Illini football offense will have hands full with Purdue's Kawann Short
Despite the 17-3 loss to Minnesota on Saturday, senior offensive lineman Graham Pocic thought he saw some improvements from the front five. But when the Illinois football team takes the field for this week’s senior day matchup with Purdue, it may be facing the best defensive lineman the team has seen all season.
At 6-foot-3, 315 pounds, senior defensive tackle Kawann Short is an unmistakable presence at the front of the Purdue defense. Short’s 13 tackles for loss are more than double the number any of his teammates have reached. He also has five sacks. To put that into perspective, not a single Illini defender has double-digit tackles for loss, or more than 2.5 sacks on the season.
“He’s probably the best defensive lineman we’ll play all year,” Pocic said. “Watching film, he definitely causes trouble for opposing teams to block. We’ve played against him the last two years, and we expect a dogfight against him.”
The Illini will spend a lot of energy trying to contain Short, but he is not the only threat on the Purdue defense. The Boilermakers give a lot of different looks and play a multitude of defensive backs. Sixteen Boilermaker defenders have played in all 10 games and have double-digit tackles on the season.
“They’re going to be tough to move,” Illinois co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales said. “They’ve rotated six backers consistently. That’s the one thing that they’ve done a good job of, they’ve rotated their players a ton. They’ll play four corners.”
The only two defenders who Gonzales expects to be on the field the entire game are safeties Landon Feichter and Taylor Richards. Feichter leads Purdue with 61 tackles. The offensive staff expects to see a lot of man-to-man coverage from Purdue.
Despite the Boilermakers’ weapons on the defensive side, Purdue ranks second to last in the Big Ten in total defense. That would seem to be a reason for optimism for Illinois, but the Illini offense ranks dead last in the Big Ten.
“I think that’s one of our biggest issues is that we just haven’t had enough big plays,” co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said. “When we get opportunities, it’s like I told our guys, ‘You can’t hit long foul balls.’ When we get our shots, we’ve got to make them count.”
Beatty said the Illinois offense is frustrated at this point in the season. He said Illinois running backs need to stop trying to make a big play on every down, settling for a four- or five-yard gain when appropriate, which will eventually open up the field a little bit more.
With a last-second field goal to beat Iowa 27-24 last week, Purdue broke a five-game losing streak and picked up its first conference victory. If the Boilermakers win their final two games, they would become bowl eligible for the second straight season for the first time in 10 years.
But with Saturday’s matchup being the final game in Champaign for the Illinois seniors, the Illini want to send them off on a high note. And to do that, they will have to keep an eye on Short.
“They’re a heavy blitz team, they definitely get after it up front,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “They throw a lot of different looks at you to try to get you confused. You have to be able to know the keys and certain tendencies that they have with what they do. They are definitely a team that likes to throw a lot of different looks at you.”
Sean can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @sean_hammond.