EAST LANSING, Mich. – Justin Jackson rushed for a season-high 171 yards the last time he and Northwestern played a football game, two weeks ago at Iowa.
Jackson’s performance helped the Wildcats to 38-31 win and, if he wasn’t there already, put him at the top of Michigan State’s defensive to-do list for this Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
There are plenty of items on that list, but stopping Jackson for a full 60 minutes will be paramount for the Spartans as they attempt to end a three-game losing streak and get their first home win since beating Furman to open the season.
Michigan State’s run defense has been good to a point the last couple of games. That point is the start of the fourth quarter. Then, trouble.
Indiana’s Devine Redding had 100 yards against the Spartans on Oct. 1, but 55 of those came in the fourth quarter and overtime. It was a similar story last week against Brigham Young, only worse. Jamaal Williams rushed for 96 of his 163 yards in the final 15 minutes, needing just six carries in the fourth quarter to score twice.
Fill the gap
Michigan State is allowing 3.6 yards per rush and 136.4 rushing yards per game this season, two of the highest figures in those categories in the Mark Dantonio era. Here’s a look at Michigan State’s run defense in Dantonio’s other seasons:
|Year||Yards per rush||Yards per game|
Co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said players not maintaining their responsibilities along the line of scrimmage consistently has been an issue. The inability to get off the field on third down has allowed for long drives and tired bodies on the defensive side. Michigan State has allowed 26 of 48 (54.2 percent) of third-down conversions in its losses to Wisconsin, Indiana and BYU.
“We need to make sure that we believe our job is absolutely critical and we trust other people to do their job,” Tressel said. “Additionally we need to handle adversity better. We’ve played very, very, very good football in the first half the last four games, but then when one thing goes wrong, we’re not handling that great. That’s probably the biggest thing that we need to figure out.”
Jackson is second in the Big Ten with 510 yards and has 3,115 yards in his three seasons with the Wildcats. He is fourth on Northwestern’s all-time rushing list and is capable of catching Darnell Autry (3,793 yards) for the No. 3 spot before the end of this season. Jackson is also second in the Big Ten with 109 rushing attempts; he led the conference in attempts last season.
Unlike BYU’s Williams (6-foot-2, 220 pounds), Jackson (5-11, 193) is smaller in stature. Like Williams, he’ll keep taking handoffs, persistently gaining a few yards here, a few yards there, and then all of a sudden break one for a big gain. Only three of Jackson’s 26 carries against Iowa gained more than 5 yards. He had a run for 35 yards in the first quarter that set up a field goal, and then burst through the middle of the line for a 58-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
Williams had a 62-yard run to set up his own 1-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter last Saturday.
“(Jackson)’s a little bit of a smaller back but he runs the ball really hard and he knows how to find the hole,” junior linebacker Chris Frey said. “He’s a quick back. If he hits a gap and nobody’s there, he’s going to pick up some yards. He’s sort of like some of the guys we’ve seen the past few weeks but he’s more of a shifty, make a move and get north-south type of guy.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo