October is not supposed to be this hot in the Midwest. The Illini aren’t really supposed to be that hot either, but with head coach Ron Zook at the controls, no 90 degree weather is going to keep their goals out of reach. Fifth ranked Wisconsin came in as an underdog to the unranked Illini and few people viewed this as surprising. The Badgers have been winning by a thread each week displaying a defense that had a tendency to spring leaks. The expansion and construction of Memorial Stadium served as a nice metaphor for the entire program as it is moving toward a bigger and better future. Today would be the major turning point.
Illinois slammed out to a 17-0 lead under the leadership of their versatile runningback, Mendenhall. Wisconsin closed the gap often during the game, but could not tip the scales. Illinois went for a gutsy fourth and one at the end of the game that required measurement for accuracy. A game of inches leaned toward Illinois’s favor and they ran out the clock winning 31-26. Illini players exploded onto the field and then, went up into the student section to celebrate with the rowdy crowd. Excitement like this has been rare at Memorial Stadium and this victory would last in memories of the Illinois faithful for years to come.
Memorial Stadium is finally getting its mojo back as an entire section of the stadium has been completed just for the students. Their energy is infectious. At halftime, they keep alive an old tradition of maintaining a card section that flips messages while the band performs on the field. As workers continue to tweak the upper decks, the future of this stadium and program are bright. Yet many fans are still clinging to the ghosts of the past, namely, Chief Illiniwek. The Illinois mascot, much loved by fans, had been banned last year for its controversial tribal dance performed at halftime. During halftime of the Wisconsin game, the entire stadium still chanted “CHIEF!” in a haunting fashion. Buttons reading, “Gone, but never forgotten,” circled the stadium as fans continue to voice their opinion. Time will only tell if Illini fans will be able to let go, but the absence of the chief does not taint the atmosphere of this beautiful old stadium. Now that the Illini are 3-0 in the Big Ten and gunning for a bowl game and perhaps a conference title, the disappointment surrounding the loss of the Chief may be overshadowed.