CHAMPAIGN — The Memorial Stadium stands were maybe half full a few minutes before Saturday’s game.
Maybe next time Illinois plays a home game, the turnout might feature a few more fans.
Beating Cincinnati 45-17 on Saturday should help ticket sales after a paid attendance of 43,031.
And just about everything else associated with a team few expected to start the season 2-0.
But that’s where Illinois finds itself after the most impressive win of Tim Beckman’s brief Illini tenure.
“When you haven’t had one like this in a long time, you just feel that weight lifted,” tight end Evan Wilson said. “It’s an amazing feeling to have it again.”
High-fives from Beckman’s son, Tyler, to recruits and words of encouragement — really — greeted Beckman and his team when they came off the field Saturday.
Along with a message.
“We can run the ball now,” right guard Ted Karras said before making his way up the tunnel.
Run the ball. Throw the ball. Swarm to the ball. Illinois basically did whatever it wanted to against the Bearcats, who came in as nearly eight-point favorites.
Cincinnati left with questions lingering about exactly how good Purdue is (the Bearcats streamrolled the Boilermakers 42-7 last week), and more pressing, how good Illinois is.
Beckman deflected any talk of the victory becoming a signature win for him.
“It’s only one game,” Beckman said. “We’ve still got a little ways to go. When I come in on Sundays and watch these tapes, the first thing I look forward to is seeing these kids because they’ve been so outstanding in what they’ve done off the field. Are we where we need to be at yet? No, but I know we’re progressing.”
Just think. Knock off Washington, in what is essentially a home game for Illinois next Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago, and Illinois is halfway toward bowl eligibility. Don’t pinch yourself. Saturday’s win actually happened.
Who would have thought that? Even before Saturday, not many people could fathom such a scenario.
Or for Nathan Scheelhaase to throw for more than 300 yards in his second straight game, a feat the fifth-year senior quarterback had never accomplished in the first 36 games of his Illinois career.
“Nate had another great game,” wide receiver Ryan Lankford said. “The biggest thing is his confidence and him understanding the offense completely.”
Shock the world was a common theme from safety Earnest Thomas before the season started. Illinois didn’t stun the college football world on Saturday, but it may have quieted some of its critics. Thomas, though, hopes doubt still exists about Illinois moving forward.
“As football players, we know what everybody expected of us coming into this season,” Thomas said. “We know what people were saying about what we were going to be and what we weren’t going to be. Anything that can motivate us, we always use that.”