Football: Freshman running backs make the difference for Northwestern

Running back Justin Jackson scampers past a Western Illinois defender. The true freshman bore the brunt of the rushing workload, toting the ball 21 times for 92 yards.

Luke Vogelzang/The Daily Northwestern

Running back Justin Jackson scampers past a Western Illinois defender. The true freshman bore the brunt of the rushing workload, toting the ball 21 times for 92 yards.

Alex Putterman, Sports Editor

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Before Saturday’s game, the Northwestern class of 2018 ran across the field in an annual Wildcat Welcome tradition. Once the game began, a pair of freshmen didn’t stop running.

Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault combined for 123 yards and three touchdowns Saturday, carrying the Wildcats to a 24-7 victory over Western Illinois at Ryan Field.

Vault was the star early on, accounting for both of NU’s first half touchdowns. The 17-year-old freshman scored from a yard out on the Cats’ opening drive and scampered 11 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter.

The 5-foot-10, 190-pound back seemed an unlikely candidate to get the ball by the goal line, but he seized the opportunity.

“I was surprised,” Vault said. “But my number was called, and I had to execute.”

Jackson, meanwhile, accumulated 92 yards on 21 carries, 15 of them in the second half. The Carol Stream, Illinois native grabbed the bulk of NU’s carries as the game progressed, as starter Treyvon Green carried only twice after halftime and eight times total.

In total, Vault and Jackson got 27 of NU’s 41 carries.

“We’ve got great trust in them,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “But as a freshman you’re learning and growing. We want to make sure we bring them along at a pace that’s fair to them and we don’t put too much on them.”

The highlight of Jackson’s big game came with just under 10 minutes to play in the third quarter, when he shot through a gap, dodged past a defender and dashed 21 yards to the end zone.

“The corner came hard off the edge,” Jackson recalled postgame, “so I cut up off our superback. I saw the free safety or maybe the (weakside linebacker) coming hard over the top, so I cut back underneath him and there was green grass in front of me.”

Fitzgerald wouldn’t discuss how carries will be divided in future weeks but said the freshmen have proved capable of handling a bigger workload.

The strong performances from Jackson and Vault capped a hectic week, during which they shuffled between football responsibilities and the Wildcat Welcome programming the rest of their class participated in.

Vault and Jackson both said they are increasingly friendly off the field and supportive of each other on it.

“We have to be there for each other,” Vault said. “Freshmen have to be there for each other. When he does good, I get happy, and when I do good he’s the first one there on the sidelines.”

Or, as Jackson said, “It’s really awesome when someone else scores and you’re just as excited as when you score.”

Email: asputt@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @AlexPutt02 
 
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