CHAMPAIGN — Exactly 20 current Illinois football players were around for the Illini’s last major primetime game in Lovie Smith’s first season. Others have played night games at Memorial Stadium, but none of those compared to the Sept. 10, 2016, showdown with the Mitch Trubisky-led North Carolina.
A capacity crowd of 60,670 filled Memorial Stadium. It was the first sellout since 2011 and first against a nonconference opponent since 1987.
Now redshirt junior linebacker Jake Hansen remembers it well. The atmosphere and environment (raucous) stood out more than the final result (a 48-23 Tar Heels’ win).
“It was rocking that night,” Hansen said. “I remember the Illini Walk was probably the best it’s been since I’ve been here. Our Grange Grove walk was packed.”
Illinois could have a similar type environment on Sept. 21 when it opens Big Ten play with a 7 p.m. home game against Nebraska (1-1). The kickoff time was announced on Monday.
The potential for that, however, is predicated on the result from Saturday’s game against Eastern Michigan (1-1), and the Illini (2-0) aren’t really budging from a one-game-at-a time mentality.
“It’s all about Eastern Michigan this week,” Smith said on Monday. “We play some other Big Ten teams later on too, right? They’re all kind of grouped together right now for our team. But do we want to have primetime games in the future? Absolutely. If you’re playing good football, you get primetime games.”
The consensus from the Illinois players available Monday was a 7 p.m. kickoff against Nebraska wouldn’t be any different than if they played the Huskers at 11 a.m. or 2:30 p.m. At least when it came to football on the field.
“It always means something a little bit more, but at the end of the day it’s just another game and another time,” Hansen said. “It’s definitely more exciting when you’ve got a big crowd at Memorial Stadium at 7 p.m.”
“You’re still just playing football,” junior quarterback Brandon Peters said. “But it’s going to be a great atmosphere, for sure. It’s always a bigger atmosphere at night. That will be exciting, for sure.”
Josh Imatorbhebhe was in step with his teammates on the 7 p.m. start against Nebraska. Football is football, the junior wide receiver said.
“It might be different for the media,” the Southern California graduate transfer said. “It might be different for the city of Champaign because there’s going to be a lot of attention on it. But for the players, it should be the same. Truthfully.
“The game of football is the game of football whether there’s 50,000 fans or there’s 100,000 fans. I feel like every single player really should see it like that so you don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself and can just focus on doing your job. Then, we’ll win.”
That’s a mindset Imatorbhebhe said he would definitely share with his teammates in advance of next week’s Big Ten opener.
“One hundred percent,” he said. “At least the receiver room, and then I’ll trust the leaders and captains on this team to do their part in that, too. I feel like if we can focus on what we can control, we’ll be just fine.”