The University of Illinois probably could have lured more fans to a grass picking festival than the last Illini football game of the season. The scene at Memorial Stadium in Champaign had completely changed from my last visit in 2003 when over 70,000 fans crammed into the bleachers. Now, a flood of orange had been reduced to a light spattering. Talk of the upcoming basketball season dominated conversations across the tailgating lots, which only widened the opening in the balloon.
On the other end, Northwestern had their band along – but they didn’t need the pep. The Wildcats were in control right from the start. At Memorial Stadium, fireworks blow at each Illini touchdown, but there wasn’t much need to ignite explosives today. Throughout the game, fans were moving about the stadium and finding open areas to stretch out and take in the game from different vantage points. We headed up to the upper deck to take in the view of the flat nothingness that surrounds the campus. From up top, we witnessed the play that slammed the door. Northwestern faked a punt from forty yards out that went clear to the end zone. The remaining Illini fans around us hung their heads as the Illinois defense just secured an 0-8 Big Ten season for the team.
Northwestern earned a 38-20 victory, which gave them a birth in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. It must be difficult for Illinois fans to watch the Wildcats, traditional doormat of the Big Ten, lock up a bowl bid while pushing the Illini into the cellar. We sat near the Northwestern students for most of the game and it is plain to see that they are not accustomed to success. Coach Randy Walker has made things better in Evanston, but they are still trying to scrape the “loser” tattoo off their program. They are still the Big Ten’s dorky little brother. No one takes pride in the day when their little brother is strong enough to fight back and win. Northwestern is growing up and Illinois is just one of the Big Ten teams experiencing the shame.