Northwestern’s tumultuous 2016 season was highlighted by the emergence of an aerial threat. Clayton Thorson finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing, tying the Northwestern single-season record with 21 touchdowns. Austin Carr, a Biletnikoff Award finalist, brought life to a receiving corps that struggled mightily in nearly every facet of the game last season.
Saturday, however, was a glimpse of Pat Fitzgerald football – “Three yards and a cloud of dust” as he likes to call it. Fitzgerald turned to his workhorse running back Justin Jackson, and his ever-talented, still-developing counterpart John Moten IV, to shoulder the load in a 42-21 thrashing of in-state rival Illinois.
For a team that started its season with losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State, this was the perfect ending. Northwestern cruised to an easy victory and has developed a two-headed rushing attack just in time for what will be its 13th bowl appearance in program history.
“You take a look at the amount of season-ending injuries we had, it presented unique problems,” Fitzgerald said postgame. “We didn’t show a lot of grit, or mental or physical toughness. We had to get that fixed. Credit goes to the young men, they’re the ones who responded and led us through some tough times.”
It was injuries, specifically to running backs Warren Long and Auston Anderson, that gave Moten IV, a redshirt freshman, his opportunity. He notched his first double-digit carry game against Purdue, eclipsing the 100-yard mark on just 16 carries. On Saturday, he found the end zone for the first time — not once, but twice.
Moten IV’s first touchdown run came from 9 yards out to put Northwestern up 7-0.
The second one, however, was the home-run, a 43-yard scamper down the sideline where he showcased the speed that won him a Missouri high school state championship in the 100-meter dash. Moten IV broke away from the secondary nearly untouched for the touchdown, capping a 92-yard drive. Moten IV had 68 of those yards on just three carries.
Star linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. stepped in on the press conference to ask Moten IV how he felt on the run.
“It was an experience like no other,” Moten IV responded coolly. “A great feeling.”
“[Moten IV]’s a guy who is developing, he reminds me a lot of Justin,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a young player with a lot of room for growth. He’s becoming a complete back, we had a pretty good 1-2 punch with those guys today.”
While Moten’s late-season surge has been encouraging, we can’t forget the man who’s been doing this to Big Ten defenses for three full seasons: Justin Jackson.
Jackson watched from the sideline as his counterpart, Moten IV, put the Wildcats up 14-0. Late in the first quarter, the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher got on the scoreboard himself, punching it in from 3 yards out. His most impressive run of the day, though, came early in the second half following an Illinois turnover. Jackson waited patiently for his blocks to develop on the edge, using his vision and eventually his speed to turn what seemed like a loss into a 54-yard touchdown run.
“It goes to show his durability, his toughness, and his consistency,” Fitzgerald glowed of his star running back. “When you think of our program, Justin Jackson is the guy on Mount Rushmore. He shows up every day ready to go, he’s got a great focus, he loves this place, he’s a joy to have around. I’m fired up to have him around another year.”
What more can be said about the junior running back? He’s a true workhorse: The only two running backs to have more touches than his 322 last season were Heisman finalists Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey. At 5-foot-11, 193 pounds, Jackson’s build does not necessarily embody one of durability.
The numbers say otherwise. Jackson ran into Northwestern record books on Saturday, passing Darnell Autry and Tyrell Sutton on the program’s all-time rushing list. The Big Ten’s leading rusher with 1,300 yards, Jackson is only a junior. With a bowl game remaining this season, he has a great chance to become Northwestern’s all-time rushing leader. He trails Damien Anderson by fewer than 500 yards.
“It’s pretty cool, there have obviously been some great running backs to come through here,” Jackson said. “It’s just cool, I’m glad we could get a win on a day like this.”
Jackson would finish with 173 yards and three scores on 21 carries, Moten IV had 128 yards and two scores on 14 carries.
When asked why Northwestern decided to turn to the run game in favor of the pass-heavy one we had seen at times this season, Fitzgerald responded coyly.
With a backfield this talented and still quite young, it could lead to many more wins in the future.