Smith sets tone for future of Illinois football with first win

Illinois+head+football+coach+Lovie+Smith+%28center%29+joins+tight+end+Bobby+Walker+%2883%29+and+offensive+lineman+Joe+Spencer+%2871%29+in+singing+Hail+to+the+Orange+after+the+game+against+Murrary+State+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+September+3.+The+Illini+won+52-3.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois head football coach Lovie Smith (center) joins tight end Bobby Walker (83) and offensive lineman Joe Spencer (71) in singing Hail to the Orange after the game against Murrary State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 3. The Illini won 52-3.

By Charlotte Carroll, Sports editor

Carroll, Charlotte_cutoutLovie Smith officially became an Illini on Saturday when he joined his players on the field in front of the student section to sing “Alma Mater” after his team defeated Murray State.

Sandwiched between offensive lineman Joe Spencer and tight end Bobby Walker, he looked slightly confused about what exactly was happening, but the players led him through the tradition.

And soon enough, I think he’ll get the hang of it.

It was a perfect moment of college football for Smith, with athletes and students mixing together, celebrating a win.

The song capped off a day that was a welcome relief for Illini fans and a warm welcome for the new coach.

After months of speculation and non-stop talk, Smith finally coached his first game as an Illini.

The Lovie era started with a win and the most fans, with 48,644 in attendance, at an Illinois home opener since 2010 when Ron Zook was at the helm.

But it didn’t feel like previous victories, even if it came against the typical “cupcake” team.

These early games obviously function as a relatively easy start to the schedule. And while that same warm-up remained this year, it was the start of something new in Illinois football.

Finally.

Last Saturday was a whole different atmosphere. It was a stark change from the season opener a year ago when fans were of course excited, like the start to every season.

But now the cloud hovering over Memorial was gone. There was a tangible anticipation.

Block I was almost full before kickoff. Grange Grove was packed with families and students tailgating. I had friends who hadn’t been to a football game since freshman year decide to make the journey out as seniors.

Fans were rewarded with a glimpse at perhaps the winning future of Illinois football. It will likely not be this season, but there’s a sense of hope that’s been lacking in years past.

The players looked proud to take the field, with Julian Hylton snagging an interception on Murray State’s second play of the game to the delight of the crowd.

Then Taylor Barton got the next Illinois interception on Murray State’s following possession.

Smith called takeaways the “winning edge,” saying while many talk about getting them, his players believe it. And “that’s the first step to get our guys to buy into it,” he added.

Smith was talking specifically about takeaways, but his message is applicable to his team and the Illinois program as a whole.

They gave fans a taste of the future with this win, with students and alumni eager to believe Lovie is the much needed change the program needs.

And come next game, there will surely be more fans in the stands, looking to get a glimpse of that change.

“It’s a good day for the Smith family to say the least,” Lovie said after the game.

And the same can be said for Illini fans.

Charlotte is a Senior in Media.

[email protected]

@charlottecrrll