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Northwestern rushes for 344 yards, 3 TDs in pasting of Eastern Illinois

Northwestern running back Justin Jackson runs past Eastern Illinois defensive back Anthony Goodman on Saturday in Evanston. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

BY JEFF ARNOLD

For the Sun-Times

Coach Pat Fitzgerald is tired of hearing about Northwestern’s potential. He’s only interested in production.

The Wildcats’ offensive line took that message to heart.

A week after a season-opening upset of No.   21 Stanford that Fitzgerald deemed average, the Wildcats piled up 496 yards — including 344 on the ground — in a 41-0 victory Saturday over Eastern Illinois at Ryan Field.

Justin Jackson, Warren Long and redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson rushed for touchdowns.

Thorson also threw a 44-yard touchdown pass, rounding out a victory that had more to do with the Wildcats building on their Week 1 success rather than putting up big numbers against an FCS opponent.

“We knew that we had to respond,” senior left tackle Geoff Mogus said. “We tried to play fast, physical. We had great focus in practice Wednesday and Thursday, and it showed today.”

Playing behind an offensive line hampered by injury, the Wildcats answered Fitzgerald’s challenge in nearly every facet. Led by Jackson, who ran for 78 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown, Northwestern’s running game simply punished the Panthers (0-2).

A 34-0 lead with 9:18 left in the third quarter allowed Fitzgerald to showcase the Wildcats’ backfield depth.

Long, sophomores Solomon Vault and Corey Acker, redshirt freshman Auston Anderson and even junior walk-on and Navy SEAL Tom Hruby all got in on the act.

Jackson will be the catalyst in the running game, but sharing the wealth highlighted what Fitzgerald has known all along.

“I know what those guys can do,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve said it since we started training camp. I really feel like we’ve got three guys that are established Big Ten running backs that can do a lot of things.”

The ground game kept the pressure off Thorson, who ran for an eight-yard touchdown and was 11-for-16 for 152 yards and a TD.

Thorson maintained his composure when flushed out of the pocket. His touchdown pass to Austin Carr gave Northwestern its 34-0 lead.

Matthew Harris capped the scoring with a 71-yard interception return after EIU quarterback Jalen Whitlow forced a shovel pass on fourth down.

Northwestern’s defense limited EIU to 138 yards. For the second week, the Wildcats’ defense didn’t allow a touchdown, becoming the first Northwestern unit to do it in back-to-back games since 1958.

As with the offense, moving forward from last week’s 16-6 victory over Stanford was the key.

“This was a test of our maturity,” Harris said. “Every game we go into, we want to dominate. That’s our mentality, and we know we have mistakes to clean up.”

The challenge only gets tougher. Northwestern faces its first road test Saturday at Duke.

It’s the next step for a team Fitzgerald believes is turning potential into performance.

He likes the direction the Wildcats are moving in.

“We have to continue to have a Chicago mentality — that’s roll your sleeves up and go to work,” Fitzgerald said. “When we’ve been pretty good around here, that’s what we’ve done.”

Follow me on Twitter @JeffArnold_.