35 touches. 257 yards. Four touchdowns.
Those are the combined stats Justin Jackson and Austin Carr racked up in Northwestern’s thrilling 38-31 defeat of Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, but both players will tell you that one stat stands out above the rest.
And it wasn’t just any victory. This was a win that could possibly turn around the Wildcats’ entire season.
“It was huge for us,” Jackson said. “We dropped some games we felt like we should’ve won when they came down to the end and we didn’t make the plays. This week, we made the plays.”
Jackson hit the nail on the head. In Northwestern’s two early losses and even against Nebraska last Saturday, a recurring theme was a lacking of finishing ability by the offense. It would play well at times, especially in the first half, but not do enough late in games to earn wins.
When the Wildcats needed their offensive weapons to step up in the second half against Iowa and help the team finish, Jackson and Carr did just that. Three of the pair’s four touchdowns came during a 21-0 second half Northwestern run that took a 24-17 deficit and made it into a 38-24 lead.
The first of those three has a solid argument as both the most impressive and the most important. With Iowa leading by seven and owning the momentum of 17 unanswered points, the Wildcats needed to answer on their first possession of the second half. They drove the ball down the field well, but appeared to be in trouble when Clayton Thorson was heavily blitzed on 3rd-and-8 from the Hawkeyes’ 16 yard line.
Then Thorson and Carr made some magic. Instead of taking a sack that would’ve forced a long field goal attempt, Thorson escaped the pocket and threw a dart into the end zone right before going out of bounds. Carr, who had broken his route back to the sideline, lunged and made an outstanding catch while getting his right foot down.
“Clayton can be magic sometimes,” Carr said, deflecting praise for the touchdown. “He was able to extend the play, I was able to loop around the defender, and Clayton put it in the right spot.”
Thorson deserves a lot of credit for keeping the play alive and making a great throw, but Carr still had to make a difficult catch, something he’s made a habit of doing in 2016. After five games, Carr leads the Big Ten in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
That last category has been perhaps the most surprising, as the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Carr doesn’t fit the typical mold of a go-to red zone threat. But his three scores on Saturday gave him six on the season and made him the first Wildcat since 2000 to catch a touchdown pass in four straight games.
Carr, who finished with six catches for 73 yards and the three scores, has blossomed into a legitimate star as a senior. His chemistry with Thorson is undeniable and his hands are phenomenal, and he has taken the Northwestern passing game to a level not many would have predicted entering this season.
“You guys are just seeing this now, but we saw this work ethic all throughout the winter, spring, summer,” Jackson said of Carr. “He goes out there and makes huge plays all the time and he’s really the key to our offense right now.”
Let’s not forget about the Wildcats’ longer-tenured offensive star, though. After three straight games without reaching 100 yards on the ground, Jackson broke free in a big way against Iowa. The junior ran the ball 26 times for 171 yards, adding 13 yards through the air.
Of those 26 carries, the 21st was the biggest. One possession after Carr’s diving catch, Northwestern had the ball and was driving in search of a go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter. On 2nd-and-4 from his own 42, Jackson took off. He burst through a hole on the right side, shook Iowa’s Miles Taylor out of his shoes and won a footrace to the end zone to put the Wildcats up 31-24.
“There was a pretty big seam right there,” Jackson said. “It was just me and the safety. I had kind of been putting my head down a lot earlier in the game so I tried to make a move and after that, was just trying to get away from the guys.”
That 58-yard score makes the highlights, but Jackson was effective all day long against the Hawkeyes. It helps that the offensive line played a much better game, but his patience and vision on stretch runs were huge for sustaining drives. And that dynamic juke of Taylor was all Jackson.
Leading by just seven, Northwestern got the ball back with a chance to add to the margin and who better to turn to than Carr? Thorson connected with the senior for their third score, a 25-yard completion that gave the Wildcats enough of a cushion to hold on for the win.
In previous games, Northwestern’s offense limped to the finish line, which was a big reason why the team started 1-3.
On Saturday, Jackson and Carr put the offense on their backs and sprinted through the finish line and all the way out of Iowa City with a much-needed victory.