Daaaaaaaaaaa Illini. That sure doesn’t have the same ring to it, but with tonight’s game taking place at Soldier Field – it’s quite fitting. Add Ditka administering the pregame coin toss, and it’s practically a scene on SNL. This game really wasn’t supposed to be a threat for the incoming Huskies. But, a surprising 2-0 start had Illinois fans imagining the possibilities. A strong contingent from Seattle filled the south loop bars while Illinois fans combated with their ILL-INI chant.
Somewhere between a cornfield and nowhere lies Champaign, Illinois. It’s a great college town with mounds of enthusiasm and passion for their team. On gameday, tailgating takes place in open fields where music blasts, games are played, and footballs are tossed. You might even catch the band perfroming a quick drumline or “Oskee Wow Wow” before they make their march into Memorial Stadium.
Another typical Illinois football afternoon was shaping up in Champaign. The tailgating didn’t miss a beat despite frigid temperatures. It’s never too cold for Big Ten football. The Illinois band boomed “Oskee Wow Wow,” and fans appeared geared for a big game. A casual observer might not be able to detect that Illinois is battling a four game losing streak that has caused the media to grumble and put Coach Zook on the hot seat. Perhaps it wouldn’t leave such a bad taste in the mouth had they not ignited hope with a six game win streak.
The last time we saw Zook and crew, they were polishing off Indiana and carrying their best start since the 1950s. But since then, their schedule grew full of villains and they fell from the ranks of the noticed. As today’s game in Memorial Stadium got underway, it looked like the ugly mask might come off for Illinois as they vaulted to a 14-0 lead in the first half. But, big breaks and big mistakes including an atrocious muffed punt gave Wisconsin momentum and gave Illinois nausea. RB Montee Ball nabbed another weekend of spotlight as he punctuated the majority of The Badgers’ touchdown drives. Illinois fans are hearty and true, but under gray skies, their hopes continued to fade for an end to this dismal streak. Another loss and another senior day heavy with forgettable memories.
Leaving Memorial Stadium, it’s hard to miss the history that makes this place so great. The columns surrounding the outside stand tall an proud while Red Grange’s statue reminds passers by of the deep rooted winning traditions here in Champaign. A few changes may need to happen before those roots are able to support a championship team in the future.
“Hoosier Football” are two words that go together about as well as “Lite Syrup” or “Economic Stability.” Combine one bowl in 17 years and six different head coaches in the same time span. Add to it a 45 year Big Ten title drought and you have the Indiana football program. Memorial Stadium in Bloomington has been recently expanded, which just means more empty seats. We got to the stadium early and stood in the expanded horseshoe area attempting to catch a few pregame practice kicks that lofted high enough to land in the stands.
As soon as the announcement was made that College Gameday would be live from Wrigley Field, my mind began to create signs for this historic matchup. The best I could come up with was “Go ‘Cats!” with the “C” being the Cubs logo. The magnitude of my sign’s creativity decreased once gameday arrived. We hopped the Clark Street bus at around 6:30am and began to venture toward Addison. The bus stopped at the corner and the College Gameday stage and bus appeared at the right, while the classic “Wrigley Field” sign came into view at the left. Only this time, its red hue had been replaced with purple.
On this late November day, the curtains closed on a very historic college football trophy. Northwestern and Illinois have played for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy for over six decades. However, the Illini had recently been stripped of their mascot due to its perceived disrespectful nature to the surrounding tribal nations. Anything bearing any reference to Indian culture had to be removed from the campus or they would suffer probation. Included in this cleaning process included the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy. This would be the last game where the trophy would be awarded and even if Illinois won, they were not allowed to keep it.
With the big presidential election coming up, so many vital questions are nagging the nation: Will America have its first African-American president in Barack Obama? Is Sarah Palin enough to lift John McCain’s numbers in the polls? Will the Wisconsin Badgers end their four game losing skid on homecoming to Illinois? I’m happy to say I was able to report on one of these highly anticipated questions this past Saturday…
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.
Electricity bills will be lower in Iowa this weekend seeing that the entire state population including the band made their way to Champaign. Illini fans seemed to be in attendance merely as a diversion until basketball season. That truth became evident when four former Illini basketball stars were honored during the first half at Memorial Stadium. The excitement for those four athletes in street clothes brought on more cheers than the football squad’s performance. Yet, that is the nature of Illinois football right now. The gloomy, overcast skies reflected the emotions of the orange and blue. Head coach Ron Zook in his second season with the Illini is still searching for a conference victory. Upon my visit to the bathroom before the game and listening to swarms of Hawkeye fans screaming their fight song, something gave me the feeling that today wouldn’t be Zook’s day.
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.