EVANSTON, Ill. — Justin Jackson had just wrapped up his college career in style when Northwestern’s record-setting running back made his intentions clear.
“We’re going to go straight to the bar at the hotel,” he said.
The No. 20 Wildcats had plenty to celebrate after hanging on to beat Kentucky 24-23 in the Music City Bowl on Friday.
Jackson ran for 157 yards and two touchdowns to help give Northwestern (10-3) bowl victories in back-to-back seasons for the first time. The Wildcats also hit the 10-win mark for the second time in three years — and third in six.
They did that despite losing quarterback Clayton Thorson to a right knee injury on a trick play and a decision to go for it on a late fourth down that nearly cost them the game. They were helped by a failed two-point conversion pass after Kentucky scored a touchdown in the final minute.
After all that, Northwestern walked off with its eight straight win, a spot in school history and a belief that more big things await.
“What I’m most proud of is just the culture that we built in the locker room and in our community,” Jackson said. “I think we leave Northwestern in such a better place than when we came in. That’s credit to the guys in the locker room and our coaches, the belief that we’ve had in each other, the brotherhood that we’ve built.”
Here are some things to know as Northwestern turns its attention toward next season:
Ten days after announcing he would return for his senior season, Thorson got carted off the field.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game that the preliminary exam indicated no serious injury. Assuming an MRI confirms that, Northwestern can breathe a little easier.
Even so, seeing the program’s winningest quarterback go down had to make the Wildcats shudder.
Thorson was injured catching a 24-yard pass from Jeremy Larkin along the sideline after handing off to him. He came up clutching his knee after being tackled, left the field on a cart and was on crutches after the game.
Considering he ranks second all-time at Northwestern in yards passing, completions and total offense, the Wildcats obviously need a healthy Thorson.
Northwestern clearly has a huge void to fill at running back.
Jackson moved into 10th on the NCAA’s all-time rushing list with a school-record 5,440 yards. He is one of only two Big Ten players along with Wisconsin great Ron Dayne to run for at least 1,000 in four straight seasons. He’s also the Wildcats’ all-time leader in rushing touchdowns and carries.
Jackson’s departure could mean a bigger role for Larkin. He finished his freshman season with 503 yards rushing after running for a career-high 112 against Kentucky.
Northwestern would like to start collecting first-place finishes to go with bowl victories.
Stronger starts wouldn’t hurt.
The Wildcats dropped three of the first four games last season and were 2-3 this year after opening Big Ten play with back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. The nine-point loss to the Badgers particularly stung since Northwestern finished second to them in the Big Ten West — two games back at 7-2 in conference play.
Had the Wildcats won that game, they would have held the head-to-head tiebreaker after both teams finished 8-1 in the Big Ten.
“I think that will be something that we’ll be fighting for in the offseason, to find a way to get 10 more points to get to Indianapolis (for the conference title game),” Fitzgerald said. “That’s the next step. That’s what these guys have built. We’re on an incredible foundation right now. The next step for our program is to get there. That’s going to be earned. We have to earn that.”
Fitzgerald is by far Northwestern’s winningest coach with an 87-65 record in 12 seasons. He’s led the Wildcats to eight bowls and three of their four victories. Throwing in two appearances as an assistant plus two as a player, he’s been part of 12 of 14 bowls with Northwestern.
Linebacker Paddy Fisher made a big mark in his first season. He’s tops in the nation among freshmen with 113 tackles.