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Justin Jackson goes as his offensive line goes, and both were outstanding versus Michigan State

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The running back had a career-high 188 yards and added two scores.

Northwestern v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

We have often discussed Justin Jackson’s ability to make something out of nothing. He will bounce off two would-be-tacklers to turn a stuffed run into three yards. He can make a guy miss on the outside to turn a failed stretch play into a few yards.

But rarely do we get to talk about how hard it is to contain him when his offensive line gets a push. Michigan State found out the hard way on Saturday as Jackson set a new career high of 188 yards on 34 carries en route to a 54-40 NU win. Jackson’s production enabled Northwestern’s offense to become simply unstoppable as the game wore on and Michigan State’s defense crumbled.

“It’s critically important to be able to run the ball,” Pat Fitzgerald said. “It then gives you the two dimensions because you have play-action pass.”

The last two games, Jackson has been simply outstanding. The junior has toted the ball a combined 60 times for 359 yards and three touchdowns. That’s nearly six yards per rush. And his success has been due in large part to the drastically improved offensive line play.

“To be able to run the ball the way we did today, great credit to our offensive line, especially those guys up front,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve taken a lot of grief, and they understand their role, and I think they stepped up well today.”

When you combine good play up front with one of the most skilled backs in the country — yes, the country — good things happen. Here are some examples.

Up the middle

Example 1:

Earlier in the year, we talked about how Northwestern’s most successful runs are up the middle. With Jackson’s phenomenal quickness and not-quite-phenomenal straight-line speed, it’s important to get him going downhill early. Northwestern was able to do that on both touchdowns

(NOTE: All video courtesy of BTN)

The blocking on this play is fantastic. Starting at the bottom of the screen, left tackle Blake Hance (No. 72) just takes linebacker Ed Davis (No. 43) completely out of the play. To Hance’s right, J.B. Butler (No. 59), making his first career start, and Brad North (No. 69) double-team star defensive lineman Malik McDowell (No. 4). Continuing up the screen, Tommy Doles (No. 71) gets to the second level early, and right tackle Eric Olson (No. 76) and superback Garrett Dickerson (No. 9) both eliminate backside pursuit.

At this point Jackson could probably barrel forward for the first down, but instead, he shows great vision and makes a jump cut to his left, leaving Montae Nicholson (No. 9) completely out of position. All that’s left in his way is cornerback Vayante Copeland (No. 13).

Step 1:

Step 2:

That’s just not fair.

Example 2:

Another run up the middle and — surprise! — another touchdown. Dickerson comes around the formation with perfect timing to wipe out the initially untouched Davis (No. 43). Hance, meanwhile gets essentially free release to the second level, where he demolishes Andrew Donnel (No. 5). At left guard, Butler does a great job with McDowell (with some slight help from Hance). Brad North spins defensive lineman Demetrius Cooper (No. 98) around, taking him out of the play entirely, Doles gets the the second level upon release and star linebacker Riley Bullough (No. 30), which displaces him, too. Another Jackson jump cut leaves safety Khari Willis (No. 27) in the dust. He’s just bullying defenders at this point.

This is Jackson at his best. He has the vision to get through the initial hole, the patience to not get ahead of Hance, and the incredible jump cut to make Willis his next highlight reel victim. Most importantly, this was the game-winning touchdown for the Wildcats, a dagger on third and long after a fantastic and lengthy drive from the offense (13 plays, 91 yards, 6:18). It was also a draw on

Outside runs

Speaking of that drive, it’s worth noting its similarity to what we’ve seen in the past from Jackson: he gets stronger as the game goes on, and he can be leaned on down the stretch. On the drive, Jackson carried the ball eight times for 64 yards, including that 26-yard touchdown. Interestingly, though, a lot of these yards came in chunks on outside runs. These all require mobile linemen to pull across the formation. Here are three examples:

Example 1:

This first example features North pulling around and putting a hat on linebacker Chris Frey (No. 23) and Doles getting just enough on the cornerback Copeland (No. 13) for Jackson to get upfield in a hurry for a good gain.

Example 2:

This one is really impressive up front because of all the moving parts. Starting at the bottom of the screen, Dickerson stonewalls Cooper (No. 98), the defensive end on this play. Hance slants down and takes care of Brandon Clemons (No. 64). Then come a host of pulling linemen. Butler knocks down Donnel (No. 5), and North gets just enough of Bullough (No. 30) to get him off balance. Olson, meanwhile, prevents backside pursuit, and Doles gets to the second level right away to help out as well.

Example 3:

This is great work from North, who snaps the ball and immediately pulls around, becoming the lead blocker, and negates Bullough (No. 30). Dickerson, Hance and Doles and Olson all take care of their assignments, too. But the star of the play is substitute lineman J.B. Butler. Look at how far down the field he prevents Frey (No. 23) from getting any sort of shot at stopping Jackson.

Yes, that’s an offensive lineman standing over a Spartan. Both Fitzgerald and Jackson praised Butler mightily for his efforts on Saturday, and you can see why he earned the top spot on the depth chart for the Indiana game. It really makes you wonder why Butler didn’t get more playing time before the injury to Connor Mahoney. Pat Fitzgerald repeatedly said he had no depth on the offensive line, and yet that is clearly not the case for Butler.

Example 4:

This fourth example of successful outside running comes from the next drive, and it’s another impressive display from the guys up front.

Both tackles crash inside, and North and Doles pull, taking out Bullough (No. 30) and Donnel (No. 5), respectively. James Prather (No. 44) does a solid job on Cooper (No. 98) — maybe getting away with a hold in the process — and Jackson is into the secondary with yet another big gain.

The option

Ah yes, the dreaded option. Northwestern actually went to it a few times on Saturday, and it worked to varying degrees. None worked better, though, than when Thorson kept it from 9 yards away for a score.

The success of this play is due partially in part to the run game; everyone is so focused on John Moten that they completely lose their lane discipline. Everyone on the back end flows toward the running back.

This is also partially due to the Wildcats having run a successful option (5 yards) on the previous play in which Thorson pitched it. Thorson makes the correct read here, and there’s no one home for the hosts. It was so empty that Brad North ran to empty space, looking for someone to block and not finding anyone.

If Northwestern can continue to play this well up front, Jackson should have yet another huge season and, more importantly, this offense will continue to roll, both on the ground and, as a result, through the air as we hit the stretch run of this season.