In 2014, reeling from an a 0-2 start, Northwestern turned to a 5-foot-11, 185-pound true freshman running back with the hope that he could provide a spark. He handled 21 carries for 92 yards and added his second career touchdown as Northwestern won 24-7 over Western Illinois.
Little did anyone know that that game would signal the beginning of one of the greatest careers in Northwestern backfield history.
The Justin Jackson era arrived just a few months after the the former four-star recruit traded his graduation cap for a purple helmet, making the short trip from Carol Stream, Illinois, to Evanston.
When Northwestern experienced dazzling highs — an upset of Wisconsin at Ryan Field and an unforgettable win over Notre Dame in South Bend — and gut-wrenching lows — a Trevor Siemian-less loss to Illinois to miss out on bowl eligibility and the dramatic saga of the unionization effort — Justin Jackson was there. He broke lose for 166 yards in that victory over Wisconsin, a game that put Northwestern in the national spotlight, if for just a fleeting moment. The Wildcats would go on to lose four straight, then win two straight (including one over the Irish) to rekindle bowl hopes before that loss to the Illini ended the campaign. But Jackson was just getting started.
After a season that ended with more questions than answers, Jackson, by then the team’s unquestioned workhorse back, shone through as one of a handful of bright spots. He passed the century mark in six of the final eight games and finished with 1,187 yards, second most for a freshman in program history. More importantly, he was a sign of stability for a program that distinctly lacked just that in the two years following the 2012 Gator Bowl triumph.
In 2015, things changed. A new quarterback arrived on the scene, bringing with him the promise of size, speed and a big arm at the helm of the offense. A middle linebacker turned into an All-American, heading a defense that was one of the best units in the country. The Wildcats beat Stanford, Nebraska, Wisconsin and seven others to turn in double-digit wins.
And in the middle of it all, there was Jackson, shouldering an almost inconceivably large load for one of the worst passing attacks in the nation. With 312 carries for 1,418 yards, Jackson accounted for over a third of the team’s total offense. He had eight 100-yard games and Northwestern lost every time he failed to reach that mark. With the boxes stacked against him and an inconsistent-at-best offensive line, he constantly turned negative plays into short gains and short gains into medium ones. A quiet yet steady presence, Jackson was one of the nation’s best backs as a sophomore.
Then came 2016 and all its promise and ultimate inconsistency. There were struggles. There were successes. There was a loss to an FCS school and a Biletnikoff Award finalist receiver. There was a bowl game clinched. And just like 2015, there was Jackson delivering through it all, even as Clayton Thorson set the school record for touchdown passes and Austin Carr turned into the conference’s best receiver by a mile.
A 6-6 record certainly wasn’t what Northwestern had in mind. Not with so many of its parts back. But a 6-6 record and one of the bowl season’s most difficult matchups was what it got.
During Northwestern’s 31-24 Pinstripe Bowl victory, 2016 Northwestern looked a heck of a lot like its 2015 self. Jackson got 32 carries, reminiscent of his huge workload in the previous season.
Pittsburgh, one of the top run-stopping teams in the nation, could not do that whatsoever. Going against a unit that allowed 108 rushing yards per game, Jackson had 149 at halftime. He finished with a career-high 224. He scored three touchdowns. On one of them, he made a Pitt defender look absolutely silly, something he has made a habit of doing with an arsenal of moves that includes lightning-quick jump cuts, powerful stiff arms and spin moves that would make a washing machine jealous.
But to look at just the big highlight plays wouldn’t do Jackson justice. In addition, look at the multiple third-and-long runs he either converted on or made people miss to set up fourth-and-short. On the fourth-quarter drive in which Northwestern took a lead it wouldn’t relinquish, Jackson took a 3rd-and-9 handoff six yards, all of which came after contact, to set up a short fourth down that Thorson converted to Macan Wilson. People might remember Wilson’s catch. They will certainly remember the fourth-and-one touchdown to Garrett Dickerson. But it was Jackson whose relentless work gave Northwestern a manageable do-or-die situation rather than an extremely difficult one.
“I think just brutally consistent,” Pat Fitzgerald said when asked about his junior running back. “He's got a brutality about his game. He's tough. The pile always goes forward. He can make you miss in space. I mean, he's got some unbelievable ankle-breaking rules out there. He's just incredibly consistent.”
In the press conference following the game, Jackson, who, barring injury, will become Northwestern’s all-time leading rusher next season, was asked about his future, perhaps hinting at a early move pro. A smile came to his face: “You know, you don't come here and not get a degree, so... I'll leave that at that.”
Fitzgerald hopped in: “He just asked you that? There's no way. There's no way. Your dad would kill you, man. I'm not dealing with that.”
Quiet is the perfect way to describe Jackson. He’s one of the most personable humans you’ll ever meet. He repeatedly and incessantly deflects praise to his teammates when asked about his accomplishments on the field. It’s as if he doesn’t know how good he is. “Oh man,” he sheepishly replied, feigning disappointment when told he missed the Pinstripe Bowl rushing record by 1 yard, hiding an ear-to-ear grin in his hands.
When the confetti had settled and the Wildcats had embraced on the Yankee Stadium turf and Fitzgerald had raised the George M. Steinbrenner Trophy over his head, Jackson quietly — almost timidly — collected his well-deserved MVP award, right in the middle of it all but certainly not at the forefront, just like always.
It’s hard to overstate what Jackson has meant to this program over the past three years. Perhaps a dominant performance on a national stage will helps shed light on his excellence. His head coach summed it up perfectly.
“He’s meant everything.”
Perhaps it’s been a quiet everything, if such a thing exists. But he’s been everything nonetheless, and Northwestern wouldn’t be here without him.