Justin Jackson was a workhorse in his first two games against the University of Wisconsin football team.
That wasn’t the case last season, when the Northwestern tailback was essentially a non-factor in the Wildcats’ 21-7 home loss to the Badgers.
Afterward, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald praised UW’s defense.
“They forced us to be one-dimensional,” Fitzgerald said after Jackson was held to 42 yards on 13 carries “and we weren’t able to get it done.”
The Wildcats — who open the Big Ten Conference season against the No. 10 Badgers Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium — came out firing against UW last season, attempting passes on each of their five plays on the opening series. Jackson touched the ball only once in Northwestern’s first 10 plays and finished with his second-lowest number of carries on the season.
How one dimensional was Northwestern that day? Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson attempted 52 passes — still a career high — even though the game was within reach until Corey Clement gave UW a 14-point lead with a 2-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter.
“For us to have success, we’ve got to be able to run the football,” Fitzgerald said during the Big Ten coaches teleconference Tuesday. “Over my time here, when we’ve been able to establish the run and have balance, we’ve been successful more times than not.”
Jackson has gone over the 100-yard mark 22 times in his career, and the Wildcats are 18-4 in those games.
Two of those wins came against the Badgers. Jackson had 33 carries for 162 yards as a freshman in a 20-14 win in Evanston in 2014 and 139 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries in a 13-7 win in Madison the following season.
“Really good back,” UW junior safety D’Cota Dixon said. “Probably one of the best we’ll face all year. He’s a tough runner, he’s patient, he’s explosive off cuts.”
Jackson, a senior, is the only player in Northwestern history to record three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and is at 4,377 yards for his career to go along with 35 total touchdowns. Yet, UW junior linebacker T.J. Edwards agreed earlier this week that Jackson still flies below the radar despite that production.
“I think so,” Edwards said. “All the talk is about (Penn State’s) Saquon Barkley and guys like that, but I think (Jackson is) one of the best backs in the country. I’m excited for the challenge.”
Jackson wasn’t at full strength early this season and finished with only 18 yards on seven carries in a 41-17 loss to Duke on Sept. 9.
It was a miserable game overall for the Wildcats, who were outgained 538-191 in total yards and converted only one of their 10 third-down attempts.
“We were out-coached, out-executed, out-played,” Fitzgerald said after the game. “That starts and ends with me.”
The Wildcats (2-1) rebounded from the loss to Duke with a 49-7 win over Bowling Green a week later. They know they’ll have their hands full with the Badgers (3-0).
“They’re outstanding defensively and (defensive coordinator Jim) Leonhard is doing a great job. I’m very impressed,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve had three coordinators in three years and the scheme has stayed pretty much the same — it’s been unique to the coordinator, but the guys, the players, have just done a terrific job. It’s been really impressive to watch them in the first three weeks.”