The real story of Northwestern's 23-21 win over Penn State (7-3 overall, 4-2 Big Ten) wasn't the redemption stories of backup quarterback Zack Oliver and inconsistent but clutch kicker Jack Mitchell. It also wasn't the picture of Northwestern alumni Julia Louis-Dreyfus and George R.R. Martin. Nor was it dumb penalties from the Wildcats that allowed Penn State to claw its way back into the game. As hard as he might have tried, James Franklin's poor clock management wasn't the story either. If the Nittany Lions had won, running back Saquon Barkley would have been the story with 120 rushing yards on 25 carries with two touchdowns.
So what's left?
It's the soft-spoken sophomore tailback who's success, as has become customary, has become crippled by the acceptance and expectation of his immense talent.
Justin Jackson, at least for the time being, appears to be back.
Casually, Jackson racked up a career high 186 yards on the ground for Northwestern (7-2, 3-2) on 28 carries. His vaunted jump cuts were sharp again, his one-on-one moves sprung him for big gains. After the game, Jackson credited the play-calling, and the blocking of the offensive line and wide receivers for his success. Sure, they may have played a role, but after rushing for a total of 90 yards against Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska it was Jackson who looked completely different.
For the first quarter and a half, Jackson's struggles continued. He gained just nine rushing yards before launching for this 48-yarder with just under eight minutes left in the second period.
The blocking on this play, clearly, was impressive. The scheme was solid. Northwestern outnumbered Penn State to the ball side and the Nittany Lions defense could do nothing to stop it. Jackson saw the opening and wiggled through it, bursting through the seam for 48 yards.
That's all Jackson needed to get going.
Two plays later, it was Jackson for 25 over the left side, again.
This, in a some ways, was vintage Jackson. He calmly roamed to his left, allowing the offensive line to string out Penn State's defensive front. Then, when he saw the opening, he cut on a dime upfield. Those two plays led to an Oliver one-yard touchdown and a 13-0 Northwestern lead after Mitchell hooked the extra point.
At that point, the Wildcats were firmly in control, and would enter the half up 20-7.
In the second half, as the game began to slip away from the Wildcats, Jackson added a 30-yarder. But still, Jackson wasn't able to play his game: picking up six, seven, eight yards consistently.
That was until Northwestern's game-winning drive.
Everyone will remember Oliver's 23-yard heave to Austin Carr on third-and-15. But it was Jackson's work inside that gave Mitchell the opportunity to comfortably knock in a 35-yard game-winner. On third-and-five, Jackson wiggled his way for seven yards and a first down, allowing Northwestern to place the ball centrally for Mitchell.
It's those tough yards that make Jackson special, and they're what was primarily missing during his rough patch in October. The big plays will come and go and aren't the staple of Jackson's game. Those medium-length runs are. And for the first time in a month, Jackson looked like himself again.
As the season moves forward, Jackson's presence will continue to prove its worth. His ability to give Northwestern something positive on offense (when everything else around him is seemingly going backwards) creates a bit more margin for the Wildcats, taking the pressure of the defense and special teams to make plays.