View from the West Balcony

Illinois has still not beaten Michigan in Champaign since that electric night in 1983. This afternoon, no one gave the Illini a chance to defeat the Wolverines, but something happened. The Illini players held a 17-10 lead at half time, and they had a chance to win the game, but it was not to be. Michigan pulled away for a 30-19 victory in the second half.

I woke up this morning at 5:00 going through my Saturday routine of snoozing the alarm clock, which is my cell phone, until I had to get up at the last minute to catch my ride down to Champaign. I was ready to watch a blowout of my beloved Illini at the hands of the hated Michigan Wolverines. After being in the car for two hours, we turned on WDWS to listen to Loren Tate and Jim Turpin on Saturday Sports Line and hear some football preview talk, but what did I get? Taylor Bell pumping some book about Illinois high school basketball history and Brett Dawson discussing the Illini basketball team. Now, I have no problem talking Illini basketball, as it is my one true passion when it comes to Illinois sports, but it was 8:30 on a Saturday morning and it was in the fall. Then it hit me, this is how far Illinois has fallen.

Allow me to take you back to 1983. Mike White had turned Illinois football into an event, and he knew that if he was ever going to win the Big Ten title he would have to go through Michigan. The Illinois / Michigan contests when Mike White and Bo Schembechler were classic rivalries between two coaches that did not get along. The game was an event, and Memorial Stadium was electric from all reports. I was too young to be at the game, but I have plenty of friends and know plenty of Illinois fans that talk about that game as being the pinnacle of games in Memorial Stadium. That was actually the last time Illinois defeated Michigan in Memorial Stadium. It has been 21 years, and will be atleast 23 years before Illinois has that chance again.

Now, let's fast forward to 2000. Illinois is coming off of their MicronPC.com Bowl, and just the year prior had upset Michigan in the Big House. Memorial Stadium was once again electric, and a win over Michigan would have bolstered the statement that Illinois was back near the top of the Big Ten. The Illini came into the game 3-0, and Michigan was 2-1 after the non-conference schedule. The blemish on the Wolverine record cost Illinois a chance to hold ESPN College Gameday live from Champaign, but that did not affect the atmosphere. It was a night game, against the hated Michigan Wolverines. The tailgates were fired up, the parking lots were full, it seem like the 2000s would also belong to the Illini, but we all know what happened in that game, and I don't care to rehash it. I just wanted to remind people of the atmosphere surrounding the program and the stadium at that time.

Now, let's fast forward to October 16, 2004. I am driving into, ok riding shotgun but that really doesn't matter, Champaign and listening to WDWS and they are talking to Taylor freaking Bell and Brett Dawson. No mentions of Illinois football when the team is playing Michigan. In just four years, the atmosphere surrounding Memorial Stadium has dissipated, and it seems like the Illinois football program is on life support. The parking lots were empty, and the tailgating atmosphere was stale. It was like every one was just going through the motions.

At 10:50, I walked over to the stadium and I just felt like Illinois was about to get pummeled by the Wolverines. I had predicted 42-7 to my friends, and none of them really thought any different. Some were thinking Illinois would score early and then score late when it didn't matter to score fourteen or seventeen, but either way all of us were expecting a big loss at the hands of Michigan, a team I hate more than any other thanks to 1989.

What happens on the first play from scrimmage for Illinois? Fumble. Just great, this game will be brutal and ugly. But something happens, Illinois' defense guts up and holds Michigan to a field goal. The Illini offense needs to do something here, but they were just able to run three plays before punting. Michigan drove down the field and was quickly up 10-0. ‘This game is going to get ugly' was going through my head already, and I was prepared for it.

But something happened, and clicked on the field. Illinois scored 17 straight points and I became that rabid nut fan. I was screaming at those in the West Balcony that paid $35 for a ticket and were not standing up and cheering for Illinois and trying all they could to help the defense hold the Wolverines. I was looked at like I was crazy. I can only assume that I am crazy, but it hit me after the game. Fans knew what was going to happen. Illinois would find a way to lose this game, the Illini have seemed to always find new and creative ways to lose football games in the last three years. We were playing Michigan, and this should be no different. The thing was, I didn't care. Somewhere in my warped mind I thought Illinois could and would beat Michigan on this cool fall afternoon.

Nothing else was going through my minds, but doing whatever I could to ‘help' Illinois win. I was cheering and imploring other fans to do the same throughout the third quarter. The Illini defense needed all of the noise we could give them, but spending nearly the entire third quarter on the field was not what the defense needed. They put up a valiant fight, but every fan that would not cheer was right, Illinois would find a way to lose. I just could not resign myself to that fate until it was blatantly obvious Michigan would win the game, and I can say the final result stung. This game was there for the taking, against a team that nearly every one, including me, thought would roll over the Illini.

Now, remember what I said about 1983 and 2000. These games the atmosphere was electric. In 2004, the atmosphere was like a morgue. Every fan was there and silent. Even on third downs for Michigan, you could normally hear a pin drop in the stadium. What happened to the electricity that beamed from Memorial Stadium just four years ago? How could it have been sucked out of the fans that quickly? We all know the answers to these questions, but today I actually ignored what was wrong as I was watching the game. Illinois had a chance to pull a major upset and I forgot everything surrounding the program, but the kids on the field, and cheering for Illinois to win. I just hope it will be sometime soon that Memorial Stadium will be as electric as it was in 1983 and 2000.


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