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Inside the Play: Justin Jackson breaks free

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Northwestern lost, but Justin Jackson was still able to assert his dominance

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-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.

This week it’s a little different due to the fact that Zach Pereles already broke down the game’s most crucial play, Clayton Thorson’s goal line fumble, so we’re going to take a look at one of the positives from Northwestern’s disappointing season opener, Justin Jackson. In a game in which Northwestern only had the ball for 20 minutes, Jackson made the most of his limited time, running for 124 yards and scoring 3 touchdowns. Today we’re going to look at the second of those three touchdowns, Jackson’s 46-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

(All Video via ESPN)

It’s good to be back, kind of. While it is exciting that college football is once again upon us, Northwestern didn’t exactly get off to the best start in their quest to prove that last year’s 10-win season wasn’t a fluke.

After an incredible opening drive, Northwestern’s offense was hit-or-miss, and the defense couldn’t get off the field. This led to a back-and forth -ontest with Western Michigan that was ultimately decided when Clayton Thorson fumbled on the one yard line. It wasn’t exactly the best way for Northwestern to start the season, but we’ve spent enough time dwelling on the negatives. One of the few positives for the game was the absolute dominance of Justin Jackson.

Jackson accounted for all three of Northwestern’s scores, with two of the three touchdowns one yard runs. However, the second, and his longest play of the day, came on a third-and-3 just across midfield.

The touchdown was exactly what a reeling Northwestern team needed at the time, and had the Wildcats pulled out the victory, it would probably be the game’s turning point. Unfortunately it was not to be, but Northwestern would have been in real trouble without Jackson. Let’s take a closer look at Northwestern’s longest play of the young season.

The Breakdown

Pre-snap alignments:

For Northwestern, this is about your average 3rd and 3 formation. Two receivers out wide, five lineman and in the shotgun. The only difference is they have two superbacks on the field, Garrett Dickerson (9) and James Prather (44), and they’re both up on the line. This is actually sort of an ingenious formation because it has great blocking potential, but also at least contains the threat of a pass with five possible pass catchers on the field. Western Michigan is in a nickel package with two deep safeties. In such a formation, there are only two linebackers; that will play a key role later.

In terms of how the play is about to happen, the two cornerbacks and the safety on the near side of this shot are essentially removed from the play. That leads to eight Bronco defenders vs. seven Northwestern blockers and Jackson himself.

This play is so beautifully executed from start to finish. As soon as the ball is snapped, Blake Hance (72), Brad North (69) and Tommy Doles (71) release from the line and begin moving in the direction of the play. Connor Mahoney (68), Eric Olson (76) and Prather engage. At this point, WMU defensive end Keion Adams (1) creeps just a bit too far up the field and is out of the play. Also mildly important is that safety Justin Tranquill on the near side begins moving away from the play. This makes it so he isn’t a factor later on.

Around a second later, Mahoney has done his best to ruin the play by basically not blocking his man, Andre Turner (5), and allowing him into the backfield. Luckily Jackson is fast enough, and a has as a good enough angle to outrun Turner. Mahoney manages to make up for it a bit by slowing down linebacker Caleb Bailey further up the field. There are now three Western Michigan defenders who have a shot to make the play: Obbie Jackson (24), linebacker Asantay Brown (6) and Northwestern fan favorite defensive back Davontae Ginwright (26). (Side note: exactly zero people fell for that Clayton Thorson fake.)

Now just a half a second later, the number of players available to make a play has been reduced to two: Asantay Brown or Devontae Ginwright. Jackson is being blocked by Dickerson and here’s how that matchup looks on paper. Dickerson is listed at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds and is an absolute beast when he gets moving. Jackson is listed 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds. HE’S LISTED AT 155 POUNDS. Have fun dealing with Garrett Dickerson. So WMU’s Jackson is forcibly removed from the play as Dickerson pushes him to the far sideline.

Next up is Brown who is taken out by a beautiful block from Tommy Doles. This is the block that essentially springs Jackson. Dickerson continues to bully Jackson towards the sideline and with Brown heading to the grass, suddenly the hole is open and Jackson begins to turn up field. The only who has any chance to make a play is Ginwright, and he’s already made a fatal error. (In the picture below, Ginwright is the one with his left foot on the first-down line.)

That gap that Jackson is running through is Ginwright’s responsibility, but he overpursued the play. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the play to come to him, he moved down to take away the run to the outside of Dickerson, which is fine, but only if Brown doesn’t get blocked by Doles. Suddenly there’s a huge hole, and no one up the field. At this point pictured above, the play is basically over.

Ginwright frantically tries to turn around, but his momentum was already taking him the other direction, and the human body can only switch directions so quickly. Jackson blows by him as he falls down, and it’s off to the races.

Jackson out races everyone to the endzone, although remember safety Justin Tranquill? He is able to catch up to Jackson a bit, but since he moved in the other direction way back as the play began, he doesn’t have a good angle and isn’t able to fully catch up. Jackson is in for his second TD of the game, and for the moment Northwestern leads.

The Takeaways

The first takeaway from this play is that Justin Jackson looks noticeably faster this season. It’s not that he was slow in 2015—it’s just that he’s even faster now. He had a couple long runs last year where he was run down from behind. Beyond that, this is what Jackson can do when the playcalling and blocking all come together perfectly. At no point does Jackson have to make someone miss during this play, and it shows. He’s running full speed straight ahead once he turns the corner.

The two players who should get the most credit for this play are Dickerson and Doles. This play was actually the reason Doles won Big Play Offensive player of the week from Pat Fitzgerald. His block combined with Dickerson’s is what opened the hole for Jackson.

From a playcalling standpoint, more stretch and off-tackle runs are welcome. Of course, not all of them are going to be executed this perfectly, but the offensive line doesn’t have the physicality to run it up the gut—or at least it didn’t in Week 1. They don’t get enough push off the line. With runs to the outside, finesse and speed is needed, and that’s a strong-suit of Northwestern’s current line. If the playcalling can adapt to the line play, there’s no telling what Justin Jackson might be able to do.