With one season left, Justin Jackson on pace to end as B1G all-time great

Oct 1, 2016; Iowa City, IA, USA; Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson (21) runs the ball for a 58 yard touchdown against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the second half at Kinnick Stadium. Northwestern won 38-31. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly 80 names made the preseason list, but scouring the release top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, you couldn’t find Justin Jackson. Nine B1G backs were on the Doak Walker Award preseason watch-list, but somehow, the Northwestern Wildcat had been omitted.

It was a snub to the B1G’s second-leading rusher in 2015, trailing only Ezekiel Elliott. After back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and 2,605 yards in his first two years, one of the conference’s most productive ball-carriers had been ignored.

Eventually, that mistake was corrected. It was considered a minor error and Jackson’s name was added to the award’s preseason watch-list.

Still, his absence from the initial release was a bit of an eye-opener to Pat Fitzgerald. The head coach told the Chicago-Tribune in July that he needed to ensure one of the B1G’s top ball-carriers didn’t continue to go unrecognized:

We need to do a better job of helping him become a household name. You can’t fault the media. Think about the junior and senior running backs in this league the last few years, it has been phenomenal. If Justin continues to earn it on the field, those positive things will be there.

Jackson continued to do his thing this year. He churned out 1,300 yards and 12 TDs on 266 carries in this season, becoming the first Northwestern back to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in three consecutive seasons. With another successful campaign under his belt, the junior is closing in on several of the program’s rushing records.

Year Attempts Yards Average (per game) TDs
2014 245 1,187  98.9 10
2015 312 1,418 109.1 5
2016 266 1,300 108.3 12

Because of his efforts in the first three seasons he’s already etched his name in Northwestern Lore. Jackson’s career with the Wildcats could end without another yard and he’d still be argued as one of the program’s all-time greats.

That consistent success still hasn’t landed Jackson a seat at the dinner table, though. His name still isn’t resonating quite as well as Jabrill Peppers, Saquon Barkley and J.T. Barrett. Despite nearly 4,000 yards in three seasons, reaching the 100-yard make 18 times and plays like this, the running back is still sitting on the stoop by the front door:

Why?

Most are unaware of the magnitude of success Jackson has enjoyed.

The fact is, though, that not only is Jackson on the verge of rewriting Northwestern’s history books, he’s climbing the ladder as one of the most productive running backs in B1G history. And he’s still got one more chapter to write.

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It seems inevitable that Jackson will become the all-time leading rusher in Wildcat history. He may also end his collegiate career as the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns and all-purpose yardage, all marks held by former All-American Damien Anderson.

With one season still remaining, Jackson needs just 580 yards to break Anderson’s rushing record and 793 total yards to become the school’s leader in all-purpose yardage. Here’s how the two compare today following the 2016 regular season.

Running Back (years) Rushing yards Rushing TDs All-purpose yards
Damien Anderson (1998-2001) 4,485 (1st) 38 (1st) 5,271 (1st)
Justin Jackson (2014 – present) 3,905 (2nd) 27 (6th) 4,478 (4th)

Based on Jackson’s pace, those totals won’t just be broken in his senior season, they’ll be shattered.

He’d need to reach the end zone a few more times in order to break the touchdown record – and average yards per game for a career is at 111.6, set by Darnell Autry – but with projections based on his current pace, here’s what Jackson’s final numbers would look like:

Projected Totals Rushing yards Average (per game) Rushing TDs All-purpose yards
2017 (12 games) 1,301 108.4 9 1,492
Career 5,206 106.2 36 5,970

Jackson would need to score 12 touchdowns to break the 38 mark and would need 1,570 yards to post an average higher than 111.6 yards per game.

Maybe Jackson won’t leave Evanston with all of the Wildcat rushing records, but becoming the program’s all-time leader in ground yardage and all-purpose yardage should be a guarantee. The touchdown and average yards per game for a career aren’t out of reach, either.

Oct 22, 2016; Evanston, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson (21) runs the ball against the Indiana Hoosiers in the first quarter at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

While all of those school records are nice to own, the most significant accomplishment of Jackson’s career – and what could ultimately label him as an all-time great – is how his success compares to some of the best the B1G has ever seen.

If Jackson hit the 1,300-yard mark for a third-straight year, he’d end his career ranked fourth all-time in career rushing yards in the B1G, passing Michigan’s Michael Hart and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball.

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If he exceeds those projected expectations, he’d be flirting with spots No. 2 and No. 3, owned by two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin and Indiana great Anthony Thompson respectively.

That’s joining a pretty exclusive group for a ball-carrier that still hasn’t earned much household recognition:

B1G Career Rushing Leaders Yards
1. Ron Dayne  7,125
2. Archie Griffin 5,589
3. Anthony Thompson 5,299
4. Montee Ball 5,140
5. Michael Hart 5,040

Ron Dayne, it’s safe to say, probably has that top spot locked down for quite some time.

The highest-ranked Wildcat on that leaderboard – as you might guess – is Anderson who sits at No. 12. Jackson currently owns the No. 25 spot.

At the very least, when Jackson’s career concludes he’ll likely be the most prolific rusher in Northwestern’s history based on school records and among some of the B1G’s top backs. But another 1,000-yard season will catapult his name into the conversation with some of the very best that have ever toted a football in the conference.

Nov 12, 2016; West Lafayette, IN, USA; Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson (21) at Purdue Boilermakers defensive end Evan Panfil (95) in the first half at Ross Ade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Has there ever been a back that’s been this successful this quietly?

Northwestern’s moderate success on the field has played a crucial role in that.

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Aside from the 10-3 campaign in 2015, the Wildcats are just 11-13 and have been a relatively simplistic offense to watch. They don’t produce the same flare as an Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State. But that’s worked out just fine for Jackson, even if he’s not getting the same attention as some of his counterparts.

Jackson still isn’t a name being discussed in every house like Fitzgerald had hoped. And even after another 1,000 yard season, the Northwestern back still isn’t receiving as much credit for the work he does as he deserves. But by the end of his career, his name is going to be right beside Archie Griffin, Anthony Thompson and Montee Ball.

That’s a list where Jackson will always be able to find his name.

REFERENCES

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

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