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Inside The Play: Justin Jackson stops Illinois’ comeback attempt

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Justin Jackson had a career day against Illinois, but one TD was better than the rest.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-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.

It’s been an up-and-down season, but at the end of it all, Northwestern is still going bowling! The Wildcats managed to get their sixth win in fairly convincing fashion against Illinois, primarily because of the dominance of the rushing attack. John Moten IV had a career day and Justin Jackson had one of the best performances of the season en route to a 42-21 victory over Illinois. Jackson had three TDs on the day, but right now we’re going to look at the longest of the three: Jackson’s 54-yard TD run.

(All video via BTN)

The 2016 Northwestern football season was weird.

It’s not often that a team has a moment where it looks like its going 2-10 and where it looks like it might win its division in the same season, but that’s what Northwestern managed to do this year. Northwestern managed to lose to an FCS team and almost beat the current No. 2 team in the country on the road just a month and a half apart.

Due to the ups and down, Northwestern found itself at 5-6 heading into its rivalry game with Illinois, in need of a win to clinch a bowl berth.

Despite becoming increasingly pass-heavy throughout this season, Northwestern relied on its running backs to defeat the Illini. Justin Jackson had 173 yards and 3 touchdowns and redshirt freshman John Moten IV even had 128 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Wildcats took an early 21-0 lead, but saw it trimmed to 21-14 by halftime.

It looked like Illinois would come all the way back with the Illini forcing a three-and-out and then driving deep into NU territory. But Anthony Walker forced an Illinois fumble in the redzone to stop the potential Illini scoring drive.

Then three plays later, this happened:

Jackson waited for a few seconds, let his blocks developed and then burst through for the long TD. The touchdown gave Northwestern a two score lead and went a long way to easing the tension that had been creeping up to that point.

Let’s take a closer look.

The Breakdown

Pre-snap alignments:

Fairly base formations on both sides here. Northwestern is in one of its most common offensive sets, the shotgun with three wide and Garrett Dickerson on the line. Illinois is in a base 4-3 nickel set, with two linebackers. The only difference is that there is only one deep safety; the other safety comes down into the box at the snap.

Here’s what Jackson would have seen right when he got the ball. There’s nothing particularly impressive here, other than the fact that Northwestern at least matches up well with Illinois numbers wise. Brad North (No. 69) pulls immediately, and Tommy Doles (No. 71) is quick to follow. This is the same stretch play that is a staple of Northwestern’s offense.

At this point, it’s three seconds in and the play is still developing, but we’re beginning to see the formation of something. Right off the bat, everyone actually set the block they needed to. Dickerson takes out the safety, and the lineman are either blocked or taken out by the flow of the play. One linebacker comes up too close and gets cut off from the play. Leaving linebacker Tré Watson (No. 33) as the only player with a better chance of making a play here.

Yes, this play somehow turned into a TD. The entire play bunches up and it appears as if Jackson is just going to have to cut back right into the arms of Watson or one of the defensive linemen.

Except Jackson doesn’t do that and instead waits it out behind his lineman, and for that’s he’s greatly rewarded. Blake Hance (No. 72) and North manage to push one defender towards the sideline while Doles finally engages in a block and pushes his man back towards the middle of the field. This opens up a huge hole of Jackson. Watson is now out of position because he naturally thought that Jackson was about to cut back, so he came down to make a play. He spent most of the start of the play making sure he didn’t get out of position, but then guessed wrong when he actually made a move.

Jackson hits the hole and not only is Watson out of position, but safety Darwyn Kelly has overextended and is now unable to make a play as well. The only hope are the two cornerbacks farther down the field running with their wide receivers.

So, they don’t do a great job of being the last defense. One cornerback takes a terrible angle to the ball carrier and misses a flailing tackle attempt, while the other is being blocked by Austin Carr.

He still has a shot at Jackson, but stumbles and Jackson just outruns him. At this point there’s no one in front of Jackson, but Jaylen Dunlap (No. 1) is quickly gaining on him. He manages to avoid him by moving towards the sideline and finally...

...diving into the endzone for the touchdown.

Takeaways

Before we talk about anything else, I think it’s important to admit that Illinois’ defense ranking, according to S&P+, is 72nd in the nation. So whatever did happen on this play, some of it can be attributed to the fact that Illinois’ defense just isn’t very good. Throughout this year, Northwestern’s offense dominated bad defenses and wasn’t great against good defenses. That didn’t change on Saturday.

That being said, the ‘revival’ of the rushing attack in this game was nice to see. Over the past five games, Justin Jackson has only eclipsed 100 rushing yards once (127 against Purdue). It’s not that he’s having a bad year — quite the contrary — it’s just that the rushing attack has taken a bit of back seat to the passing attack. The script was totally flipped in this game, though. Hopefully this means that Northwestern will have a more balanced offense for the bowl game.

Also the offensive line showed that they can still run block, even if it was not great at pass blocking. The group had more plays than just this one where they set all the necessary blocks and sprung the running back (either Jackson or Moten) for a big gain. This is the ultimate takeaway from this play, we know that Jackson is a great running back, but the blocking is what made the play and we haven’t said that often this year.

Northwestern will just have to hope that the line can stand up to whatever opponent it has to face in the bowl game, or it’ll be in trouble.