CHAMPAIGN - Illinois senior linebacker Hardy Nickerson has witnessed some great crowds during his previous three seasons playing in the Pac-12. But even the former Cal linebacker took a moment to appreciate Saturday's sell-out crowd at Memorial Stadium, the first capacity crowd there since Nov. 12, 2011, against Michigan.
"Coming out the tunnel, that was a very great moment for me," Nickerson said of the first capacity crowd for an Illini nonconference home game since 1987. "I'm going to remember that moment forever just seeing all our fans out there."
But Nickerson immediately followed those thoughts with a straight address to the fans following Saturday's stinker of a show, a 48-23 loss to North Carolina.
"We hope to have you guys out there every time now," Nickerson said. "But we didn't put on the show you guys came to see. That's on us. We're going to go back and correct it."
Even the newcomer knows that the Illini football fan base can be fickle and fragile -- who can blame them given the maddening program for which they cheer?
After a welcome-back-to-reality Saturday night, will Illini fans hold that faith or will they need to see more to pay the price of admission?
The announced crowd of 60,670 came to Champaign just wanting to believe. It wanted to believe that the Tim Beckman era was long gone. It wanted to believe that the instability and uncertainty of a year under Bill Cubit would give way to immediate relevancy under Lovie Smith.
As Lee Corso -- who wrongly picked Illinois to upset the Tar Heels -- would say, "Not so fast, my friend!"
No, Lovie doesn't possess a magic wand. Though his presence has a positive impact on the current players, recruiting, ticket sales and fan optimism, his presence doesn't automatically eradicate Illinois' personnel issues. Lovie inherited a roster with some individual talents but an overall lack of depth, speed, length and strength.
And despite his vast NFL head coaching experience, Lovie Smith teams don't always play mistake-free football -- as evidenced by Saturday's fumble- and penalty-filled performance.
"I thought we were ready for prime time, but we're not quite there yet," Smith said. "But we'll get there."
The arrow is pointed up for Illinois football. It may take years to get to where it wants to go, but Smith has drawn a more experienced staff and has opened more doors in recruiting (already landing a few recruits the previous staff couldn't).
Illinois played sloppy football on Saturday against a superior opponent -- UNC won the ACC Coastal Division last season -- that it couldn't afford to play sloppy against. It was just one game.
But it was a game Illinois fans had poured all their hopes into. A 2-0 record under Lovie and a win over the despised Tar Heels (there was that 2005 basketball game that really hurt) sounded so good for a fan base that has mostly been embarrassed by its football program. Lovie's name brought a capacity crowd of 60,670 to a stadium that averaged 42,647 the year prior.
The fans were all-in on this one game. The Illinois ticket office was all-in on this game, offering sensational ticket deals to increase their numbers in hopes of winning over new fans or winning back fans who have stayed away during the past few tumultuous seasons.
After a deflating loss, will Saturday's type of crowd come back?
"It's a missed opportunity, yes, just for our football team period," Smith said. "But I think our fans kind of see where we are. Again, I thought we were ready to take that next step. We're not quite there yet. But we'll get there. It's one game."
Smith said the big crowds only help the current team and future teams. More than 50 recruits were in attendance Saturday, including two 2017 official visitors (Cincinnati OL Howard Watkins and Florida WR D.J. Edwards), and top 2018 targets, including four-star Chicago Mt. Carmel DL Verdis Brown and Chicago Solorio QB Quincy Patterson.
"I thought the fans were outstanding," Smith said. "I mean, there's four phases: offense, defense, special teams and, of course, the fans. They did their job. Simple as that. For our players, this is good for us to see what it eventually will be once we're playing top-notch ball. This is a university that can draw people like that and have that type of atmosphere. We had a lot of players here, a lot of recruits here today watching us. I think that what they saw was a team that was building but wasn't quite there tonight. But hopefully they'll get there soon."
Like Nickerson, Illini senior center Joseph Spencer has seen some great crowds -- but usually on the road in Columbus, Madison, Lincoln or Happy Valley. He doesn't want to see the Week 3 crowd -- on Saturday, Illinois plays a talented, 2-0 Western Michigan team that upset Northwestern in Evanston two weeks ago -- recede back to the 40,000s (the opener against Murray State drew 48,644, the most for a home opener since 2010).
Spencer has a message for Illini fans: come back.
"I think coming away from it, the fans should know, one, how much it means to the team but the effect they have on the game," Spencer said. "You saw North Carolina jump offsides more than (most) teams coming in here. The noise made a difference. The atmosphere made a difference.
"Hopefully, they'll come out and keep supporting us because the atmosphere was amazing. I'd say the best, probably the best that I've had."null