When Illinois and South Florida kickoff this Saturday, it will be the 21st college football game played at the famed Soldier Field.
Notre Dame used Soldier Field, located just southeast of Downtown Chicago, as its home away from home in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Then, in 1992, after college football took a 50-year hiatus from Soldier Field, Notre Dame and Northwestern opened the season at Soldier Field. Northwestern would play there a few more times going forward (1994 against Notre Dame, ‘97 against Oklahoma, and 2015 against the Illini) and Northern Illinois played there against Iowa in 2007 and ‘12 and against Wisconsin in ‘11. Notre Dame also used Soldier Field recently for the 2012 Shamrock Series match-up against Miami (FL).
The Illini have also played at Soldier Field a few times but have yet to prevail. Here is a look back.
1994: Washington State 10, Illinois 9
After showing promise in 1993 with an emerging quarterback in Johnny Johnson, the Illini opened 1994 ranked No. 21 in the country. On Sept. 1, 1994 — the opening Thursday Night of the season — the Illini made their first ever appearance at Soldier Field against a Washington State team that was expected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-10. This game also marked the Illini’s first game in Chicago since a 1939 battle against the University of Chicago at Stagg Field on Chicago’s Southside. (Yes, the Illini played Northwestern in Evanston many times since then, but Evanston is technically outside Chicago’s city limits).
The Cougars defense harassed Johnny Johnson all night and limited the Illini to 220 yards of the offense. The lone touchdown came on a 71-yard fumble return by Washington State linebacker Mark Field. The Illini would only muster three field goals in the dud opener.
As it turned out, Washington State fielded one of the top defenses in the country that year, which culminated with a blowout Apple Cup win over rival Washington and a strangulation of Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. The Illini would also go on to have a memorable season that included wins over Iowa and Ohio State. The Illini ended 1994 with 30-0 win over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl.
2013: Washington 34, Illinois 24
The Illini’s second game at Soldier Field came against the other FBS team from the Evergreen State, the Washington Huskies. The Illini were overmatched in this one as Washington took a 10-3 lead at halftime and turned it into a 31-10 lead midway through the third quarter.
Nathan Scheelhaase would keep battling and the Illini kept the score respectable, but Washington quarterback Keith Price passed for 342 yards, and the Huskies amassed over 600 yards of offense en route to comfortable victory at Soldier Field.
2015: Northwestern 24, Illinois 14
In February 2015, Illinois announced that its 2015, ‘17 and ‘19 home games against Northwestern would be moved to Soldier Field. The Illini’s Athletic Director at the time, Mike Thomas, made the move to increase the Illini’s presence in Chicago and get students and alumni, who were already in the Chicagoland area for Thanksgiving weekend, to attend the game.
As for the game itself, it was another dud. Northwestern entered the game with a 9-2 record with their sights set on a bowl game in Florida, while the Illini came in at 5-6. Qusterback Wes Lunt got the Illini on the board first with a first-quarter touchdown run. Northwestern would rip off 21 points in a row to take a 21-7 halftime lead. The Illini would cut the lead to 21-14 late in the third on a Mason Monheim pick-six.
Northwestern would then get a field goal to put the game out of reach.
Whitman alters the Illini’s plans in Chicago
In November 2016, current Athletic Director Josh Whitman announced that the 2017 and ‘19 games against Northwestern would be moved back to Champaign, but he remained committed to playing out-of-conference games in Chicago.
Whitman’s plan is to play an out-of-conference game in Chicago once ever four years, which is great for the massive number of alumni in the Windy City. But let’s be honest, the Illini’s efforts to increase their presence in Chicago will continue to be hollow if they do not actually win the games they play in Chicago.
There’s no better time for the Illini to get the Soldier Field monkey off their back than Saturday against South Florida.