CHAMPAIGN — Saturday’s game against Northwestern will be the last one at Memorial Stadium for the Illinois seniors.
So, which one is most likely to cry? Depends on who you ask.
“I think Dele (Harding),” junior center Doug Kramer said. “I’ve seen him cry a couple times this year already. We know it’s in him.”
Harding isn’t sure.
“I hope I don’t cry,” Harding said. “Certain emotions hit you when you’re making that walk. I hope I stay afloat. But I honestly think it will be Jamal Milan.”
“Jamal’s going to cry,” tailback Reggie Corbin said. “I might cry, you never know.”
Milan, a defensive tackle, agrees with his teammates.
“Oh, me,” Milan said. “I might cry Friday night before we even get ready for the game. I’m super emotional. I try to hide it, but I’m just too big.”
Unlike the past four years, the seniors know they have one more game after the regular-season finale. That takes some of the sting out.
“This isn’t your last week of practice, the last week in that uniform,” Corbin said. “I’m just grateful for a bowl.”
There are 13 seniors listed on the Illinois roster: Defensive back Nolan Bernat, running backs Dre Brown and Corbin, receivers Trendard Davis and Caleb Reams, defensive back Stanley Green, linebacker Harding, defensive linemen Kenyon Jackson, Milan and Tymir Oliver, offensive lineman Richie Petitbon and tight ends Bobby Walker and Justice Williams. Four more players will end their Illini careers after Saturday: offensive lineman Kurt Gavin, quarterback Cam Miller, tight end Griffin Palmer and defensive lineman Brandon Jones.
“They’ve meant so much to our program,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “Your last time to play at your home stadium, it’s just a different feeling. A lot of things flash by in your mind that you’ve gone through to get to this point. That’s definitely the case with our guys.
“We want to send them out regular-season-wise on a high note.”
Harding is the lone senior captain on the team. The Big Ten’s leading tackler with 132 is having a major impact his final year.
“He’s meant so much to our team,” Smith said.
The current seniors weren’t recruited by Smith. Some came to Illinois to play for Tim Beckman and some joined Bill Cubit’s program.
“A lot of times when there is a coaching change, guys leave,” Smith said. “They want to try something different. As a new staff coming in, we let everybody know how we would run our program, what would be expected. These guys that stayed all got on board. Even though we didn’t recruit them, they’ve been as much a part of us as any of the guys we recruited. This is one of our classes that’s leaving.”
The seniors are ending the school bowl-less streak after five years. They also got to move into the new Smith Center, the $80 million facility that opened in August on the east side of Memorial Stadium.
“They’ve done an awful lot,” Smith said. “These guys leave here hopefully with a good taste in their mouth.”Unlike the past four games, the Illini are coming off a loss going into the Northwestern game. Illinois dropped a 19-10 decision at Iowa.
“We were just totally disappointed in how we played our last game,” Smith said. “We didn’t make enough plays to win in the end. But we’re ready to go this week.”
Who will start at quarterback for Illinois on Saturday remains unclear.
Brandon Peters left the Iowa game early. He missed an earlier game against Michigan on Oct. 12 while following the concussion protocol after he got hurt during the Illini’s loss at Minnesota on Oct. 5.
Peters did attend Tuesday night’s Illinois men’s basketball game against Lindenwood at State Farm Center.
If Peters can’t go, he will likely be replaced by redshirt freshman Matt Robinson, who started against the Wolverines.
“Matt has played,” Smith said. “We’re down by 28 points to a Top 10 program and Matt brought us back, almost to upset them. We’ve seen him play good football.”
Freshman Isaiah Williams is also healthy and ready to play if needed.
“We have some depth at the quarterback position if it comes to that,” Smith said. “Hopefully that won’t be the case.”
“Should he (Robinson) have to go, I’ll be fine with him,” Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “We saw what he’s capable of doing against Michigan. Hopefully, he’s gotten better since then throughout the course of practice.
“The critical part of those guys like Matt and Isaiah, when you’re in a backup role and you get your opportunity, how you perform obviously is important. What’s even more important, in my opinion, is how you learn from your mistakes.”
The Illini offensive coordinator is impressed with what he sees in Northwestern’s defense.
“They’re giving up some points, but not a lot,” Rod Smith said. “They are keeping their team in games. It’s going to be a tremendous matchup again because we’re going up a good defensive front, some seasoned linebackers, got some secondary guys back that are older.”
The Wildcats followed their usual Friday routine. They had a walkthrough at Ryan Fieldhouse before loading buses for the 157-mile trip south.
The Northwestern travel party went directly to team headquarters at Champaign’s Holiday Inn. They had meetings and dinner before turning in.Bob Asmussen