It took two quarterbacks and all of Purdue’s strength on defense, but the Boilermakers managed to slip away with a 13-9 victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini to retain the Cannon Trophy Saturday afternoon in Ross-Ade Stadium.
Thousands of Purdue football fans had the privilege to welcome the 2001 Rose Bowl team, highlighted by former Boilermaker and NFL quarterback Drew Brees, to Ross-Ade Stadium midway through the first quarter to celebrate the team’s achievement. The Purdue women’s soccer team made an appearance along with the Rose Bowl team, making sure to meet and snag a picture with Brees.
The biggest appearance would come from fifth year quarterback Aidan O’Connell, whom Purdue (3-1, 1-0) subbed in to try to bring a sputtering Boiler offense back to life in the third quarter.
“We just felt we became one dimensional,” head coach Jeff Brohm said after the game. “It made it difficult, so we put in O’Connell, who is our most accurate passer when it’s a one dimensional game.”
Junior quarterback Jack Plummer led the Boilers down Rohrman Field on a methodical 15-play field goal drive, encompassing just under six minutes of the first quarter.
It would be a precursor to the rest of the game’s struggles.
Their second drive would end similarly; converting on third down, getting in the red zone and then kicking a field goal.
By the time Plummer was benched, he had thrown for 95 yards on 12-21 passing with a 57% completion percentage. He was pulled after a three-and-out on the first offensive possession of the second half.
O’Connell quickly made plays to put the Boilermakers in scoring position, including a rainbow pass to redshirt freshman wide receiver Abdur-Rahrmaan Yaseen. Two competitions later and the Boilers were knocking on the door of the end zone at the 4-yard line.
But just like before, the Boilers failed to punch it in, and in fact, O’Connell made his first big mistake of the day, throwing a gut-punching red zone interception.
“We had an in-cut in the back of the endzone,” O’Connell said. “I tried to layer it over the linebackers a bit too much, I could’ve thrown it harder.”
On the next offensive possession, O’Connell recorded another interception after the ball bounced off the hands of sophomore tight end Kyle Bilodeau.
But they say third time’s the charm for a reason.
O’Connell lined up, back against his end zone, with an energetic Illinois defense breathing down his throat. In a span of 10 plays, O’Connell led the Boilermakers to five first downs, two-for-two on third down and the go-ahead touchdown pass to sophomore receiver TJ Sheffield. He went 6/8 for a cool 89 yards on the 94-yard scoring drive. It would be the game’s only touchdown.
Defensively, the Boilers once again executed another strong defensive game plan, holding Illinois to only 9 points on three field goals.
The highlight of the defense’s night came on the final possession. After Sheffield’s touchdown, it was the Illini’s turn to channel their inner clutch gene. Multiple completions by senior quarterback Brandon Peters put Illinois around the Boilermaker 20-yard line.
The Boilers tightened their coverage and channeled their last bit of energy to pressure Peters on a fourth and 10, forcing a game sealing incompletion.
“It was huge for our morale,” junior defensive end George Karlaftis said. “As a defensive player, that’s what you live for.”
Karlaftis dealt with his fair share of double teams, but he still managed five tackles on the day. In fact, when he wasn’t double teamed on the first defensive possession, he made sure to exploit the one-on-one matchup with Illinois’ lineman by getting his first sack of the season.
“I hadn’t gotten a one-on-one matchup in quite some time, so I knew I had to come in and capitalize on that,” Karlaftis said.
Illinois attempted to limit his opportunities with its run scheme too. Whenever the team ran the ball, it ran opposite of where Karlaftis was.
Wherever Karlaftis wasn’t, sophomore safety Marvin Grant was, filling his gaps downhill at 100 miles an hour. As a safety, Grant still has a responsibility to cover his run fit. The only difference between him and a linebacker is he has 10 yards of space to get a running start.
Once Grant is in motion, Brohm said, he hits “very hard.”
“I would not want to get hit by him,” Brohm said. “When he knows where to go and how to do it, that’s a physical specimen.”
Grant totaled the most tackles on the team with eight and displayed airtight coverage throughout the game as well. With his aggressive prowess combined with his improving football IQ, Grant is showing potential.
“I look forward to watching him continue to improve because I think he should realize he can be as good as he wants to be,” Brohm said.
The Boilermakers will take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers Saturday in Ross-Ade Stadium at noon for homecoming. The game will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.
• Purdue has taken home the Cannon Trophy in five of the last six years vs. the Fighting Illini.
• The Boilermakers did not give up a touchdown in the first half for the second time this season and seventh time under head coach Jeff Brohm (since 2017).
• The 6-3 halftime score accounted for the lowest combined total at the break since Purdue trailed Rutgers 7-3 in October 2017.
• Purdue also scored the go-ahead touchdown in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter in the 2020 season-opening win vs. Iowa at Ross-Ade Stadium. Aidan O'Connell's six-yard pass to David Bell lifted the Boilermakers to a 24-20 victory on that Saturday.
• The Boilermakers posted just the second win by the home team in the Illinois-Purdue series since 2012. The other home victory was also by the Boilermakers in November 2017
• With the loss, Illiniois Head coach Bret Bielema moved to 5-1 in his career as a head coach vs. Purdue.
• Purdue was outrushed 175-38 in the contest.
• The 38 rushing yards allowed marked a season-low for the Illinois defense. It is the first time that the Illini have held an opponent to 50 or fewer rushing yards since allowing 10 against Connecticut in 2019.
– Purdue and Illinois Athletics contributed to this report.