Illinois football student section sells out against Wisconsin

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Justin Wolfe | The Daily Illini

Block I during the Halftime performance at the Homecoming game against Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium on October 24, 2015.

By Charlotte Carroll, Staff writer

When Ke’Shawn Vaughn broke free and ran 36 yards for a touchdown in Saturday’s Homecoming game against Wisconsin, the Memorial Stadium crowd went wild. While it was silenced just a few plays later and the Illini ended the game with a loss, that noise level resonated with players and coaches.

“It got very loud,” said defensive back Eaton Spence. “If you’ve never been to a big college game, you would have sworn it was like an earthquake or something. It got real loud.”

Spence said when the team ran out at the beginning of the game, the crowd was just so-so. But when the team returned after the halftime break, he was amazed to see what he thought was the largest crowd in his time at Illinois.

While Vaughn elicited cheers and yells from thousands of Illinois fans, he said he didn’t look to the crowd after scoring. Instead he faced his teammates.

But by doing that, he missed the sea of orange and blue in the north end zone: five thousand fans, to be exact. Block I, the student section, was a full house.

Senior and vice president of Block I Nick Robinson said he had never seen the student section that packed during his time at Illinois. He thinks Illinois’ win over Arizona State in 2011 may have been the last time Block I was that full.

But because he wasn’t a student here yet, that’s just a Block I legend

“It was really exciting finally having that incredible turnout because the players have worked their butts off during my four years,” Robinson said. “And that’s not just in the gym and on the practice field, but they’ve been great interacting with us at our events. I’m glad they finally got a game where they got to play in front of a packed student section.”

Robinson has had a role in Block I leadership since his sophomore year when he was a Blockhead and then his junior year, he was a Block I chair. He has helped run card stunts and social media with varying degrees of authority

It hasn’t always been easy. The Illini student section has received plenty of flak from national websites for its lack of attendance and incomplete card stunts in the past years.

“As anyone reading SB Nation, Deadspin or whatever likes to point out to us in an effort to get us to stop doing stunts when attendance is bad,” Robinson said. “That’s never going to happen, and I’m glad we got to show everyone how great stunts can be.”

Saturday’s official attendance was 45,438, but Memorial Stadium holds 60,670 people. Saturday was the first time this season where Block I was more full — percentage wise — than other portions of the stadium.

Packing the student section has been a combined effort. In the past, Block I was separate from other student season ticket options. But this year, every student season ticket holder has Block I membership built into their season ticket price and the benefits such as pregame tailgates that come with the membership. Single game tickets for the North end zone are also available to students.

All Block I members were given two free tickets to the Wisconsin and Ohio State games, as well as the opportunity to purchase two more discounted tickets.

Head coach Bill Cubit has also made a point to interact with fans — he has been out on the quad every Thursday promoting the team and encouraging fans to head to games.

But Illinois athletics’ Director of Marketing Brad Swanson said the likely difference in marketing was just that the team was 4-2 heading into the game, giving an added buzz to the Homecoming festivities.

In Swanson’s judgement, Block I was last filled to capacity in 2012 against Louisiana Tech.

Despite the time between Homecoming and the Ohio State game, Robinson said he doesn’t believe that the ending of the Wisconsin game will impact people’s decision to come out for the last home game. He’s already seen people in search of tickets and is expecting another good turnout.

Cubit is making sure his team holds up the bargain on the field.

“I’m confident we’re going to give them something they’re going to look forward to,” Cubit said.

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@charlottecrrll