Night games became feasible in Memorial Stadium following installation of lighting upgrades as part of the 1974 “Golden Anniversary” fundraiser, so-named as it marked 50 years since the Galloping Ghost trounced the Wolverines during the stadium’s dedication in 1924. Since that time, Memorial Stadium has had a few memorable evenings of Illini football.
Before the Illini host the Nittany Lions on Friday evening, let’s take a trip down memory lane and remember some of the best night games in Memorial Stadium’s history.
September 23, 2000 - Illinois 31, Michigan 35
As was often the case in the Big Ten until fairly recently, night games at Memorial Stadium were something of a rarity. It was this novelty that made Illinois’ first home game under the lights in the new millennium that much more exciting. Michigan struck first on an Anthony Thomas 2-yard TD, but Illinois answered with a pair of rushing touchdowns from Antoineo Harris and Rocky Harvey, along with a passing touchdown from Kurt Kittner to current Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman.
Michigan quarterback Drew Henson then rushed and passed for touchdowns to bring the Wolverines back into the game, while rushing touchdowns from Chris Perry and the A-Train sealed the victory for Michigan. Many Illini fans remember this game for two controversial fumble calls during the pre-replay era.
September 17, 2011 - Illinois 17, #22 Arizona State 14
Ron Zook and Co. squared off against the Arizona State Sun Devils under the lights in Champaign to cap a successful non-conference slate to that point. The game was a defensive slugfest, as both Nathan Scheelhaase and Brock Osweiler failed to move the ball consistently. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict led the vaunted Sun Devil defense and held the Illini scoreless until Jason Ford plunged across the goal line for the first score of the game.
ASU answered to tie the game at seven apiece, but a long A.J. Jenkins reception then led to a Derek Dimke field goal to give the Illini the lead once again. Both offenses went quiet until the fourth quarter when ASU took back the lead. Scheelhaase pushed Illinois back out front with a pass to A.J. Jenkins, who slipped past a defender and strolled into the endzone for a dramatic game winning score.
September 10, 2016 - Illinois 23, North Carolina 48
The first night game of the Lovie Smith era may not have ended in a win, but it was the first time in a long time that Memorial Stadium was filled to capacity and became an intimidating night environment.
Illinois jumped out to a quick first strike behind a long Ke’Shawn Vaughn run to go up 7-0, but it was all Tar Heels from there. Mitch Trubisky led North Carolina to a rout of the Illini as he passed for 265 yards and 2 TDs, while rushing for 2 more TDs. The loss stung and brought Illini nation back down to earth from the high of the Lovie Smith hire, but it was an incredible moment while it lasted.
Illinois faces long odds against one of the best teams in the country in Penn State this week. That shouldn’t keep Illini fans from having a good time and enjoying the unique atmosphere of a Memorial Stadium night game.
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