After last week's 16-6 home upset over the then-No. 21 Stanford Cardinal, the Northwestern Wildcats (2-0) returned to Ryan Field on Saturday afternoon and ran away with an impressive 41-0 victory over the Eastern Illinois Panthers.
NU opened the game up with a Jack Mitchell field goal and never remotely looked back, as it scored on every other possession throughout the first half to take a commanding 27-0 lead to the locker room. All three of the 'Cats' first half touchdowns came on the ground — sophomore running back Justin Jackson broke through the arms of would-be tacklers and dove in on an 11-yard run, Warren Long cruised in from eight yards out and Clayton Thorson pulled some Johnny Manziel-esque moves out of his hat to evade a few Panthers on a highlight reel-worthy dart in from eight yards away, as well.
In the second half, Thorson threw his first career touchdown pass on a play-action 44-yard strike to senior wideout Austin Carr, a former walk-on who just received an athletic scholarship earlier this week, to put the 'Cats up 34-0. NU quickly followed that up with a 71-yard interception return for a touchdown along the west sideline by junior cornerback Matthew Harris, after an ill-advised off-balance shovel pass from EIU quarterback Jalen Whitlow fell into the NU cornerback's arms to give the Wildcats a 41-0 third quarter lead it would not add on to. It was Harris' first career pick-6, and also his first two-interception game. His first pick of the day came on a busted trick play late in the first half that set up Thorson for his touchdown run.
On offense, the 'Cats ran the ball seemingly at will, toting the rock a whopping 69 times as a team to rack up 344 team rushing yards. Jackson led the pack with 78 yards on 22 carries, but Long came close to matching Jackson on almost half as many carries, with 72 yards on just 12 handoffs. Auston Anderson, Corey Acker, Jelani Roberts and Tom Hruby also got in on the running action, serving further notice that Northwestern's deepest position may be at runningback.
But while the NU offensive attack was almost strictly ground-based, Thorson stepped up and made several impressive throws for the second week in a row, finishing 11 for 16 with 152 yards along with the touchdown toss to Carr. Although he was again fortunate that a few wild throws were not better defended, he by and large showed development and an increased level of comfort inside and outside of the pocket.
And we would be remiss to not mention the stifling defense, which pitched a shutout and has still yet to allow a touchdown this season. The 'Cats held the Panthers to just 138 total yards, sacking Whitlow three times and picking him off twice (again, both courtesy of Harris). The unit swarmed to the ball throughout the contest, keeping EIU in check by denying the Panthers entry to the red zone from start to finish.
NU's upset over Stanford last week propelled the 'Cats to as high as 28th in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings, and, depending on how many upsets happen in front of them this week, there is a good chance that NU could be on the verge of or be in possession of a previously unthinkable top-25 berth heading into a road showdown next weekend at Duke. That game is scheduled to start at 11:30 a.m. CST from Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, as both teams will look to improve to 3-0 on the young season.