Fans voice thoughts before Illinois football’s ReliaQuest Bowl game in Tampa

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Logan Hodson

Block I fans during game against Minnesota on Oct. 15. Illini fans speak on the impact of the university’s football team and the past season prior to the ReliaQuest Bowl.

By Conor Blount and Adam Rosen

Following a 2021 season with a couple of impressive ups and its fair share of downs, Illinois fans waited in anticipation to see where Bret Bielema would take them in his second season as head coach.

The Illini, with improved coaching and the blossoming of players such as junior running back Chase Brown exploded to a 7-1 start through the first two-thirds of the season.

It appeared that the sky was the limit for Illinois, who were soundly in first place of the Big Ten West with two remaining games being at home and Michigan being the only opponent they were not favored to beat.

But the final third of the season could not have gone worse for Illinois, who suffered home collapses against Michigan State and Purdue while also giving up nine unanswered fourth-quarter points in a 19-17 loss at Michigan. The only win of this stretch was a blowout victory over Northwestern to close the season.

Despite Illinois losing their national ranking while blowing their shot at a place in the Big Ten championship game in the final stretch of the season, one would be hard pressed to find an Illinois fan who frowns upon the 2022 season – and it’s easy to see why. 

From professors to townies, this season was an unexpected shift in Illinois football across Champaign-Urbana. Illini from all walks of life have come to view the season in a positive light.

Will Reiser, the Vice President of Block I, the Illini student section at Memorial Stadium, grew up an Illinois fan, and is a lifelong Illini fan.

“I am a fourth-generation Illini,” Reiser said. “I have bled orange and blue since I was little, I never really got into NFL, it was almost always collegiate, Illini all the way.” 

Reflecting on the way the regular season ended, Reiser mentioned how after clinching a berth in a bowl game, it felt incredible.

“In my opinion, I am a big proprietor of ‘we just have to keep winning,’” Reiser said. “But, I could not help but feel that every game after [Minnesota] was gravy at this point, once you have it, let’s just go out there and show everybody else what we can do.”

Dr. Michael Raycraft, a clinical associate professor at the University of Illinois is from Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. Raycraft discussed how he goes to games with family and how that brings him a lot of joy.

“I worked for Illinois Athletics in the 1990s,” Raycraft said. “The high point for me as a fan has been going to the games with my daughter who is a junior.”

Kenneth Wilund, professor in AHS and 18-year fan of Illinois football describes a relationship with Illinois football that most Champaign residents can relate to.

“I’ve been here for 18 years, not as long as a lot of the people I hang out with … but enough to be jaded,” Wilund joked. “I’ve had maybe one real good season in ‘07 when we went to the Rose Bowl but other than that … not a whole lot.”

In regards to the final stretch of the season, Wilund acknowledged the overall progress the team made while also lamenting the opportunities that Illinois failed to capitalize on.

“When you see what was out there on the table … they had such a good start and such a reasonable path (to the Big Ten Championship game). At the end of the season you look back and ask ‘Would I have taken 8-4?’ Absolutely. Did I want more once we were 7-1? Yeah, which was deflating … but you see the trajectory of the program.”

Noa Greenfield, senior FAA and member of the Block I executive board, had little knowledge of Illinois football before her freshman year.

“I was looking for a good dance program,” Greenfield said. “My freshman year I started to get into it because I enjoyed sports throughout high school. I am really close with my dad and he loves sports so it was a way to get involved outside of the dance department and create connections with people across campus.”

Greenfield noted the differences in student section turnout this season compared to last season, stating that while the numbers may have been similar, the amount of students who were participating in the entire game day experience was much higher.

“This year we definitely had a big jump in people that were coming out more frequently,” Greenfield said. “Last year we were able to fill the student section a lot but we did not see the students coming to the tailgates and getting involved before the game. It was kind of just a game time experience whereas this year we were able to see a lot more student involvement pregame and that transitioning into filling the student section.”

 

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