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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the running backs

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We’re gonna miss you, Justin Jackson.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2017 season with a Music City Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the 10-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2018. Next up are the running backs.

For the fourth consecutive season, Northwestern enjoyed an exemplary performance from its running backs. Of course, the Wildcats’ bellcow was Justin Jackson, who wrapped up a historic career at Northwestern with another great season. Jackson jump-cutted his way to a fourth-consecutive 1000-yard season, while figuring heavily into the passing game as Northwestern’s third-most prominent pass-catcher.

He also etched his name into Northwestern and Big Ten record books. Jackson ends his career as Northwestern’s all-time leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Most impressively, he finished his career with 5,440 rushing yards, which is the third-highest total among Big Ten running backs EVER. Ahead of Jackson are Ron Dayne and Archie Griffin, who share three Heisman trophies among them.

Player grades

Justin Jackson: A+

Stats: 287 carries for 1311 yards (4.6 ypc), 11 touchdowns, seven 100+ yard games, 44 receptions for 276 yards

Seriously, what more is there to say about Justin Jackson? It might just be enough to say JJBC always got the job done. After three straight outstanding seasons, Jackson’s production didn’t waver at all in his final lap as a Wildcat. Handing Jackson an “A” is an easy decision that I hope I don’t really have to justify. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the Ball Carrier’s best moments of 2017.

The first five games of the season were a little slow for Jackson. He managed to surpass the 100-yard mark twice, against Nevada and Bowling Green, but managed only 339 yards on 80 carries as Northwestern sputtered to a 2-3 start.

Jackson’s season began to turn around against Maryland. He broke the Northwestern rushing record in the first quarter and showed great patience and elusiveness on his way to 171 yards and 2 touchdowns. A multi-faceted man, Jackson also showed off his bilingual abilities on ESPN, ripping off some huge runs while translating football terms from English to French.

Jackson’s signature moment of the 2017 season came the next week against Iowa. His stats for the day were modest enough (25 carries for 93 yards) but like always, when it mattered the most, Jackson made the play. Tied 10-10 with the Hawkeyes in overtime, Northwestern faced a 3rd and 9. Clayton Thorson checked down to Jackson seven yards short of the sticks, and you know what happened next.

Two plays later, Thorson dove into the end zone for a touchdown. Four plays after that, Noah Fant dropped a fourth down pass from Nathan Stanley and the Wildcats were 4-3.

From then on, it seemed like Jackson was tying or breaking a record every week. He got loose for 154 yards in an overtime win over Nebraska and broke Damien Anderson’s rushing touchdown record with this score in the first quarter.

Two weeks later against Minnesota, Jackson surpassed the 5,000-yard mark for his career and the 1,000-yard mark for the fourth time in his career. He joined Ron Dayne as the only two Big Ten running backs to hit the millennium mark in all four seasons of their college career.

Jackson scampered for a career-long 79-yard run in a 42-7 beatdown of Illinois and delivered another vintage bowl game performance with 157 yards and 2 touchdowns as Northwestern surged to victory after losing Clayton Thorson to an ACL injury.

All in all, Jackson rushed for 975 yards and 7 touchdowns during Northwestern’s eight-game winning streak to end the season. He finishes his career as the most prolific Northwestern rusher of all time, and he goes toe-to-toe with some of the greatest Big Ten running backs ever. Whatever the future holds for Jackson, his talent is undeniable and his value to the Northwestern football program over the past four years cannot be understated.

Jeremy Larkin: B+

Stats: 84 carries for 503 yards (6.0 ypc), 5 touchdowns, 11 receptions for 115 yards

One of the pleasant surprises as the season progressed was the emergence of Jeremy Larkin. The redshirt freshman overtook John Moten IV for the role of backup running back early in the season and seemed to get better each week. In Northwestern’s final five games, Larkin managed 329 yards on 7.6 yards per carry and three touchdowns. Larkin showed impressive potential on this 24-yard run against Nebraska.

It’s clear that Larkin learned a lot from Jackson; he might not be able to jump-cut as ruthlessly as Jackson can, but Larkin emulates his elder in his patience, vision, and nose for contact. In the Music City Bowl, Larkin delivered a career-performance with 112 yards on the ground, including a 64-yard scamper that set up Northwestern inside the 10-yard line in the fourth quarter.

Looking ahead to 2018

Larkin should assume a Jackson-like workload for 2018, and might see even more carries if the Wildcats have a new signal-caller under center. Backing up Larkin will be Moten IV and sophomore Jesse Brown, with true freshmen Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson waiting in the wings. After a breakout 2016 season, Moten IV struggled this season, only managing 3.2 yards per carry on 17 attempts. Brown only carried the ball nine times, but averaged 7.1 yards per attempt and scored twice.

With his strong finish to the season, Larkin undoubtedly assuaged the anxieties of Northwestern fans worried about Jackson’s departure. It would be unreasonable to expect a career like Jackson’s from Larkin, but Northwestern’s backfield looks to be in good shape going forward. WE’LL MISS YOU, JUSTIN.