Northwestern Bowl Preview: Running Back

Northwestern’s offense was built around their run game this season, and it carried them to a 10-2 record and an appearance in the Outback Bowl against Tennessee. Northwestern is ranked No. 14 nationally in stopping the run, while Tennessee is ranked No. 21 nationally in rushing.

hurdThe focal point of Northwestern’s running attack was sophomore Justin Jackson. Jackson shared the backfield with Warren Long and Solomon Vault but took the bulk of the carries, with 298 attempts on the season.

While Jackson’s numbers this year failed to match his freshman numbers, it was still a stellar season. He rushed for 1,344 yards, second best in the conference, and averaged 4.5 yards per carry.

On the opposite sideline stands sophomore Jalen Hurd. Hurd’s numbers didn’t quite match Jackson’s, but that was more a result of scheme and playing with a running quarterback than anything.

Hurd ran the ball 253 times for 1,158 yards, 4th most in the SEC, and his average of 4.6 yards per carry was on par with Jackson. The biggest discrepancy in their numbers is touchdowns. Hurd found the end zone 11 times to Jackson’s four.

This season the Wildcats found success when Jackson did, going 8-0 in games when he rushed for over 100 yards. Hurd, on the other hand, played seven games where he didn’t reach the 100 yard mark, but only four games where he didn’t score.

Jackson’s best game came in their victory over Penn State, when he had 28 carries for a career high 186 yards. Hurd saw his best game in their opening week victory over Bowling Green, when he ran for 123 yards and added three touchdowns.

Both players went through long stretches of the season where they saw themselves underutilized. Jackson struggled in a few games when Northwestern got down early, against Michigan and Iowa. Hurd only reached over 100 yards a few more times after that Bowling Green game, but finished the season strong with two straight games of over 120 yards.

Physically these are two very different backs. Hurd stands at 6’4”, 240 pounds, but is surprisingly elusive for his size. He is extremely skilled at alluding defenders, and can use his strength to fight them off as well.

Jackson is a much smaller back, coming in at 5’11”, 185 pounds. But don’t let his size fool you, Jackson can carry defenders on his back a few yards before they finally take him down. Jackson has a lightening quick first move, and while he is not overwhelmingly fast in the open field, his patience and vision are his strengths.

While Tennesee’s success does not rely solely on Hurd, Northwestern’s most definitely does. Jackson should be able to attack Tennesee’s defense, and take pressure off of Clayton Thorson.

Northwestern needs to control the tempo of the game in order to keep their run game effective. If they get down early, it’ll be up to the coaching staff to find ways to keep Jackson involved in the offense, otherwise Northwestern may not stand a chance.

Advantage: Northwestern