Penn State Nittany Lions (10) vs Illinois Fighting Illini, 9/21/18, 8:05pm
Final Score: Lions 63 – Illini 24; Attendance: 34,704
Weather: Partly cloudy 68; Ticket: Free, Face $18; Parking: $55
Review: “Amateur Hour” by Tree
The Fighting Illini play at Memorial Stadium. It is an iconic stadium design with 200 granite columns facing the front and commemorating the 184 University Illinois alums that died in War World I. It has been updated since 1924 and now seats about 60,000 It has a classic feel. I was sitting in the end zone about half way up. My cousin, who I met at the game, was good enough to give me the ticket. With a face value of about $18, it was a decent price. However, despite this being a big game, there were plenty of tickets to be had from scalpers. I might have been able to get in for $10. The stadium is fairly well designed and you would struggle to find a bad seat. There are some seats way back under cover that may not be optimal. However, there are two video scoreboards on opposite ends of the field so you will not miss much. There was local vending, but you had to venture a little bit further inside the bowels of the stadium to get there. I was worried I would go without a souvenir cup until a vendor pointed me to under the center stands. There I got a spiffy cup for about $5. The food there was better as well, so make that trek if you are sitting in the end zone, as those concessions stands are strictly 7-Eleven food. There are some picnic areas behind the end zone, which is the only reason to head that way.
Illinois is a program rich in history. They have five national champions, albeit all from the 1910’s and 1920’s. They also have a number of notable players including Grange, Halas, Nitschke and Butkus. More recent players include Tony Eason, Jack Trudeau, Jeff George, Simeon Rice, Rashard Mendenhall, Brandon Lloyd and Vontae Davis. With such a long history, the Illini supposedly have a number of traditions. The first being Chief Illiniwek doing a half time dance in the middle field. I didn’t see the dance at halftime, let alone the Chief. Another tradition was a cross stadium cheer of “I-L-L” and “I-N-I”. I was told that as recently as the ‘80’s and ‘90’s that cheer would rock the stadium. I did not hear it once. Surprising, as this was a prime time game against a top ten team, and I the crowd could not muster that cheer. The band performance was notable for at least the coordination with fans in the end zone. For each of the songs, the fans would form images related to the tune. It was a unique collaboration. The best thing of the night from a tradition perspective was the Illini rolling out some all-orange uniforms for the game. They looked great and I heard they were even sweeter on TV. It was telling that the uniforms were one of the few positives from the fan experience.Quite frankly the whole event was underwhelming. I understand that Illinois struggles to compete with the likes of Michigan and Wisconsin in the Big Ten. What is more concerning is the abandonment of tradition. Georgia Tech has a similar challenge, but they embrace their traditions and even magnify them as part of the game. Even if Tech cannot get the athletes of the caliber of the ACC and SEC schools that surround them (which Tech combats by running the option), they keep the game experience lively with a ton of traditions. It makes the experience at Bobby Dowd sublime. Illinois should be able to do the same thing. It certainly could not hurt attendance.
The University of Illinois is located Champaign, about two and half hours south of Chicago. However with the traffic in the Windy City, I would certainly tack on an hour to your drive time estimate. I did not and I paid dearly for it. The Illini Athletic Department were nott the only ones that looked like amateurs on this night. I landed in O’Hare at about 2:45pm, 10 minutes late, but by the time I got my bags and rental car, it was 3:30pm. Fighting the traffic out of Chicago pushed my arrival to Memorial Stadium to 7:00pm, when I had planned on meeting some folks for tailgating at somewhere between 5:30pm and 6:00pm. I had been able to secure a parking pass right outside the stadium for $55 on Stub Hub and I thoughtit was a deal considering I had paid over $200 for such a location at FSU just a couple of weeks ago. With my delays, I was concerned that even with the pass, I would be pushed to an overflow lot. The joke was on me. When I arrived at the lot, it was maybe a third full. My cousin even tried to buy his way in with a cash payment and the attendants would have nothing of it. Recall that this was a prime time game with a red hot PSU coming to town and the Illini were 2 -1. Maybe the Illini faithful knew that this was going to be a beat down, which leads me to the game.
The Illini played a spirited first half against the Nittany Lions despite being 28-point underdogs. Penn State looked to be the better team, but they were sloppy in the first half with a couple of turnovers. To Illinois’ credit, they didn’t give up when down 21 – 7 halfway through the second quarter. They hung in there, scoring a late touchdown and the capitalizing on a late interception of PSU’s star QB Trace McSorley to tack on a field goal as time expired. It left the score Lions 21, Illini 17 at halftime. Normally, I would be thrilled to see a big upset in the making. However, what I needed was an early blowout, but more on that later. Illinois received the ball in the second half and promptly drove down to take the lead. My cousin and I agreed there was no way PSU was going to be able to cover the spread now. We couldn’t have been more wrong. PSU promptly ripped off 42 points while holding Illinois to zero more points. Not surprising, the greater depth of the Lions had come to bear, with their running back Miles Sanders getting an even 200 yards on the ground. Not that I saw them all, as I left at 42 – 24.
As I mentioned earlier, I needed a rout in this game because I wanted to leave at halftime. My friend Jeff had convinced me to hit the Nebraska-Michigan game on Saturday. Why the football gods decided to punish me with a noon start in Ann Arbor, I will never know. It meant a five hour drive to Ann Arbor plus an hour time change. I had planned to split the drive by going only to Kalamazoo on Friday night. The 11pm departure from Champagne meant I hit the bed at 4am with a 7:15am wake up. I actually fared pretty well the next day in Michigan, despite the lack of sleep.
Another disappointment in the Illinois experience was the tailgating. Certainly some of that was on me. With my poor planning and errant texting updates, I did not meet up with my cousin until the game and I only got about a half hour with Drew and the PSU crew before the game. It rivals some of the weakest tailgates I have participated in. Like I said, amateur hour. It was not just me though. In talking to Drew, he noted how dead the town was the whole afternoon. Maybe a comparison to Penn State is not exactly fair, but the dearth of game day enthusiasm was surprising. I really expected a much better vibe.
In addition once at the game, the Illini faithful had all the reason to make it a rocking affair. It was not their fault, they were loud enough during the game. Perhaps the lack of accompanying cheers and traditions are the fault of a sports information department that are resting on their 1920’s laurels. In any case, I bet the Galloping Ghost Red Grange was spinning in his grave. Amateur hour indeed.