IOWA CITY, Iowa — Barely three years into his highly acclaimed Northwestern career, running back Justin Jackson sits at the precipice of statistical greatness.
Jackson, a junior, needs 66 yards to become Northwestern’s fourth 3,000-yard rusher. Next on the career rushing list is Darnell Autry, the darling of the 1995 Cinderella Wildcats. No player, save for current coach Pat Fitzgerald, conjures the purple pride among supporters quite like Autry.
Jackson knows this. So as his name scoots up the record book, the facts surprise Jackson.
“I haven’t actually,” said Jackson when asked if he has followed his career progression.
Then he pauses and realizes Northwestern’s current place in the Big Ten world. The Wildcats are 1-3 overall and lost their Big Ten opener against Nebraska last week. Up next is a trip to Iowa (3-1, 1-0) for a noon EST kickoff Saturday.
“I’m just going week-to-week and trying to help my team win,” Jackson said. “All the other stuff doesn’t matter.”
Jackson’s 339 rushing yards rank third among Big Ten backs. Yet, Northwestern averages only 108 rushing yards a game, just ahead of Penn State for last in the Big Ten. But that’s just one sample on Northwestern’s offensive inefficiency this year.
The Wildcats are 14th in Big Ten scoring (16.3 points per game) and 13th in total offense (347.5 yards per game). Worst of all — and this is really bad — Northwestern is horrendous in the red zone. The Wildcats have the fewest trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line (seven) and only three scores, half of next-lowest Illinois and Indiana. Northwestern has missed every chip-shot field-goal attempt. If Northwestern connected on even its shortest kicking efforts, it would be 3-1 with legitimate offensive concerns but not the anxiety.
This year’s heartburn is just an extension of last year’s offensive indigestion. Northwestern totaled just 24 offensive touchdowns in 2015, easily the Big Ten’s low. It scored touchdowns on just 40 percent of its red-zone trips, 10 percentage points fewer than next-worst Illinois. And Northwestern still won 10 games a year ago, mostly because of Jackson and a thunderous defense.
This year, Northwestern converts just 36.1 percent on third down, easily the worst in its last 10 seasons. From 2007 through 2012, Northwestern never ranked worse than third among Big Ten schools in third-down conversions. In all six seasons, the Wildcats converted at least 45.6 percent of those opportunities. Each time Northwestern was bowl-eligible.
In the last three seasons, Northwestern has failed to convert even 41 percent on third down. Only last year produced a winning record.
Another common factor between Northwestern’s previous success and recent offensive lull is quarterback play. From 2008 through 2012, the Wildcats’ primary quarterback was proficient both as a passer and runner. In 2010 and 2011, Dan Persa combined to throw 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also ran for 519 yards in 2010.
In 2011, Kain Colter split time with Persa. Colter rushed for 654 yards from multiple positions but also threw six touchdowns to one interception. Colter became the full-time starter in 2012, passing for eight touchdowns and only four interceptions and rushing for 894 yards.
Northwestern’s 2013 season was hampered by horrible luck in losing three straight weeks in either overtime or on the game’s final play. But in 2014, Trevor Siemian threw only seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions with minus-123 yards rushing. Last year, Clayton Thorson tossed nine interceptions to only seven touchdowns. This year, Thorson has thrown five touchdowns and four interceptions.
The season frustrates both Jackson and Fitzgerald. In the season opener, Thorson fumbled at Western Michigan’s 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter and the Wildcats failed to recover in the end zone. The play was ruled a touchback, and Northwestern lost, 22-21. A week later, Illinois State kicked a 33-yard field goal on the game’s final play for a 9-7 win over the Wildcats.
“I think we’re doing a lot better than we did last year; we’re just not finishing off drives the way we need to the past four games,” Jackson said. “Something needs to change. We’re working on it.”
Fitzgerald usually mixes self-deprecation with analysis during interview sessions. But when a reporter asked about next opponent Iowa and the loss of wide receiver Matt VandeBerg, Fitzgerald quickly brushed it off.
“I wish I had enough time to worry about them, brother,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got enough problems of our own right now.”