Big Ten football is big time football for Illini

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By Charlotte Carroll, Staff writer

Illinois football head coach Bill Cubit has worked in three of the Power 5 conferences throughout his career.

Yet, he is quick to point out that the Big Ten holds a special place in his heart. A Pennsylvania native, Penn State is his home team, but opponents’ stadiums offer a chance for exploration and chance to feel history under his feet.

“I love walking around and thinking about the greats,” Cubit said.

It is this illustrious past that is a conference draw and made the journey to the Big Ten that much more significant for Illinois coaches and players. But it’s also added an increased pressure as the team has failed to perform well.

In the past two years, Illinois has just four Big Ten wins. The Illini won one conference game in 2013 and three in 2014.

So the pressure from fans and players themselves is high: The team needs to perform well if Cubit is to be hired as the full-time head coach.

For offensive lineman Ted Karras, being a Big Ten player is only natural — he is the seventh in the Karras clan to play in the Big Ten. Since reporters first started coming to his house at the age of four, Karras has known he was part of a football family and a Big Ten legacy.

His uncle played at Iowa, his father at Northwestern and his grandfather at Indiana. All spent time in the NFL. Teddy’s goal was to get a Big Ten scholarship and continue the tradition. He said his time here has been the greatest part of his life so far.

“It’s the best conference in America,” Karras said. “The biggest, baddest lineman play in the Big Ten. That’s why you come here, to play against these guys … Every week you’re going against a d-tackle that’s probably going to the league.”

The conference is a regional draw but has plenty of national exposure. Like Cubit, growing up in Pennsylvania, players said that growing up in the Midwest makes it easy to pick a team and conference to root for.

The Big Ten — with loyalties that go back generations and several historic programs — has led overall game attendance the past two seasons in the FBS. Three Big Ten teams are in the top five of average home game attendance: The other two are SEC teams.

This season, the Big Ten went 9-8 against Power 5 teams before conference play starts this week.

Besides records, exposure differs among the conferences. While the SEC had four media days this summer, as opposed to the Big Ten’s two, players agree that the conference still holds weight. Especially with Ohio State’s domination in last year’s first FBS playoff.

“At least in Midwest, it’s the most important conference,” Karras said. “I think sometimes we get overshadowed. I don’t think we performed as well as we should have against power five teams as an entire conference this season. But we have the No. 1 and 2 team, so I think we’re getting enough recognition.”

Both players who started at Illinois and those who’ve transferred said they chose the Big Ten for its competition. To some who’ve transferred, this intensity is motivation to work harder.

For Zach Grant, who transferred to Illinois from NIU after his freshman year, there are just more hours devoted to football.

For Jihad Ward, who transferred from Globe Tech junior college, the competitiveness forces him to be better than his opponents.

Henry Enyenihi, who transferred from Sacramento City College, always had a dream of playing in a Power 5 conference and at a school that valued athletics and academics.

But for the team, the players said their goal is to win against Nebraska and prove Illinois’ name in the conference.

For each Illini, the Big Ten has its draw. From the style of play, to the history, to the opportunities, each player has his own reason for picking the conference.

Each player’s journey started in a different place, but they have a common mindset.

“When the Big Ten comes knocking, you don’t say no,” Enyenihi said.

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@charlottecrrll