The band had made it's way out of the horseshoe and the stadium was empty. I took one last look at the scoreboard and floated down the steps to the main concourse in the North Endzone. Since the student body had made their way out of the stadium, I was alone under the stands with nothing but the mist and the breeze to accompany me. My lungs burning, my throat sore from yelling, I couldn't hold in my emotion any longer...
My voice echoed throughout the concourse, ringing into the night air. We finally won one of "those" games, and it couldn't have come at a better time. With all of the coaching investigation reaction, all the speculation about how our conference season will be, and all of the talk about how our success in the non-conference is because we "haven't played anyone," this one feels
good great amazing.
Instead of putting together a lengthy post this week about how our passing offense looked rough and how an injury to Josh Ferguson could really hurt our offense and be another defining injury to our season, I'm going to rant...so bear with me.
As a self-proclaimed member of Robert Rosenthal's "17", I have been to my fair share of Illini games dating back to 1994. The best games I have ever seen was in 2001 when Brandon Lloyd caught a pass from Kurt Kittner to beat Wisconsin on homecoming afternoon, and in 2009 when Terry Hawthorne ran down Roy Roundtree which saved a touchdown on Halloween and the defense held the Michigan Wolverines at the goal-line in front of us in the North Endzone. I'll also throw in the win over Wisconsin in 2007, when Rashard Mendenhall ran wild against the Badgers. Here are some clips if you need to jostle your collective Illinois Football memories:
While these are wonderful memories to pull from time to time, there has been plenty of heartbreak/frustration/stress/disappointment involved with being an Illinois football fan. Games that come down to making a play, or getting a call from the officials, or games that we should win based on the opponents we're playing that week all drawn memories of said heartbreak/frustration/stress/disappointment.
Heck, just rewind to the same weekend last season!
Illinois was 3-2 with a chance to knock off a struggling Purdue Boilermakers team and put themselves in a position to be looking at a potential bowl-bound season. The weather was brisk and windy (just like Saturday), and I had brought my little sister and her roommate to their first Illini game as college students. What seemed like a sure-fire victory, ended up a frustrating loss that cost us the leg of our starting quarterback. While it was a great experience to be with family and friends, that game is surely one to forget.
Similar games that come to mind right now are:
This year, after our outing during opening week was canceled due to lightning, we worked out that the Nebraska game would work best with our schedules. Driving to Champaign, the attitude in the car was one of skeptical optimism. Nebraska is a college program that Illinois would LOVE to model themselves after from football to fans, and we knew this game would not be easy...but this year, they seem to be human. Armed with a glimmer of hope that we MIGHT be able to squeak out a victory, we marched our way over to the stadium about an hour and a half before kickoff.
Our punctuality is rewarded, as we grabbed to seats in the very front of the North Endzone...and if you ask me, it's one of the best places in Memorial Stadium to take in a game. The students that did attend the game (and from our angle, it did seem like a few more than usual these days) were vocal, loud, and hungry for a victory. Add to that the electricity from the Marching Illini, and we were bathing in the atmosphere of a Big Ten opener.
Like I said above, I will not get into my full opinions on how we played for the first 3.75 quarters of football. More of that will be covered during this week's podcast which will be up Wednesday morning. What I will talk about is the morale of a football stadium. To start, Nebraska brought their band and what looked to be about 20,000 Nebraska fans chanting "Go Big Red." We (the students) tried many times during the game to counter with an ILL-INI chant, but it just didn't seem like we would get over the perennial Husker hump. We felt like underdogs from the first snap of the ball.
After our defense showed they would be able to contain Nebraska's offense in the first quarter, we looked to Wes Lunt and the offense to lead us down the field for an opening score. It never happened. As much as we tried to will the team to complete a pass or gain 10 yards in a sequence, it just never happened. This was starting to look like another game we would fail to grasp.
Late in the second quarter, Coach Cubit had a chance to save about 40 seconds and potentially give us a chance to score before getting the ball back to start the 3rd. Instead, timeouts were used to "ice" Drew Brown, who ended up drilling a 39 yard field goal to put the Huskers up 10-0. Ke'Shawn Vaughn then racked off a 48 yard run deep into field goal territory, but the clock ticked down to 0:00 which ended the half. Another missed opportunity for us to put some points on the board.
After about 14-15 card stunts (REALLY cool experience to be apart of), the Illini worked their way to midfield on their opening possession. This is when the officiating crew lost count of downs, and ended up halting a relatively solid drive by taking away a perfectly good down. If you want the full in-depth reason as to why or how this happened, head over to Robert Rosenthal's post here. Even though the Illini defense would intercept a Tommy Armstrong Jr. pass, the offense would stall yet again. Chalk up a HORRIBLE call from the officials, and this is not looking good.
Fast forward to the last 2 minutes of the game...where Nebraska is running the ball into field goal range and looking to put the game away. Illinois has had MULTIPLE chances to get things going offensively, but can't seem to string anything together. Fans have started to head for the exit, Nebraska fans can taste victory, and it looks like yet another heartbreaking loss at home.
But Nebraska throws the ball twice and chooses not to run the clock down and attempt a field goal that puts the Huskers 2 possessions ahead. Those of us that are still in the stands cannot believe what we have just seen. Illinois now has a chance to take the lead, or win the game with 50 seconds left.
"Come on Wes. Come on."
After some more controversy with the officiating crew on running a play and reviewing a play, Illinois sets up with 44 seconds left. Malik Turner catches the biggest pass of his life, and suddenly we have the ball inside the 10 yard line with just around 30 seconds left. Block I is beside themselves...could we REALLY pull this off!?
"Come on guys...don't you dare blow this."
The team rushes to the line of scrimmage, and Geronimo Allison NEARLY comes down with the ball in the endzone. It looks good from our seats, but the catch is called incomplete. As the scoreboard shows the replay, we yell and scream for a review. Our cries are answered, as the ref's announce they will review the play.
"Give this one to us...just this once PLEASE give us a call."
No touchdown. That's fine, we're still in great shape on 2nd down. The play is to Allison again, and he's held in the endzone. PASS INTERFERENCE!!! THE BALL IS AT THE 2!!!
"Oh please...PLEASE finish this."
First and ten off the penalty, and Nebraska's corner makes consecutive plays back to back. Do we run the ball here? No, no let's just stick with Allison, he's our biggest and best guy out there. Third down now, and we throw to Allison again. HE'S HELD AGAIN!!! FIRST AND GOAL AT THE ONE!!!
"The ball is at the one. This can't be happening, we might actually pull this off. Just PLEASE finish this."
First play from the one...
Elation. Joy. Relief. We finally got one.
After Nebraska's last attempt to score fell short, the team rushed the field and ran our direction. We exchanged high fives, hugs, screams, and basically anything we could put together in the North Endzone. Students were celebrating like we had just won a Rose Bowl, and it couldn't have felt any sweeter. We FINALLY put together a drive to win a game against a team we could beat, and it came at a time when we needed a win...badly.
The team sang the Alma Mater with us and the band, and the Marching Illini fired up a quick medley of Oskee Wow-Wow, William Tell, and the Low Brass Cheer. We danced into the night, the atmosphere was electric, the scene was what I want EVERY game to feel like, and we FINALLY got one to go our way.
Here's what the celebration looked like from our seats, along with a BUNCH of video reactions and highlights.
Aaron Bennett (@WCIA3Aaron) October 3, 2015