MADISON – Although the defensive game plan is top secret, outside linebacker Zack Baun said Wisconsin won’t do anything different in preparing for Northwestern tailback Justin Jackson than they would for any other opponent.
It’s the typical answer, but Jackson’s performance against Wisconsin has been anything but.
While the Badgers have been stout against the run, the junior bruiser has averaged 150.5 yards in two games and looking for more when Northwestern (4-4, 3-2 Big Ten) hosts No.8 Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2) this weekend.
“He’s a crazy athletic back,” Baun said. “He can definitely do some damage. He has play-making ability; he’s explosive; he’s fast and a great overall back.”
Just 132 rushing yards shy of becoming the first player in program history to rush for 1,000 yards in three-straight seasons, Jackson has easily eclipsed that number in his two games against Wisconsin.
In 2014, Jackson ran the ball 33 times for 162 yards, helping Northwestern win its fourth straight over the Badgers at Ryan Field.
During last year’s upset win in Madison, Jackson had 139 yards on 35 carries, including an 8-yard run that was the Cats only touchdown.
And if UW was hoping Jackson would be off his game entering the weekend, he’s second in the Big Ten in rushing yards (868) and rushing yards per game (108.5) and has averaged 127 yards per game during Big Ten play.
“They try to get him the ball in different ways,” junior safety Joe Ferguson said of Jackson. “We’ve played him two years now and he’s had great games both those games. We know what he can do. It’s all about getting as many guys to him as possible because a lot of times one guy can’t bring him down.”
The yeoman’s work to stop Jackson may come from a couple of unsung heroes in Ferguson and Baun. Ferguson admits that his role isn’t as big as he would have hoped but says in the same breath that he’s playing some of the best football of his career. Used against Nebraska, Ferguson said he played three defensive plays and had two tackles.
While he’s the second-string safety, Ferguson will typically replace a cornerback – usually Sojourn Shelton - against teams that like to run the ball with big backs out of two tight-end sets. There’s a good bet UW will use him in that role this weekend against Jackson.
“I don’t think I did anything special (against Nebraska); I just did my job,” Ferguson said. “When the play came to me, and it was my fit, it was my turn to make a play. I was happy I did my job.”
Baun said he played approximately 20 reps against No.4 Michigan and No.2 Ohio State, considerably more than he was receiving when senior Vince Biegel wasn’t out recovery from foot surgery.
“I knew I had to take advantage of the reps I was getting in such a big game and big atmosphere,” Baun said, believing he graded out well in both games. “I knew it would boost my confidence and my playing ability.”
With T.J. Watt (shoulder) questionable this weekend, Baun could be in line to see an increase in repetitions again behind junior Garret Dooley. Playing behind two all-conference players, Baun hopes he’s picked up some tricks that can carry him forward.
“T.J.’s run stopping ability is second to none,” Baun said. “The way he posts up on a tackle or Vince’s pass rush, even Dooley, I’ve learned stuff from all of them.”
Wisconsin ranks 12th nationally this season, allowing 109.0 rushing yards per game, and have yet to allow a Big Ten tailback to eclipse 80 rushing yards.
Shaw Making it Count
His carries have been limited, but there’s no question redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw is making his opportunities count. After getting one short-yardage burst through the line against Ohio State and Iowa, Shaw delivered a 21-yard touchdown run that opened the scoring against Nebraska. And in a surprising development, Shaw got a second carry later in the game, a two-yard run that picked up a first down.
With sophomore Taiwan Deal having been hurt for most of the season, Shaw ranks third on the team in yards (173) and tied for second in touchdowns (two).
“It’s just about that opportunity,” Shaw said. “You never know when you’ll get your name called. I always tell myself ‘be ready’ throughout the week. When they call my name, just make the most of it. That’s what I did and I’m going to keep doing that.”
Shaw is still learning the playbook, a fact that has limited his carries, but he happily admits that he’s getting more comfortable with his role and his responsibilities with each passing week.
“I know where the o-line is blocking from (now),” Shaw said. “Earlier in the season they would block and I would just run. I know my fits and I know my run checks a lot better. (The game) is slowing down a lot for me.”
A Polarizing Friday Night
Like it or not, Friday night football is coming to the Big Ten.
Beginning in 2017 and extending for the five following seasons, the Big Ten will play six prime-time games on Fridays in September and October to a nationally audience on either ESPN, FOX or FS1. None are slated to be BTN.
“We have thought a lot about this,” Big Ten senior associate commissioner for television administration Mark Rudner told BTN. “(The six Friday night games) represent about six percent of the total home games that we will have in any year over the next six years. We think it is a great opportunity for significant exposure and more favorable use of national platforms for football.”
As expected, the announcement of a Big Ten money grab drew quick responses. Michigan said it wouldn’t participate, Penn State said they would not be willing to host a game and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com that the Buckeyes could only host a game would be during their autumn break in October.
Michigan State said it would host one home football game per year, as long as it’s over Labor Day weekend. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez is in the same camp, saying the program values Friday being reserved for high school football games.
“As a former high school and college coach, I have great respect for the tradition and importance of Friday night high school football in the state of Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest,” Alvarez said in a statement. “As a conference, we felt it was the right time to explore additional opportunities for exposure on Friday nights on a limited basis.
“At Wisconsin, we are open to hosting games at Camp Randall on the Friday night prior to Labor Day weekend in selected years but have not committed to hosting Friday night games at any other time.”