It’s fitting that Justin Jackson — soon to be the most individually decorated offensive player on Northwestern's team — will assume that mantle against the depleted Maryland Terrapins. At 2:30 p.m. CT. On ESPN2. In front of a likely three-quarters full Maryland Stadium (if that). Hooray.
For Jackson, achieving great things out of the spotlight is nothing new. He plays for Northwestern, after all. No one cares that he gets astronomical numbers with an offensive line that barely blocks for him. Very few people notice when he makes the most beautiful cuts you’ll ever see on a football field.
But that’s totally unfair, just like it’s totally unfair that he will break the record at a pseudo-Big Ten football stadium. But the unfairness of the situation, in a strange way, fits Jackson’s unheralded and unappreciated greatness. While it’s disappointing for Wildcat fans that he couldn’t break the record at home, it didn’t really matter to Jackson.
“Most disappointing thing is that we didn’t come out with the win,” he said on Wednesday. “It is what it is, you just gotta go out there and play.”
For the entire season, since Big Ten Media Days, breaking the all-time rushing record has paled in comparison to winning football games for Jackson. That’s just his style, to quietly produce more than any Northwestern running back without ever drawing attention to himself. That understated production has always been Jackson’s forte. Even his durable, no-frills running style matches that demeanor.
“I’ve learned over the years how to take contact,” Jackson said when asked how he’d stayed healthy for so long. “I’m just working every single day to try to stay healthy.”
Jackson is going to end his career in the top 20 for plays from scrimmage for any player, in the history of college football. These are the final seven (hopefully eight) games for one of the most productive backs in college football history, and yet, as always, no one outside of Evanston seems to care. Jackson has never been to a Rose Bowl or a Big Ten Championship Game. With Northwestern’s 2-3 start, that’s not changing in 2017. His best opportunity to show his skills to the country was an early afternoon kickoff in the Outback Bowl. Then, Northwestern went and lost that game 45-6. It’s tragic, but it’s also strangely fitting.
Justin Jackson came to Northwestern as a four-star recruit. It’s easy for any highly-rated recruit to expect to play right away, especially at a non-powerhouse school. It’s easy to buy into the hype and think a starting role is one’s birthright. For Jackson, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. When we asked him if he had any lofty goals when he arrived at Northwestern, he said: “Not really. I was just coming in, trying to get on the field.”
He got on the field almost immediately, and has since had a legendary Northwestern career. For Jackson personally, it really doesn’t matter where he breaks the record or if he breaks the record at all. All that matters is winning games. That may sound like manufactured Northwestern athlete PR-speak, but having heard him say it, repeatedly, for two and a half months, there’s no doubt that he means it.
But for me, there’s going to be a pang of sadness when Jackson avoids four defenders and lunges for a 4-yard gain to get the record in a dreary Maryland Stadium. The commentators will make note of the feat, give a few comments, and then move on to the next play. That’s not how any Northwestern fan wanted this to happen. If Northwestern’s offensive line was just a bit better (and Jackson a tad healthier) against Wisconsin, he could’ve broken the record in a packed Camp Randall. Heck, if Northwestern had been somewhat competent on offense last week, Jackson could have seized the record at Ryan Field. We would have gotten one deafening “JUSTIN JACKSON THE BALLCARRIER!” from the entire crowd. Northwestern Wildside even had “THE BALLCARRIER” t-shirts ready to commemorate the occasion. It would’ve been a Hollywood moment for a player who has never gotten one. And then that game happened.
Even though he doesn’t think any of this necessary, it still has me bummed.