As the final whistle sounded, Illinois football fans were left in awe as the two-time high school state player of the year guided Glenbard North to a 40-34 victory over Naperville Central. Accounting for 405 yards on 42 carries and five touchdowns, Justin Jackson cemented himself as one of the nation’s best prep players with an emphatic statement in his senior season.
Jackson officially signed to play at Northwestern on National Signing Day in 2014 and became the school’s fifth highest rated recruit to date. Well known in Big 10 circles, Jackson remains a relative unknown to casual college football fans despite being on the verge of becoming one of the ten most productive backs in college football history.
Down after down, game after game, Jackson remains the consistent, productive staple of the Wildcats. Fittingly, his nickname among teammates is “Bread & Butter,” however, a more fitting nickname would be something related to his storied “Big Game” performances (“Big Game J” or “JJ Big Game” or anything else more creative/ less lame would suffice).
Since that game against Naperville Central, Jackson has elevated his game when the lights were the brightest. I have chosen one game from each of the his three seasons at Northwestern to highlight this Wildcat’s progressive trend of achievement.
October 4, 2014 - #17 Wisconsin vs. Northwestern (Freshman Season)
After a Wisconsin missed field goal with 2:53 left in the third quarter, Northwestern turned to freshman running back Justin Jackson. Jackson carried the ball for 14 yards, cutting and fighting for every inch before he was stopped. Jackson was a battling to prove his value and this test against the Badgers, who were the number one ranked total defense in the Big 10 (and fourth nationally for 2014), was the perfect showcase.
Wisconsin entered the game having beaten the Wildcats by a combined score of 105-29 over the last two seasons. Eventual Heisman Trophy runner-up Melvin Gordon finished the game with 259 rushing yards of his eventual season total of 2,587 which are the second most in a single FBS season (he was a STUD). However, this outstanding performance was overshadowed by the fact that Northwestern pulled off the upset and defeated Wisconsin 20-14.
Although the Northwestern defense was gashed on the ground, their defense forced 4 turnovers and held both Wisconsin quarterbacks (Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy) to a combined 41% completion percentage and QBR of 10.25. Jackson rewarded these defensive efforts with a career day as he eclipsed the 100 yard mark for the first time in his career tallying 162 yards on 33 carries. Not bad for a freshman who didn’t even start the game and finished accounting for 80% of his team’s entire rushing total.
Gordon and the Badgers would go on to win the Big 10 West, while the Wildcats would stumble to a disappointing 5-7 record (Northwestern only won 2 of their 7 home games in 2014). The silver lining would be that Justin Jackson had emerged as the team’s star and would finish the 2014 season with 1,187 rushing yards.
However, 5-7 was unacceptable and the Wildcats began 2015 on a mission with an impressive showing in the season opener.
September 5, 2015 - #21 Stanford vs. Northwestern (Sophomore Season)
Stanford has just scored and is within 7 points of the Wildcats with 7:30 minutes left to play in the fourth quarter; the Cardinal are surging. After a big first down by quarterback Clayton Thorson, the Wildcats turned to their workhorse Justin Jackson to bring the game home. Inching closer to field goal position, Jackson ripped off consecutive runs of 5 and 7 yards, before adding 3 more yard to help set up the game-securing field goal and finalizing a 16-6 victory.
The Cardinal would go on to finish the season 11-2, including a Rose Bowl victory over Iowa. Their star running back Christian McCaffrey finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting and set an NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards (including the Rose Bowl). McCaffrey was smothered in this game as he was held to only 171 all-purpose yards, well beneath his eventual season average of 297. The defense was vital, but Jackson’s relentless style is what won the game.
Jackson accounted for 27 of Northwestern’s 54 rushing attempts and accumulated 134 yards on the ground (66 more than McCaffrey). Jackson & company simply wore down the Stanford defense to the point where they struggled to make the most routine tackles. Those aforementioned small bursts that sealed the game stand out because Stanford knew that Jackson was getting the ball and they still could not stop him.
This workhorse attitude would carry throughout the season as Jackson would finish third in the country in carries (312 for 1,418 yards) and led the Wildcats to a 10-3 record and a berth in the Outback Bowl.
An overall successful season, but Jackson and Northwestern had set their sights on a new goal: win a bowl game in 2016. A feat Northwestern had only accomplished twice since the 1948-1949 season.
December 28, 2016 - #23 Pittsburgh vs. Northwestern (Junior Season)
After a disappointing season, including losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State, the Wildcats still found themselves in the Pinstripe Bowl against Pittsburgh. Pitt was a formidable opponent boasting a top 10 run defense and the only team to defeat Clemson in 2016. The Panthers’ run defense only allowed three opponents to gain 100 yards rushing against them. Offensively, the Panthers had real life hero running back James Conner. Conner had overcome cancer on his way to setting an ACC record with 52 career rushing touchdowns. Simply amazing.
The battle of the two premiere backs was quickly derailed due to an unfortunate injury and Conner was unable to play in the second half. He finished the game with 32 yards on 8 carries. However, Justin Jackson’s day was much different.
With just under 8 minutes left in the third quarter, Jackson took a hand-off on third and seven, burst through the line, and juked the soul out of safety Dennis Briggs en route to his third touchdown of the day. Jackson finished the game with 224 yards on 32 carries (3 yards short of Devine Redding’s record set the previous year), 3 touchdowns, and Pinstripe Bowl MVP honors.
The Wildcats won their third bowl game in program history 31-24.
Jackson ended his junior campaign with 298 carries for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns. The uninspired regular season was capped off with historical individual and program performances.
So what does 2017 hold in store for Northwestern and “Johnny Big Game” (Okay, I give up)?
Northwestern returns 16 starters (8 on both sides) and Jackson returns with a chance to finish his career in the top ten all time in rushing (top two in Big 10 history) and the top five all time in carries (top three in Big 10 history).
Northwestern has achieved goal after goal since Jackson and his ‘big game’ mentality have arrived; now is their opportunity to win the Big 10 and for Jackson to cement his collegiate legacy on the BIGgest stage in Indianapolis.