TAMPA — As Northwestern surged toward the top of the Big Ten Conference this season, it did so behind workhorse RB Justin Jackson.
The sophomore, who grew up about 40 miles from the Northwestern campus in Carol Stream, Ill., comes into Friday's Outback Bowl against Tennessee with 298 carries for 1,344 yards — the eighth-best single-season total in program history. Jackson is also only the fifth Northwestern player to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in consecutive seasons after rushing for 1,187 last year.
Jackson's presence was felt the most during Northwestern's 10 victories, averaging 128.9 yards in those games. In the Wildcats' two losses to Michigan and Iowa, Jackson gained only 55.
"He's a tough runner," Tennessee junior LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin said Monday. "He can make you miss, and he can make you pay for it."
Much like the Wolverines and Hawkeyes did, the Volunteers could pose problems for Jackson. They rank 49th nationally in run defense and saw their share of standout backs this season, including Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry of Alabama and Oklahoma's Samaje Perine.
"We're not going to be surprised by anything they do," Jackson said Monday. "I'm sure they're not going to change too much from what they've done all year. They're going to try and execute their stuff, and we're going to do the same."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is confident Jackson will be prepared.
"They've probably watched as many games as they could on us and they'll have a plan on how they want to attack us," he said. "We'll have to adjust accordingly."
DON'T FORGET ABOUT US: Jackson said he doesn't agree with the notion that there is a wide gap dividing most teams in the Big Ten from College Football Playoff contenders Ohio State and Michigan State.
Despite the difficulties of facing top-tier talent, Jackson said Northwestern has never counted itself out of winning a conference championship and believes that one is on the horizon.
"We were 10-2 this year, we were really close," he said. "We've shown that we can compete with the top teams. We're just going to keep doing that year in, year out and try to get better and improve."
THIS AND THAT: Both teams took in the Lightning-Canadiens game at Amalie Arena on Monday night. They will practice again this morning before spending the afternoon at Busch Gardens. … To get his players adjusted to the Florida weather, Tennessee coach Butch Jones said a point of emphasis is having his returners practice fielding kicks and punts in the sunshine.
AUDIBLE: "We know the challenge. I think the only person that's picked us to win is my 6-year-old son." — Fitzgerald on facing Tennessee (favored by 81/2) and his good friend Jones.