Northwestern crushes Eastern Illinois with rushing attack, eyes top-25 spot

Justin Jackson and Northwestern kept it on the ground against an overmatched Eastern Illinois squad. Nam Y. Huh/AP

Northwestern's offensive game plan against an overmatched Eastern Illinois team was pretty simple during its 41-0 victory on Saturday afternoon at Ryan Field. Run the ball. Run the ball. Then, run it some more.

By the end of the first half, the Wildcats had rushed on 43 of 55 plays and racked up three touchdowns on the ground in a game that was never close. Northwestern finished the contest with 69 rushes for 344 yards while passing only 16 times.

It was all-around dominance for a Northwestern team that backed up its 16-6 victory against Stanford last week in a big way. The Wildcats held Eastern Illinois to 68 yards passing and 70 yards rushing. A year ago, the Panthers averaged 236 yards on the ground, which ranked 11th in the Football Championship Subdivision.

What the win means for Northwestern: The Wildcats are creeping ever closer to a spot in the Associated Press top-25 poll, and deservedly so after two impressive victories to open the season. You can debate the importance of a top-25 ranking in mid-September, but it's a sign Northwestern should be a far stronger team in league play than many people initially thought. Northwestern was picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten West. With the way this team is playing defense, that prognostication seems silly.

What the loss means for Eastern Illinois: The Panthers opened the season with a 33-5 loss against rival Western Illinois, so there really wasn't much expected out of them in Week 2. Take the payday, go home and prepare for Illinois State. As for Big Ten fans, be glad these matchups against FCS teams will soon meet their demise.

Unsung hero: Northwestern's offense did plenty, but how about a little credit for the defense? Specifically, cornerback Matthew Harris deserves some praise. He picked off two passes, including one that went for a 71-yard touchdown after Eastern Illinois quarterback Jalen Whitlow threw an ill-advised shovel pass on fourth down. The play helped preserve a shutout and cap the scoring late in the third quarter.

Players of the game: Why not a three-way honor with quarterback Clayton Thorson and running backs Justin Jackson and Warren Long since the Wildcats so thoroughly dominated? Thorson threw for 152 yards with a touchdown and also ran for a score just before halftime. Jackson finished with 22 carries for 78 yards with a touchdown. Long carried 12 times for 72 yards with a score.