Justin Jackson has a unique opportunity to win the proverbial war this fall even if he loses many of the most prominent of battles.
The junior tailback, who currently stands as the Big Ten’s top returning rusher from last season (1,418 yards) and the conference’s leading active rusher (2,605 career yards), is vying to become the second Northwestern player in school history to rush for 2,000 yards in a single campaign — joining Damien Anderson (2,063 yards in 2000).
Here’s the cool part of the quest: Even if Jackson falls short of the hallowed 2,000-yard mark in 2016, he’s still within plausible striking distance of overtaking Anderson (4,485 yards) as Northwestern’s all-time leading rusher.
At this moment, Jackson (two-year average: 1,303 yards) is only 1,881 rushing yards from eclipsing Anderson’s storied record, which took four years to cultivate.
Making the single-season leap from 1,418 to 2,000 rushing yards would be an amazing feat for Jackson. In 2015, Northwestern ranked dead-last in Big Ten scoring (19.5 points per game), passing offense (139 yards per game) and total offense (327.1 yards per game).
With those numbers in mind, what’s stopping opposing defenses from giving extra-special attention to the Wildcats’ rushing attack? Rushing for 2,000 is probably asking too much.
But what about a more reasonable 2,000 total yards? Let’s take a Buy-Or-Sell look on whether Jackson can collect 2,000 total yards, which includes receiving output, as well. Here’s our glance:
- Jackson (15 career TDs) has cracked the 1,000-yard rushing mark in his first two collegiate seasons. He also rushed for 120 or more yards seven times last season.
- In 2015, Jackson averaged 139 rushing yards when tallying 20-plus carries (nine games).
- Of his last seven November outings dating back to 2014, Jackson boasts an incredible average of 148.4 rushing yards. During that span, he also has eight touchdowns.
- Jackson notched at least one score in his last four games.
- Jackson has just 43 career receptions and 363 yards at the collegiate level. By comparison, citing his last eight games, Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey – second in last year’s Heisman Trophy voting – has 29 catches, 473 yards and four receiving TDs.
- The aforementioned Warren Long has totaled only 104 rushing attempts in three seasons with the Wildcats, thus validating Jackson’s standing as a workhorse back.
- While Jackson’s tallies with carries (312) and rushing yards (1,418) went up in 2015 compared to his freshman campaign, the Illinois native incurred dips with yards per carry, rushing touchdowns, receptions, receiving yards, receiving TDs and total touchdowns as a sophomore.
- Of the 12 teams on Northwestern’s 2016 schedule, six opponents ranked in the top 50 nationally for rushing defense last year — Wisconsin (4th overall), Nebraska (9th), Michigan State (11th), Iowa (15th), Ohio State (22nd) and Duke (49th).
Speaking of the schedule, it’s imperative for Jackson to net 700 rushing yards in his first five games against Western Michigan, Illinois State, Duke, Nebraska and Iowa. After that, Northwestern has a dicey stretch of Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin — a crucial period which could ultimately determine Jackson’s candidacy for Big Ten Player of the Year.
Jackson may possess all-conference talent, but at this time, he’s not on the short list of college football’s transcendent tailbacks.
Last year, Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette posted absurd numbers with their respective schools:
Henry, the 2015 FBS rushing champion and Heisman Trophy winner, amassed 2,219 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns — with an average of 5.6 yards per rush and 395 carries. To reach that eye-popping number of touches, Henry took full advantage of Alabama’s 15-game season (prolonged via the SEC title game and two playoffs games.
McCaffrey, the early favorite for this year’s Heisman – Clemson QB Deshaun Watson and Fournette may end up splitting the South and East region votes – captured the NCAA/FBS crown with yards from scrimmage (2,664). The Stanford stud also rushed for 2,019 yards through 14 games, while averaging 6.0 yards on 337 carries.
Fournette would have been an easy lock for 2,000 rushing yards last fall, if the LSU-McNeese State opener hadn’t been canceled due to inclement weather. Nevertheless, the junior-to-be rolled for 1,953 yards and 23 touchdowns — including five in the Tigers’ Texas Bowl rout of Texas Tech. Fournette had the most prolific yards per rush of the trio, averaging 6.5 yards on 300 carries (12 total games).
Here’s the requisite math for Jackson hitting the 2,000-yard mark (total yards), assuming his receiving tally for 2016 remains consistent with his two-year average — 182 yards:
- To amass 1,818 rushing yards at his current YPC pace (4.7 yards), Jackson would need 387 carries for the season. For a 13-game campaign, that’s 29.7 carries per outing; for 14 games, the magical figure drops to 27.6 carries.
- At a boosted rate of 5.1 yards per carry, Jackson would still need 356 carries for the season. For a 13-game campaign, that’s 27.3 carries per outing; for 14 games, the lucky number dips slightly to 25.4 carries.
Put it all together … and Jackson would require yet another boost of 67 carries for his junior season, the same uptick which occurred from Year 1 to Year 2.
Is that possible? Sure. But for the purposes of this piece, I’m not buying it. Jackson’s most realistic path to improvement would involve a big-time jump to 30 or more receptions in 2016.
FINAL VERDICT: ‘SELL’ FOR 2,000 TOTAL YARDS
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.