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.
The Fighting Illini are a team two years removed from their Big Ten title, but playing like they never left the basement. However, the energy around Memorial Stadium has not fizzled. Dusk drew over the sky for this early evening contest and the late day sun glinting off the columns around the stadium provided the perfect setting. Both bands marched in down the main drag of the campus offering a pregame battle by pounding out fight songs and marching in stellar cadence. Illinois’s tradition rich playing grounds were stoked for this conference opener.
One thing is for certain – osteoporosis will not be a threat to Badger players knowing how long they have had their backs against the wall. Plowing through their first five games undefeated could have been too heavy a load to carry for these younger Badger players. Now 1-4 in the Big Ten, they need just one more victory to secure bowl eligibility.
Three teams entered rivalry Saturday with an opportunity for conference supremacy and a trip to the Rose Bowl. After an unexpected explosion of success, Northwestern found themselves amongst this trio. Along with a defeat of Illinois, the Wildcats needed Purdue and Michigan to lose in order to head west.
With the past two games being heart-halting victories for Wisconsin, Camp Randall Stadium was packed and ready early anxious to see what the next installment of Badger drama would arise. With the winless Illini coming to Madison, most hoped that it wouldn’t take another last second prayer to succeed. Luckily, the red-clad faithful got just what they expected. And by the looks of Illinois, so did they.
The Illini came into Madison much improved from last season. Their record was only 6-4, but that did not represent their strength. Wisconsin came in 5-4-1. Prior to the game, it was announced that the winner would be invited to the Hall of Fame Bowl in January. However, the situation was different for the loser. If Illinois lost, they would still be headed to a bowl with a winning record of 6-5. If Wisconsin lost, they would not be bowl eligible with a .500 record (5-5-1). A Badger win would serve the Big Ten best because both teams would receive bowl bids resulting in more money and more television exposure. We all hoped that justice would be served on this frigid day in Madison.