scored four touchdowns this season, but that can be explained by Northwestern's overall offensive struggles and Long's appearances as the goal-line back. In a time where many coaches monitor carries and split workloads amongst multiple running backs, Jackson has taken on an immense one, and even after offseason knee surgery, he hasn't just held up under it; he's excelled under it.
It's hard to imagine where Northwestern would be without their lead running back. The offensive line was a revolving door all season, with injuries wreaking havoc on Northwestern's line play. Geoff Mogus, Shane Mertz, Matt Frazier, Brad North and Ian Park all missed at least one game due to injury, and most missed more than one. Despite having the 87th-ranked offensive line by line yards, Jackson still managed to have a fantastic season.
To illustrate the ineffectiveness of Northwestern's injured offensive line, Jackson has been given an opportunity rate of just 33.1 percent this season. That means the offensive line "did its job" and produced a run of at least five yards on just 33.1 percent of Jackson's carries. Star running backs like Leonard Fournette, Derrick Henry or Ezekiel Elliott have opportunity rates around 44 percent. In fact, Jackson has the lowest opportunity rate among the top-20 running backs by total rushing yards in college football, and his rate is more than two standard deviations below the group's average (see table). His next closest rival is ahead by nearly four percent. Northwestern's offensive line was also 92nd in "stuff rate", which means Jackson was also getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage due to poor blocking at a high rate. Essentially, no running back has produced more with less better than Justin Jackson has.
Northwestern's offensive linemen even know that Jackson makes their jobs easier. "Personally, I love blocking for him," offensive guard Matt Frazier said with a smile and a shake of his head in November. "I mean, it's really fun. He makes us look good. We mess up, he can make us right. And when we do our job, he makes everything that much easier."
Jackson's lethal combination of north-south running and slippery moves has allowed him to pick up crucial first downs in every victory Northwestern has had this season. Although his yards-per-carry dropped to 4.5 this season, it's actually impressive he's still at 4.5 despite a massive workload and behind a patchwork offensive line. Defenses constantly knew he was going to be getting the ball, but aside from a three-game stretch in October, they often couldn't stop him. Jackson led the FBS in rushing attempts this season, and only Christian McCaffrey of Stanford had more plays from scrimmage than Jackson in 2015.
The pitiful overall offensive numbers makes Jackson's season more impressive. Mick McCall's much-derided conservative play-calling has hampered Jackson's efficiency, as teams have been stacking up against the run without any threat of a pass play. In previous years, Northwestern running backs complemented potent passing offenses. Jackson did not have that luxury this year, yet he still produced an effective season with over 1,300 yards. More importantly, he led his team to 10 victories.
Against Illinois, Jackson passed Noah Herron for seventh on Northwestern's all-time career rushing yards list. Through 24 games, Jackson has accumulated 2,531 rushing yards and a staggering 543 carries. That puts him on pace to shatter Northwestern's all-time marks for career yards (4,485) and attempts, currently held by the great Damian Anderson. After two seasons of consistent excellence, it's fair to start wondering where Jackson will rank in school history.
In terms of single season numbers, Jackson has not yet had a signature Heisman-candidate season like Darnell Autry in 1995 (by the way, Autry had 414 plays from scrimmage in 1995) or Anderson in 2000. Jackson has also had significantly fewer touchdowns than Autry or Tyrell Sutton, but Jackson does have some time to break off a monster season. While Jackson's abilities as a pass-catcher are underrated, he is not a pass-catching back and is unlikely to match the skills of Tyrell Sutton as a receiver.
Justin Jackson may not have the top-end speed of Anderson, or the power of Autry, but his field vision and his amazing ability to get positive yardage on broken plays make him one of the most effective runners Northwestern has ever had. Jackson excels at breaking tackles and eluding defenders. His acceleration allows him to outrun some defenders over short distances, but he is also able to grind out three- or four-yard carries whenever necessary. Imagine what he could do with a better offensive line and a half-decent passing offense.
Jackson's current lack of touchdowns may hurt his standing, but with touchdowns being a highly volatile statistic from year to year, don't rule out Jackson having a 15-plus-touchdown season at some point. Remember, Jackson debuted as a true freshman. He has plenty of time to improve, get stronger, and grow into a more powerful back, and it's difficult to see him leaving prior to his senior year.
In the end, Jackson's position on the all-time lists will depend on his ability to stay healthy and productive for the rest of his career. If Jackson plays through his next two years at Northwestern with even 90 percent of the workload he's received this year, he can easily break the school record for rushing yards. He needs about 1,900 yards in slightly over two seasons yards to catch Anderson. That's certainly feasible.
But even if the numbers somehow don't reach that lofty mark, Jackson's 2015 season — one in which he at times singlehandedly carried the offense — will always be one to remember.