Iowa Football: Run Defense Faces Huge Test Against Justin Jackson

Jan 1, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson (21) is congratulated as he scores a touchdown against the Tennessee Volunteers during the first half in the 2016 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson (21) is congratulated as he scores a touchdown against the Tennessee Volunteers during the first half in the 2016 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

A look at the Iowa Hawkeyes latest test in the run game this week

There are many glaring issues the Iowa Hawkeyes need to address over the coming weeks. Following their loss to North Dakota State and close win over Rutgers, one problem has become especially evident on the defensive side of the ball — their run defense.

After their stifling defense from a year ago only gave up 3.5 yards per carry, the Hawkeyes have allowed 4.1 yards per rush this season. Even though it’s not a terrible number, it’s been deflated by their decent amount of sacks, not showing the true domination starting running backs have had against them.

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So far this season, there have been five running backs who averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry against Iowa on 10-plus carries. Not to mention Maurice Thomas, who rushed for 60 yards on nine carries in the season opener for Miami (OH), averaging 6.7 yards per rush. Other than King Frazier, the Hawkeyes have not faced elite competition in the backfield, yet teams have dominated them by running straight through their defense.

Unluckily for the Hawkeyes, they face four of the top-10 rushing yards leaders in the Big Ten over the next five weeks, and the fifth running back is star back Corey Clement of Wisconsin. It’s safe to say after being torched for 106 yards on 21 carries against the Big Ten’s leading rusher, Robert Martin, the Hawkeyes need to fix their defense quickly.

One of Iowa’s biggest tests this season will be this week when Northwestern and running back Justin Jackson come to Iowa City. Play in the trenches will determine this game, somewhere the Hawkeyes have struggled this season.

Northwestern’s offensive line has struggled this season, as well, although that has not stopped Justin Jackson. He ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing yards this season with 339 yards on 4.1 yards per carry.

With quarterback Clayton Thorson only completing 53.2 percent of his passes, Pat Fitzgerald has turned to his workhorse back even more. The problem is that teams have started to hone in on him, causing even more problems for the offensive line and forcing Fitzgerald to abandon the run at times.

This will be a huge test for the Hawkeyes defensive line. Northwestern’s offensive line has struggled mightily this season, therefore Iowa should be able to get a decent push on them. That being said, they’ve been dominated in the trenches all season thus far, which allows runs straight up the heart of the defense to be effective.

At 5-11, 193 pounds, Jackson isn’t a power back. He’s quick and can make a man miss if he gets into open field. Sure, every once in a while they’ll call a stretch play or pitch it to him and see if he can beat the defense to the edge, however, most of the time they like to run up the middle and see if his small stature can explode past blocks into open field.

Therefore, Northwestern will attack this defense how every other team has, with runs straight up the middle. With both lines struggling this season, this will be a great confidence booster for the Hawkeyes if Jaleel Johnson and Anthony Nelson can get in the backfield and tackle Jackson for losses. On the other hand, another poor showing would prove real issues with the line that will need to be addressed moving forward.

It won’t be an easy task as Jackson has many facets to his game. Arguably the best thing about Jackson’s game, though, is that he gets better as the game goes on. It’s why he’s one of the most used running backs in the nation.

In 2015, he led the Big Ten with 312 carries on the season. In fact, nationwide only Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey had more carries on the year, and both were Heisman Finalists.

It’s not to say that Jackson will compete for the Heisman this year, although he does own amazing stamina and leads the Big Ten with 82 carries on the season — the next closest is Saquon Barkley and Devine Ozigbo with 66. The crazy thing is that Jackson should have even more, however he got banged up against Illinois State and only rushed 11 times.

Being a work horse back looks nice on paper, but it doesn’t make a difference if the Hawkeyes blow out the Wildcats for a third straight season, and forcing Northwestern to pass. Iowa has outscored Northwestern 88-17 in their last two meetings. Although, with the loss of Matt VandeBerg and the struggles Iowa has experienced as of late, most people are expecting a close game this weekend.

If the game is close in the fourth quarter, we’ve seen what King Frazier and Robert Martin were able to do. On the Bison’s final two drives of the game, they only passed for 23 of the 126 yards they gained. Also, last week, Robert Martin averaged 4.8 yards per carry in the fourth quarter.

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Due to a mixture of fatigue and poor tackling, the Hawkeyes run defense has been even worse late in the game. That could be an issue this week against a running back who is use to seeing a heavy workload, therefore has better stamina than other backs.

Along with his stamina, Jackson has a proven track record of stepping up in big games. Against eight ranked opponents in his career, Jackson has rushed for 846 yards and four touchdowns on 183 carries — 4.6 yards per carry, 105.8 yards per game. Coming into Iowa City on homecoming weekend against a team who has blown Northwestern out each year of his career, there will be plenty of motivation for Jackson.

Iowa has done a great job at keeping Jackson in check, though. During two games against the Hawkeyes, Jackson has rushed for 126 yards on 34 carries, averaging a measly 3.7 yards per carry. Out of 19 teams he’s faced in college, only four teams have held him to less yards per carry than the Hawkeyes.

Justin Jackson is far from an All-American this year, however the Hawkeyes have made much worse backs look great this year. Pat Fitzgerald is not afraid to abandon the run at times if the Wildcats fall behind, and that’s what Iowa needs to happen.

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Don’t be deceived by his small stature because he has the power to break tackles, and is seemingly never out of energy. After a three touchdown performance in week one against Western Michigan, Jackson is looking for his second stellar game of the season, and he has to love the idea of taking on this questionable Iowa run defense this week.