EVANSTON — In a game defined by punts, penalties and generally ugly football for 60 minutes, a moment of sheer overtime brilliance by the best player on the field was enough to give Northwestern a much-needed victory over Iowa on Saturday.
Facing a third and nine on the first possession of OT, the Wildcats were in danger of needing a long field goal attempt to take a 3-point lead and hoping they could hold on.
Clayton Thorson dropped back, found no open receivers down the field and checked down to the all-time leading rusher in Northwestern history. For most running backs, it’s a four-yard gain. Not Justin Jackson.
He made the first man miss with one of his quintessential cuts, broke a tackle for the first down and used another filthy move to get past a third defender and down to the 1-yard line. Thorson would sneak in for the go-ahead touchdown two plays later.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald had the same reaction as the rest of us. “Wow.”
Justin Jackson is unbelievable. The GOAT. pic.twitter.com/UNjmSl4ZTu— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) October 21, 2017
“He’s got the ball in space and he’s just being Justin,” Fitzgerald said. “It looked like just a pure attitude play. He willed his way to get what he got.”
Thorson, who has had the best seat in the house to watch Jackson’s magic for almost three years now, had no doubt in his mind that once his running back got the ball, he was going to make something happen.
“I saw two guys in the open field and I’m like, ‘Oh, they got not chance,’” Thorson said.
It was an incredible play in a career full of them. Jackson grinded out 93 yards on 25 carries and added 38 yards on five catches, the last of which won the game for Northwestern and saved his coach from taking a lot of heat for his decisions.
The reason the Wildcats were even in overtime in the first place is that Pat Fitzgerald elected not to try to win the game at the end of regulation, despite having 90 seconds and a pair of timeouts. Jackson’s effort doesn’t take away from it being a head-scratching choice, but it seems a lot more defensible in hindsight. That’s how it goes in the world of sports; if it works out, you’re a genius, if it doesn’t, you’re an idiot.
“It was the same thing I did at the end of the first half,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going into the wind...I felt like our defense was playing really well. I did not want to punt into that wind. I wanted to play a 25-yard game, and that was the decision that we made.”
But just because the decision worked out, and Jackson’s individual effort secured the victory, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned with the state of the offense. The offensive line, offensive coaching staff, and Thorson, whose collective struggles have been well-documented this season, continue to make it difficult for this team to move the ball and win games.
Fitzgerald praised the O-line for two straight games of improved performance, and with good reason. After allowing a single sack in last week’s road win over Maryland, all three of Iowa’s sacks on Saturday were the result of Thorson holding on to the ball too long. But there were still issues. Jackson had few holes to work with, and three second-half penalties (one false start, two holding) added a few gray hairs to Fitzgerald’s head.
More troubling, though, is the play of Thorson. What does it say about your quarterback’s development when you choose not to give him a shot to drive downfield at the end of either half? The redshirt junior, who had thrown six interceptions in the first three games of conference play, was able to avoid being picked off by the Hawkeyes, although he made a couple throws that were lucky to fall harmlessly to the turf. He averaged just 5.33 yards per attempt on the day and took some bad sacks.
The offense moved the ball at times, but repeatedly stalled out once it got into fringe field goal territory. In regulation, Northwestern had six drives in which it got to at least the Iowa 32 yard-line. Four of those resulted in zero points, with three failed fourth down conversions and a punt.
To Thorson’s credit, he made the second-biggest offensive play of the game when he scrambled for 21 yards to convert a 3rd and 15 that led to the Wildcats’ first touchdown. And although the offense underwhelmed for the second time in as many Big Ten home games, Fitzgerald was quick to point out that his team has gone up against some stingy defenses.
“I’ll go back to what I said on Monday,” Fitzgerald said. “I got asked if Maryland must’ve stunk, that’s why we played well? We played two top-10 teams that have outstanding defenses. [Offensive struggles are] going to happen. I think Iowa played a pretty damn good defense. You’re fighting for every millimeter out there.”
Ultimately, despite lingering problems on the offense, what matters is that Northwestern got it done. It’s a lot more fun to work on things in practice this week after a win than after another disappointing loss.
“It means a lot to get this win going into the back half of the season,” Thorson said. “We needed this one.”
An ugly win is, in fact, a win. In the context of this season, it was a huge one. Northwestern is back to 2-2 in the Big Ten and was able to send the thousands of Hawkeye faithful at Ryan Field home disappointed.
“We always know that it’s going to be a fight with Iowa,” Jackson said. “It was just about us getting the last punch.”