Football: Curtain closes in style for Northwestern’s Justin Jackson show


Lauren Duquette/Daily Senior Staffer

Justin Jackson carries the ball. The senior running back picked up 157 yards in Northwestern’s Music City Bowl win.

Max Gelman, Reporter


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For one last time, Justin Jackson treated fans to a show.

The senior running back put the cherry on top of an illustrious career in Northwestern’s 24-23 win over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl on Friday, piling up 157 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. Jackson, who earned bowl MVP honors for the second straight year, finished his four years at NU with program records in rush yards (5,440), touchdowns (42) and total yards from scrimmage (6,298).

The normally stoic Jackson opened up about some of the bittersweet emotions of his final college game.

“All things come to an end,” Jackson said. “I think back to, really, a lot of stuff off the field with these guys, which is really the best part. Like everyone says, we’re never going to have this brotherhood ever again.”

Though NU’s gameplan generally involves a heavy dose of “The Ball Carrier,” the Cats were forced to lean on Jackson a little more than usual. Junior quarterback Clayton Thorson left with a leg injury early in the second quarter, so Jackson spearheaded NU’s rushing game to 333 yards on 56 attempts.

Jackson closed his final season strong, exceeding 144 rushing yards in four of NU’s final five games. Coach Pat Fitzgerald reiterated his belief that Jackson is a “once-in-a-coaching-career” talent, adding “You can’t replace Justin, he’s an irreplaceable player.”

Against Kentucky, it didn’t seem to matter who handed the ball to Jackson — or even redshirt freshman running back Jeremy Larkin, Jackson’s heir apparent. Larkin totaled 112 yards on nine carries, including a 64-yard scamper to Kentucky’s 11-yard line.

“Early in the year we’d be in practice and I’d tell Justin, ‘You’d better get a lot of yards, (Larkin’s) coming for you,’” Fitzgerald said. “To see the way that he played today, now that Justin is retired as a Wildcat…the guys will be excited based on what they saw.”

Larkin finished 2017 with 503 rushing yards and 618 yards from scrimmage.

It seems no coincidence that Jackson’s career coincided with arguably the best stretch of football in Northwestern history. Two of NU’s five 10-win seasons have come while Jackson suited up, and the 32 wins in Jackson’s four seasons represent the winningest four-year stretch since 1902-1905.

Reflecting on the past four years, Jackson pointed to his senior class’ mark on future Wildcats rather than his numbers in the box scores.

“What I’m most proud of is just the culture that we built in our program and our community, and I think we leave Northwestern in such a better place than when we came in,” Jackson said. “That’s just credit to the guys in the locker room, and our coaches and the belief that we’ve had in each other and the brotherhood that we built. It’s an honor to have been a Northwestern Wildcat.”

Jackson will likely enter next year’s NFL Draft, now that he’s finished his college career. But before moving on from NU, Jackson will enjoy one last win.

“I promise that we’re going to go straight to the bar,” Jackson said, laughing.

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