Football: Justin Jackson shines in season-opening loss


Keshia Johnson/The Daily Northwestern

Justin Jackson breaks loose for a 46-yard touchdown. The junior running back scored a career-high three touchdowns in Saturday’s loss to Western Michigan.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Gameday Editor


Although he hadn’t played a game of football since January’s Outback Bowl loss, Justin Jackson looked to be in midseason form.

The junior running back — nicknamed “The Ball Carrier” — stormed out of the gates to start his 2016 campaign, rushing 23 times for 124 yards and a career-high three touchdowns as he moved to fourth on Northwestern’s all-time rushing leaderboard. Adding in two receptions for 47 yards, Jackson accounted for 54 percent of Northwestern’s offensive output from scrimmage.

“He’s always caught the ball pretty darn well,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They were trying to play a lot of man and pack the box, and we were able to take advantage of that.”

Jackson carried the load himself Saturday, as senior backup Warren Long carried the ball just once before exiting the game with a hand injury. Jackson and Long each scored five rushing touchdowns in 2015, with Long often drawing red zone duties. In Long’s absence, Jackson received all the goal line carries.

The Ball Carrier also broke a 46-yard run for a score midway through the third quarter. Though Jackson often found the open field as a sophomore, he usually got caught from behind before he could reach the end zone.

“I think (junior superback Garrett Dickerson) was just pushing the guy, pushing the guy along the sideline,” Jackson said, describing the long run. “The safety fit it wrong and I was just able to cut it back.”

Jackson seemed at his best when the Wildcats needed him most. The running back’s first two carries on NU’s opening drive went for 11 yards, and his fifth punched the ball into the end zone to give the Cats an early 7-0 lead. His subsequent touchdowns each gave NU the advantage back after Western Michigan had pulled ahead.

He rushed twice for 14 yards on the Cats’ final drive of the game, helping NU get down to the six-yard line before sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson fumbled the ball.

Thorson otherwise played well in the passing game, going 15-of-22 for 196 yards and generally showing good pocket presence. If the more mature quarterback can continue to keep NU’s offense balanced, Jackson could be in for an even bigger performance than last year.

His 2015 yardage total of 1,418 yards will be tough to beat, but so far Jackson is on pace for more than 1,600 yards on the ground.

“I don’t expect anything,” Jackson said. “I just go out and play.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BobbyPillote