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Inside The Play: Justin Jackson’s 58 yard TD leads Northwestern to victory

The ball carrier’s long TD run was the turning point against Iowa

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Every week, our Ian McCafferty will go back and critically review one or more plays from the past Saturday's game. These are the plays that, more than any others, were crucial in determining the outcome of the game. He'll check the film and break down the how and why of those decisive few seconds.

For the first time all season we finally have a singular play that can be described as the game’s turning point! Northwestern secured its second win of the year in a wild game at Kinnick Stadium, and there were plenty of plays that contributed to the outcome. However, one stands above the rest as the moment the game shifted into Northwestern’s favor, and that play would be Justin Jackson’s 58 yard touchdown run.

(All video via ESPN)

We’ve officially entered the part of Northwestern’s season where everything stops making sense.

A team that couldn’t score more than seven points against Illinois State went into Kinnick Stadium and dropped 38 points on the Iowa Hawkeyes en route to a 38-31 victory.

Clayton Thorson threw for 164 yards and three touchdown, while Austin Carr caught six passes for 73 yards and three touchdowns. However, the star of the day was Justin Jackson, who exploded for 171 yards and a score. Jackson dominated for much of the day, averaging 6.6 yards per carry, but his biggest run came with 2:07 left in the third quarter.

With the game tied at 24, Northwestern got the ball back after forcing an Iowa three-and-out. After a few plays, the Wildcats found themselves at their own 42 yard line on a second-and-four. Thorson handed the ball off to Jackson and just a few seconds later, Jackson was in the endzone.

It was the longest play of the game for either team, and more importantly, it came right in the middle of an offensive avalanche for the Wildcats. They scored 21 points in just over 10 minutes to reach their second-highest point total ever at Kinnick.

This run by Jackson was the play where everyone watching suddenly realized that Northwestern could actually win this game, and it’s as close to a turning point as we’re going to find (which is what this article is supposed to actually do). Let’s break it down.

The Breakdown

Pre-snap alignments:

There’s nothing too out of the ordinary for either team pre-play. Northwestern is in a somewhat neutral formation, with three wide receivers, five offensive lineman plus Garrett Dickerson, and Thorson in the shotgun. Iowa is in a nickel defense with three cornerbacks, two linebackers and two deep safeties.

The biggest thing here is that Northwestern is using their its wide receiver set to spread out the Iowa defense as much as possible. There is a receiver off screen on the far side of the field, which essentially takes one of Iowa’s defenders out of the play and forces them to only have two linebackers in the game. Other than that, Dickerson critically acts as an extra blocker to help the offensive line.

As Thorson hands the ball off to Jackson, the play is already developing downfield. Dickerson’s (9) ability to block a defensive end by himself has allowed Connor Mahoney (68) and Blake Hance (72) to double team defensive tackle Faith Ekaktie (56) up the middle.

Here’s another angle:

North (69) does his best to block (and maybe hold) Jaleel Johnson (67) and actually winds up pancaking him later on in the play. Tommy Doles (71) has been released to the second level, where he engages in a block with outstanding linebacker Josey Jewell (43). However, the star of the show here is Eric Olson (76), who manages to push Matt Nelson (96) upfield right at the snap and open up a huge hole for Jackson. Also important here is the fact that both linebacker Bo Bower (41) and safety Brandon Snyder (37) come up to the line.

Bower winds up completely cut off from the play by Doles and Snyder is now out of position if Jackson happens to get by safety Miles Taylor (19). Due to this, as Jackson hits the hole there are only two players who could conceivably get to him: Taylor and Jewell. Jewell is being blocked by Doles but is beginning to shed the block as Jackson approaches him, so why doesn’t he make the tackle?


Doles has an awful lot of jersey there.

Everyone else does a pretty good job holding their blocks, but Doles can’t entirely hold onto Jewell so he resorts to what you see above. This was a hold and it wasn’t called, so it worked out okay for Doles. The alternate reality version of this play in which Doles gets called for that hold would have been absolutely brutal. Other than this, the blocking was pretty good, especially from Dickerson.

After he busts through the hole, this play is all Jackson. He hits Taylor with the “shake and bake” and leaves him in the dust. This is 100 percent what makes the play a touchdown. The blocking was good, but if he can’t shake Taylor, it’s only a six or seven yard gain. Taylor is so shook that he isn’t even able to recover enough to chase after Jackson.

After Jackson hits the open field, Snyder makes an attempt to run him down, even getting a hand on Jackson, but it isn’t enough. Jackson simply shoves him away and outruns him. Despite almost getting run down by cornerback Greg Mabin, he trots into the endzone.

Northwestern leads 31-24 and is well on its way to a victory in Iowa City.


For a play like this takeaways are a bit tricky. This type of play isn’t exactly rare in the Northwestern playbook. McCall calls runs like this all the time, so there isn’t a ton here from a play-calling standpoint. However, it is a run between the tackles, which has been much more successful than stretch runs so far this season. Hopefully this will spur them to call more inside runs.

The execution from three players in particular is noteworthy. First, Olson probably has the best block out of anyone on this play and without him the play doesn’t happen. He’s struggled through five games, but if he can run block like this going forward it will do wonders for Jackson.

Dickerson is an absolute monster as a blocker. He completely stonewalls a six-foot-seven, 250 pound defensive end. Dickerson should be used more in all facets. They should throw him the ball more and just have him in the game more. He might be stronger than some of the offensive lineman. He also has good hands, as he showed against Duke.

Finally, Jackson is still really good in the open field. This isn’t exactly news, but the move he puts on Taylor to bust open the play is just plain mean. That boy good.

Overall, the offense had its best game of the year in a hostile environment and got the win. For an offense that had almost no big plays in 2015, continuing to produce plays like Jackson’s will prove marked offensive improvement as the season progresses. While the team has been more explosive in 2016, Northwestern’s ability to score points will be a critical factor in the team’s upcoming games.