Eastern ready to pressure Southern in home opener


Jason Howell

Red-shirt junior running back Shepard LIttle avoids the Minnesota defense and runs the ball up the field in a game on Aug. 28 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn. The Panthers lost to the Minnesota Gophers 42-20.

Aldo Soto, Sports Editor

In 2000, Kim Dameron was the defensive coordinator for the Eastern football team under Bob Spoo, but Southern Illinois-Carbondale was not on the Panthers’ schedule that season.

Saturday’s 6 p.m. kickoff against the Salukis at O’Brien Field will be Dameron’s first time coaching against Southern since 1995 when he was the defensive coordinator for Murray State.

There are two things Dameron remembers from that day against the Salukis in his final season with Murray State.

“I remember that we got after them pretty good in Carbondale and we brought a lot of pressure, I remember that,” he said with a big smile on his face.

The Racers won 35-3 as Dameron’s defense allowed 182 yards, only 23 rushing yards, and picked up six sacks and intercepted two passes.

Now 19 years later, Dameron has the same expectation heading into his first home game as Eastern’s head coach. Southern quarterback Mark Iannotti will see a lot of pressure coming from the Panthers’ defense.

Although he is a junior, Iannotti started his first game on Aug. 28 against NAIA Taylor University. He transferred from Eastern Michigan where he played 12 games in 2013, making only one pass attempt. Iannotti takes over for former Salukis’ quarterback Kory Faulkner, who started 19 games at Southern.

Pressure is a given coming from Dameron’s defense on Saturday.

“I don’t know if we can blitz anymore than we did against Minnesota,” Dameron said. “We’re a pressure-oriented scheme and so we would be remised if we didn’t look out there and see that this is a quarterback that doesn’t have a lot of experience. Let’s go see if he can handle some pressure. That doesn’t mean that’s all you do.”

The Panthers’ defense allowed three fourth-quarter touchdowns to Minnesota in their season opener, but in the first three quarters the Golden Gophers managed only 207 yards of total offense.

Eastern brought a lot of blitzes against Minnesota, sticking to Dameron’s pressure defense, but one thing the Panthers could not show off was their all-conference running back Shepard Little.

A major reason that Little finished with only three carries against the Gophers was because of the game plan of running several read plays, Dameron said.

“We ran a lot of read stuff and we ended up with the quarterback pulling the ball quite a bit and it’s just the way the game worked out,” Dameron said.

Last season Little rushed for 1,551 yards, averaging 15.5 carries per game. In the season opener, he ran three times for 16 yards.

If it goes the way Dameron wants against Southern, Little will receive a lot more action along with the other Eastern running backs.

“One of the first things that we addressed after the game was the fact that our running backs did not get enough just direct carries, where we’re not reading the end or reading the tackle,” he said. “That’s something we talked about as a staff and as an offense going forward, we have to get not only Shepard but also Taylor Duncan and Jimmy Lera more direct touches, not just always read plays.”

Against Minnesota, Eastern quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow and Andrew Manley combined to run the ball 27 times compared to eight carries for Little, Duncan and Lerra combined.

“We want to make sure that we’re not excluding any part of our offense,” Dameron said. “A lot of it depends on what kind of defense they give you, but still we want to do more where we could just hand them the ball or throw them the ball.”

Eastern’s trio of running backs did have four receptions against Minnesota.

Getting the ball to the Panthers’ running backs has been emphasized this week and so has ending drives with touchdowns.

Despite outgaining Minnesota in total yards 409-338, Eastern’s offense did not score until 6:57 left in the fourth quarter. The Panthers had four drives deep in Minnesota’s territory that resulted in no points during the first three quarters, stopped by two turnovers, a bad snap and a missed field goal.

“This week we’ve been working on finishing what we start,” Dameron said. “We have to get better at what we do. We can’t turn the football over. We have to make sure we’re better in the kicking game.”

Southern did not have many things go wrong in its season opener, winning 45-0 at home, where the Salukis rushed for 284 yards and three touchdowns. Dameron said facing a Big Ten opponent instead of a lower division team does not give the Panthers an advantage.

“They probably still have some questions even though they won and we have some question even though we lost,” he said. “I think this game will show us a lot of where we are really as a team right now.”


Aldo Soto can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]