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Northwestern football season in review: Running back grades

Justin Jackson turned in his best season yet, and John Moten IV burst onto the scene.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

With the season in the rearview, it’s time to assess how Northwestern’s individuals performed this season. All classes are according to the 2016 season. Next up are the running backs, quite possibly the team’s best position group this past season.

Justin Jackson (junior): A

Stats: 1524 yards rushing on 298 carries (5.1 yards per attempt), 15 rushing touchdowns; 35 receptions, 219 yards receiving

The ball carrier didn’t always get as much attention as Austin Carr did this season, but there’s a real case for Jackson being the team’s 2016 MVP.

His rushing yards increased from the 2015 season, but on fewer carries. He also tripled his 2015 touchdown output and became a bigger part of the passing game in 2016.

Jackson’s importance to the Wildcats cannot be understated.

When Northwestern sat at 1-3 and needed a spark, Jackson delivered. His performances in Iowa City (171 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries) and East Lansing (188 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries) were nothing short of heroic, and helped the Wildcats to two huge wins that proved to be paramount to their bowl aspirations.

When Northwestern needed to win its regular season finale to guarantee bowl eligibility, Jackson delivered again, with 171 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries to ensure a ‘rivalry’ win over Illinois.

And when Northwestern took on a ranked Pittsburgh team in Yankee Stadium, Jackson had his best game in a Northwestern uniform to date, posting a career-high 224 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries and winning the Pinstripe Bowl MVP. He put the team on his back with ankle-shattering jukes in a performance that will likely live on in Northwestern football lore.

He had his down games, specifically against Illinois State and Wisconsin (he rushed for 42 yards in both games), but a large part of those yardage totals was a product of having fend off defenders in his own backfield play after play. The offense had to abandon the run in both games, simply because there was nowhere to go.

For the most part, though, Jackson was a rock on a team that was wildly inconsistent over the course of the season.

Jackson’s 2016 season is good for third all-time on Northwestern’s single-season rushing list. Also, Jackson moved into second place on the Northwestern all-time rushing list, a list he should sit atop just a few games into senior season in 2017 assuming he stays healthy; he trails Damien Anderson by just 356 yards for the top spot.

Jackson is a special talent, though he’ll never tell you that. He’s always there, and it doesn’t seem to matter how many carries he gets. He runs for the tough yards between the tackles, and has a special patience to his running style. He waits for holes to develop and follow his linemen extremely well. Although his top-end speed isn’t elite, his quickness is, which allows him to hit a home-run every so often. And good luck tackling him one-on-one in space.

Pat Fitzgerald has to be ecstatic to get Jackson back next season. If Northwestern is to make a run at the Big Ten West next year, it will have to be — to a major degree — on the ball carrier’s shoulders.

John Moten IV (freshman): B+

Stats: 340 yards rushing on 57 carries (6 yards per attempt), two rushing touchdowns; three receptions, 44 yards

Moten IV began the season third on the depth chart, but a Warren Long season-ending injury in the season opener thrust the speedy freshman into the backup spot.

Because Jackson got so much work, Moten IV only carried the ball 32 times in his first seven games he appeared in (he did not appear in the Western Michigan or Wisconsin games).

But Moten IV got his opportunities, and proved his worth in the Purdue game, in which he carried the ball 16 times for 119 yards. As Jackson sustained some bumps and bruises, Moten IV was a very good backup.

He continued that success against Illinois on the final day of the regular season, when he rushed for 128 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.

Both of the young back’s big performances came in blowouts against Big Ten cellar-dwellers, but they were big performances nonetheless. He has the speed to break big plays, and should be a part of the screen game in years to come.

With Jackson still in Evanston, Moten IV figures to be in a third-down back type role, though he may have to compete with Long — who will likely obtain a medical hardship redshirt for this season — for the backup spot.

The battle between Moten IV and Long (assuming Long gets the redshirt) will be one of the most interesting battles heading into next season. Moten IV’s emergence gives Northwestern one of the Big Ten’s strongest offensive backfields heading into 2017.

Overall grade: A