Illinois coaches get their first taste of the atmosphere in Memorial Stadium

Illinois+head+football+coach+Lovie+Smith+watches+his+team+from+the+sidelines+during+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 watches his team from the sidelines during the game against Murrary State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 3. The Illini won 52-3.

By Cole Henke, Staff writer

Illinois football fans were not the only ones who got their first taste of what the Lovie Smith era would bring to the University during Saturday’s opener against Murray State.

Smith and his right-hand men — offensive coordinator Garrick McGee and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson — finally got a taste of the game day atmosphere around Memorial Stadium, too.

The official attendance numbers tallied 48,644 people — the most for an Illinois home opener since 2010 when Illinois hosted Southern Illinois.

“Our fans were outstanding,” Smith said. “It was my first walk down Grange Grove, and there was a lot of energy outside that was brought into the stadium. It gave us momentum right away.”

The game against Murray State was the first for Smith in the college ranks since the 1996 Citrus Bowl when he was an assistant at Ohio State. McGee on the other hand, has now been in the college game for 19 out of the 20 years he has been coaching.

McGee said he doesn’t get caught up in his surroundings when he is on the sideline. He focuses on the next play he is going to call for his team. He doesn’t think about the atmosphere until after the game is over.

“When you are down there and in the middle of it, you try to stay away from all of it,” McGee said. “But after the game I always ask my wife about what the atmosphere is like.”

Fans had plenty to cheer about during the game: Illinois scored three touchdowns from over 50 yards, but it was Nickerson’s defense that kept the energy from before the game going through the rest of the game.

The Illini defense intercepted Murray State’s KD Humphries twice in the first two drives of the game. A fumble recovery later in the game was the third and final takeaway of the day for the Illini defense.

Just like McGee, Nickerson’s focus stays on the game, but he was aware of the impact the fan turnout had on what was happening on the field.

“When you are calling the next play and you are into the ballgame, you hear the fans,” Nickerson said. “It was great to see a lot of our guys make big plays and get the fans into the ballgame.”

Smoot struggles in first game

In his first game of his highly anticipated senior season, defensive end Dawuane Smoot did not exactly fill up the box score. He only recorded one tackle Saturday, and that one was assisted.

This preseason, Smoot was named to the Lombardi Award (player of the year) watch list, the Bednarik Award (defensive player of the year) watch list and the Hendricks Award (defensive end of the year) watch list.

Smith told Smoot in his first meeting with the defensive end that he would be an NFL first-round draft pick after the season.

“Dawuane Smoot is a great player,” Smith said. “I expect him to dominate weekly. He played a good game Saturday, but that is not the best game you will see him play. I have a higher standard for him than that.”

Smoot also picked up three penalties for the Illini, including a roughing the kicker call that gave the Racers the ball back after they punted it away on fourth down.

Smith said that the Illini picked up too many penalties — seven total — but he isn’t worried about the penalties Smoot and his teammates picked up.

“I am not going to try and keep him under control,” Smith said. “The more the better. We won’t try to pull back from any of our players that have that energy, but there are certain times where we expect them to contain that energy whether it be not being offsides or knowing how aggressive to be.”

[email protected]

@cole_Henke