Northwestern’s win over Indiana last Saturday was important for many reasons. First, the Wildcats won a homecoming game for the first time since 2012. Second, it kept them undefeated in the month of October and third, at 4-3, left them in second place in the Big Ten West and on track to earn a berth in a bowl game. After a 1-3 start to the season, including a 9-7 loss to an FCS team in Illinois State, this turnaround is a bit unexpected, but it can be attributed in large part to a renewed offense, led by a power rushing attack.
Running back Justin Jackson, a second-team All-Big Ten selection last season, averaged almost 180 yards per game in the Wildcats two road wins (upsets at Iowa and Michigan State) leading up to their game against the Hoosiers. His 359 yards in those two games (to go along with three touchdowns) propelled him to the top spot in the conference, leading all running backs, averaging 116 yards per game. Jackson was also named Big Ten co-offensive player of the week after rushing for a career-high 188 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Michigan State. His success on the ground is part of a rejuvenated offense that has Northwestern thinking about postseason play.
A big reason why Jackson is finding so much success on the ground is because he isn’t carrying the load on his own. The Wildcats have found a good offensive balance, leaning heavily on the combination of Jackson and wide receiver Austin Carr, who came into the game against the Hoosiers leading the Big Ten in yards per game, receptions and touchdowns. In their win over the Spartans, Carr caught 11 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Against Indiana, while Jackson was racking up 94 yards on the ground, Carr went for 125 yards through the air and one touchdown. Having two top-notch playmakers on offense has allowed the Wildcats to compensate for a defense allowing over 416 yards per game, while keeping opposing defenses on their heels, allowing both Carr and Jackson to put up big numbers.
Make no mistake about it, as the Wildcats hit the midpoint of their season, the message is clear: The Jackson-Carr combination will determine whether or not they earn a postseason berth and perhaps contend in the Big Ten West. Jackson is on pace to eclipse 700 carries and 4,000 yards in his Northwestern career, and the team will need him to do that and more to get to the six wins needed to become bowl eligible. The road trip to Ohio State looms heavily on the schedule. With their recent loss, the Buckeyes will likely be tougher than ever now that they have something to prove. But hey, at least they don’t have to face Michigan, who this entire year has been downright scary to play against. Another glass is half full look is that the Buckeyes are fifth in total defense, but only 20th against the run, allowing 120 yards per game.
So, the running lanes could be there, and the Wildcats will need every yard they can get, especially if they want to beat a Buckeyes team averaging 517 yards and 49 points per game. Even if they lose both of the upcoming contests, their remaining three games (at Purdue, at Minnesota, vs. Illinois) are all against teams behind them in the standings and give them a reasonable path to 6-7 wins.
But to have a chance to pull the upset, and more importantly reach the postseason, the Wildcats will have to continue to run the ball effectively.