Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Justin Jackson looks to be even better in 2015


Big Ten preview: Justin Jackson looks to be even better in 2015

Justin Jackson rushed for 1,187 yards last season. He ranked seventh in the Big Ten behind two guys who had two of the top 20 rushing seasons in college football history, five guys who were selected in the NFL Draft and one guy who enters 2015 as one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.

That’s pretty elite company.

Jackson’s goal for 2015, the follow up to his fantastic freshman campaign at Northwestern: Be better.

“There’s room for improvement,” Jackson said last week during the team’s media day. “I did pretty well, but I think I could do so much better. When I look at film of every single game, I think, ‘I could’ve done this better, this better, this better.’ That’s just what I’m trying to improve on. And obviously next year I’m going to be looking back going, ‘I could’ve done this better, this better.’ If I keep doing that, I’m steadily improving, and that’s really all I’m looking for.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: How can Northwestern return to winning ways?]

Pretty well? No, Jackson didn’t forget what happened last year, he’s just striving to be greater. Yeah, he was in some terrific company, among the best of the best at his position in college football last season. But he’s got the majority of his college career still ahead of him, and ranking seventh in the Big Ten in rushing isn’t as good as leading the league.

More importantly, though, Jackson is seeing personal improvement as one of the keys to improving his team’s fortunes. Despite Jackson’s efforts, Northwestern won just five games last season. He thinks if he can get better, it can up the Cats’ win total.

“Whether it’s national attention or star (status), that doesn’t really matter. I want to help us win,” Jackson said. “And if I’m a better player and I can make people around me better, in that way we can be a better team. And when you win, everything’s great. And when you don’t win, you can be good but it doesn’t matter. We didn’t make a bowl game, so it doesn’t really matter. I really want our team to be a better team, and by me being better, I feel we can be a better team overall.”

Thrust into the spotlight when Venric Mark was suspended and abruptly transferred shortly before last season began, Jackson was terrific as a first-year player. But according to head coach Pat Fitzgerald, that first year includes a lot of what comes after the season. Offseason workouts and spring practice were more first-time experiences for Jackson, and it’s going through that as much as going through a 12-game season that makes the running back more experienced as a sophomore.

“I see him as a sophomore from the standpoint that now he’s been in the weight room for one season and offseason. Everything he did last year was really without competing in spring ball and a winter workout sessions,” Fitzgerald said. “Really liked what I saw from him, the way he handled his rehab, the way that he handled himself in the weight room.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Can Illini's slow-but-steady progress continue?]

“It was different, first time I’ve ever done football full time. I always did basketball or track or something like that. So it was different, but it was really great,” Jackson said. “Getting in the weight room, I learned to love the weight room, to get after the weights. Getting up early every day, it sucks but it’s a good experience for you because it teaches you to get through the things you don’t want to do. So I think it was really fun, I got a lot bigger. I think as a team, we just got a lot bigger, a lot better. And our culture improved, it changed a lot. I’m really excited about this year, and I think our team is just ready to go.”

Topping what he did last season will be tough, but almost everyone in purple and white expects him to do it.

Last season, Jackson toted the ball 245 times for those aforementioned 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns. And he kept getting better as the season went on. The further removed the Cats were from Mark’s departure, the more carries Jackson received. And he did a lot with them, rushing for at least 100 yards in six of the team’s final eight games. He added 90-plus rush yards in two other games on the season.

In Northwestern’s final three games, Jackson averaged 142 rushing yards and scored five touchdowns, half his season total. Not coincidentally, the Cats’ offense exploded in those last three games, averaging 38 points.

The last we saw of Jackson in 2014 was impressive stuff. He’s hoping to be more impressive in 2015.

“I’m trying to be more of a pass catcher, more of a pass protector, even a better runner, making more big plays, making more people miss and breaking more tackles, scoring more touchdowns, being better in 4th-and-short or 3rd-and-short situations,” Jackson said. “And that all just comes with being more experienced, being bigger, being stronger, being faster and just having the will to do it, to go out there and want it."

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?