EVANSTON—Justin Jackson ran his way into the Northwestern record books in just three seasons and could finish his career as the school’s all-time leading rusher.Still, he is content right now to share the running back position with emerging newcomer John Moten.Jackson rushed for 173 yards and three touchdowns, Moten added 128 yards and two touchdowns and Northwestern became bowl eligible with a 42-21 victory over Illinois on Saturday.
”It’s cool,” Jackson said. ”I think John’s come a long way. He’s obviously shown the player he can be. It’s pretty exciting.”
Clayton Thorson completed 13 of 20 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown as the Wildcats improved to 6-6 and 5-4 in the Big Ten.
”I’m excited that I get one more opportunity to be with them on the field in a game,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
”The first couple of weeks certainly didn’t look good, but it’s a credit to the seniors we were able to come back.”
Wes Lunt completed 28 of 54 passes for 377 yards and two touchdowns (with one interception) for Illinois (3-9, 2-7), which closed out its first season under coach Lovie Smith with three straight losses.
”We have an idea of what we need to do and what direction we need to go in all areas,” Smith said. ”This is the start. You don’t like to be in this situation, but that’s normally how it happens.”
After trailing 21-0, Illinois rallied for two touchdowns to pull within 21-14 at halftime and appeared headed for a game-tying score on its first possession of the second half when things fell apart.First, running back Reggie Corbin fumbled at the 8-yard line and safety Godwin Igwebuike recovered to give the ball – and momentum – back to Northwestern.Two plays later, Illinois safety Stanley Green was ejected after a targeting penalty for a hit on wide receiver Flynn Nagel. The 15-yard penalty (on top of the 10-yard completion) advanced the ball to the NU 46. Jackson then broke a 54-yard scoring run to make it 28-14 with 9:24 remaining in the third quarter.Leading 35-21 early in the fourth quarter, NU put the game away on a 4-yard TD run by Jackson. The score was set up by a 66-yard interception return by Montre Hartage to the 5.The Illini’s 28 first-time starters this season heading into Saturday were the most in the nation, which is a sign the program is in the early stages of a rebuilding plan. To have any chance of flipping the record next season, more consistent offensive production is a must. Lunt’s 19-yard TD pass to Malik Turner in the second was the Illini’s first TD in nine quarters.Although it’s a far cry from last year’s 10 wins, winning two of the final three games to become bowl eligible is an accomplishment for a program that doesn’t take winning for granted – especially after losing to Western Michigan and Illinois State to start the season.Jackson moved into second place on NU’s all-time rushing list – passing Darnell Autry (3,793) and Tyrell Sutton (3,886) – with 3,905 yards. Jackson, who has 27 career rushing TDs, trails only Damien Anderson (4,485).
”It’s pretty cool,” Jackson said. ”There’s obviously a history of good running backs coming through here. I’m just glad we could get a win on a day like this.”
Moten, a redshirt freshman, set the tone with two first-quarter touchdowns, including a 43-yarder. Jackson answered with three of his own, including a mesmerizing 54-yarder.He said his long run was aided by watching. ”Sometimes you can see stuff from the sidelines you don’t necessarily see on the field,” he said. ”I saw some things from his long runs and applied it when I was on the field.”
NOTES—The Illini’s season is over….Northwestern’s regular season is over, but the Wildcats will make a second straight bowl appearance