It was the kind of game you would expect when Northwestern takes on an FCS opponent, as the Wildcats simply overwhelmed Eastern Illinois in a 41-0 blowout at Ryan Field.
Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson continued to impress in his second game under center, flashing the dual-threat ability that's got so many fans excited about his future in Evanston. While head coach Pat Fitzgerald stuck to a pretty conservative offensive game plan, this gave all of Northwestern’s running backs a chance to shine against an overmatched Panther defense. It wasn’t a perfect game for the ‘Cats, as junior kicker Jack Mitchell had a busy afternoon salvaging multiple drives that stalled inside the 30, but this will give Fitz plenty of talking points in practice.
Meanwhile, the defense continued to dominate. Here are a couple takeaways after a fun, no-stress afternoon at Ryan Field.
Fitz has plenty of options running the option.
With a quarterback in Thorson who can make plays with his feet, the ‘Cats went to the option quite a few times against Eastern Illinois. Multiple running backs got involved, as Justin Jackson, Solomon Vault, Warren Long, Jelani Roberts, Auston Anderson, Corey Acker and Tom Hruby all appeared in the Northwestern backfield. While running the option left Thorson exposed to some big hits, it forced the Panthers to bite on play actions fakes and respect the redshirt freshman’s ability to run with the football.
This isn’t something the ‘Cats could do last year with Trevor Siemian at quarterback and gives defensive coordinators in the Big Ten a new threat to plan against. Jackson didn’t have the best game of his Northwestern career (22 carries for 78 yards and a touchdown), but the coaching staff has got to be happy with Warren Long’s 72-yard performance on only 12 carries.
Thorson shows growth in second start.
Speaking of Clayton Thorson, the young quarterback built on his impressive debut against No. 21 Stanford with another solid game on Saturday. He went 11 of 16 with 152 yards passing and a touchdown, coming out at the start of the fourth quarter with the outcome long since decided.
Once again, Thorson’s composure was remarkable for a player who didn’t know he was starting at quarterback until just three weeks ago. He didn’t force throws and was able to extend plays with his feet, giving his receivers plenty of time to find space. While he overthrew a wide-open Mike McHugh in the end zone and nearly tossed an interception deep in Wildcat territory, it was another clean sheet for Thorson, who’s been turnover-free during the first seven quarters of his college career.
Next week will be a big test as the ‘Cats head to Durham for a matchup with Duke, but it’s tough not to be excited about what the next four years could hold for Thorson.
Ryan Field: Touchdown-free Zone since 2015.
Plenty of people thought the ‘Cats would be stingy on defense this season, but through their first two games, Northwestern has outscored their opponents 57-6.
Sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker continued to impress after a career-day against Stanford, but was overshadowed by junior cornerback Matthew Harris, who nabbed two interceptions against Eastern Illinois. He returned the second one 71 yards for a touchdown.
Tom Hruby. On Heroes Day. Awesome.
By far the best part of Saturday’s game came late in the fourth quarter, when 35-year old Navy Seal Tom Hruby entered the game at running back.
With red, white and blue on his helmet, Hruby got the ball every time as the ‘Cats ran down the clock. He nearly punched in a touchdown as time expired, but still produced an incredibly cool moment for everyone at Ryan Field.