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With Justin Jackson and Austin Carr, Northwestern finally has top-notch playmakers

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The usually offense-devoid Wildcats suddenly have stars at the major skill positions.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

When people talked about Northwestern football during the offseason, the conversation tended to shift to top defensive players of the past, a ground-and-pound style of football or the promising defenders on the Wildcats’ roster.

Talk about explosive playmakers on the offensive side of the ball simply wasn’t a part of the narrative. And why would it have been? The Wildcats were putrid on that side of the ball last year.

However, after back-to-back 38-plus point outbursts to beat Iowa and Michigan State in consecutive games — on the road, no less — Northwestern, and embattled offensive coordinator Mick McCall, has flipped that usual script. While it has been an team effort, (the offensive line play has been much improved), that change can be attributed largely to two players: Justin Jackson and Austin Carr.

As the Wildcats’ once-stout defense has succumbed to injuries and lack of production, especially in the secondary — Northwestern’s defense is now allowing 416.3 yards per game and has fallen to 46th in S&P after ending 2016 in fifth — the junior ball-carrier and former walk-on senior pass-catcher have risen this offense to levels once thought unfathomable.

Despite the struggles of Northwestern’s offensive line — which, per Football Outsiders, is 90th nationally in adjusted line yards — Jackson has been able to thrive. Adjusted line yards is a scaled and opponent-adjusted statistic which measures the effectiveness of a team’s offensive lines. Northwestern’s mark is 95.3, which, considering 100 is average for the stat, is not very good. The line improved against Michigan State and Iowa, but given that the line was overmatched in its first four games, Jackson’s huge total numbers are amazing.

Jackson has managed to post nearly 700 yards through six games. He has a big workload as usual — his 142 rushes are 10th in the country — and is 19th in the nation in rushing yards, even without much help upfront. He’s posted a yards-per-carry of nearly five yards, even higher than what he accomplished in his impressive freshman and sophomore seasons.

Also, because of Warren Long’s broken hand, Jackson hasn’t had the luxury of a proven backup to give him spells now and then. The combo of John Moten IV, Solomon Vault (mainly on the speed option) and Auston Anderson haven’t been able to fully make up for Long’s absence, which has put the onus of the running game on Jackson.

But this is just more of the same for Jackson. He has been Northwestern’s only consistent offensive performer since he arrived on campus two years ago, and the offense lives and dies with how well he is able to find open seams in the opposing defense.

The difference with this Northwestern team is that Jackson doesn’t have to do it all by himself anymore.

Enter Austin Carr. The California native has been known to Northwestern students as a renaissance man of sorts for the past couple of years with his performances in the Student-Athlete Talent Show. However, in his final season, he has started to get it done on the field in ways no one thought he would when he joined the program without a scholarship.

He wasn’t a factor in his freshman campaign, but caught seven passes for 100 yards as a sophomore with wideouts like Kyle Prater and Christian Jones ahead of him. Clayton Thorson started to target him more in 2015, as he eclipsed 300 yards and scored a couple of touchdowns. The promise was there for Carr, he just needed the opportunity, as well as an improved Thorson to give him the ball.

So far in 2016, everything has clicked for the senior. He’s the unquestioned No. 1 wide receiver on a team without a ton of depth at the position, and it’s clear his offseason work with Thorson has helped develop a stellar rapport between quarterback and wideout.

Almost out of nowhere, Carr has started to turn in huge game after game, with highlight catches mixed in here and there. He has had at least one receiving touchdown in all but one of the Wildcats’ games this season and has five in his last two, against Iowa and Michigan State.

His eight receiving scored are tied for sixth in the country and people are starting to take notice. He even was interviewed on BTN.com on Tuesday and, in usual Austin Carr fashion, gave the credit for the Wildcats’ 54-40 win over Michigan State — in which he caught 11 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns — to his teammates and coaches.

Obviously, some of Carr’s breakout has been because of stronger play from Clayton Thorson. The (redshirt) sophomore signal-caller has definitely looked more comfortable in the pocket in the last couple of games, but part of that is due to Carr, who is a reliable pass-catcher and has a knack of just finding a way to get open.

There’s even talk that Carr is the best wide receiver in the Big Ten, which probably hasn’t been said about a Northwestern pass-catcher in a long time.

Regardless of Carr’s status in the conference, it’s undeniable his emergence has completely changed a once-moribund offense into a formidable one that has dropped 92 points the last two weeks against traditional Big Ten powerhouses. He has almost singlehandely taken perhaps one of the worst positions on Northwestern’s roster and made it a strength. His fellow receivers (Flynn Nagel, Andrew Scanlan, Macan Wilson and others) have stepped up in major ways too, but no one is close to matching Carr’s productivity.

With Jackson and Carr producing at such a high level, the Wildcats’ defense has more breathing room to allow some points and not feel as if it’s putting the game out of reach. Also, the two stars’ play has forced the opposition to respect both the ground and air games, which only opens things up for the other even more. It’s not often that any team, much less Northwestern, can claim the best running back and the best wide receiver in the conference, statistically.

It’s safe to say having two studs at major skill positions helps to cover up some other flaws this Northwestern team might have and then some.