This Memorial Stadium doesn’t feel like home for Illinois football

Most of the Illini have never been to Memorial Stadium. Not their Memorial Stadium, the other one.

Indiana’s Memorial Stadium?

No, no. Not that one either.

The Memorial Stadium out west; the one in Lincoln, Neb., where they’ve sold out every Cornhuskers football game since October 1962.

The one where red-clad fans with no NFL team within 190 miles to root for pack the stands for the only games that really matter in the Cornhusker State.

This Saturday, the Illinois football team will travel to Lincoln for the first time since 1985 and play in a stadium they haven’t won a game in since 1924.

To say it’s getting the Illini jacked up doesn’t quite capture the excitement.

“It’s going to be awesome,” junior defensive tackle Austin Teitsma said.

But that doesn’t quite capture it ether. Teitsma exudes the type of enthusiasm that might make him say the same thing about the tacos served at head coach Tim Beckman’s weekly news conference.

Tight end Matt LaCosse put it in simplest terms: “I know it’s big, and I know the fans are diehards.”

That they are.

The last time Memorial Stadium in Nebraska wasn’t filled to capacity for a Huskers football game was Oct. 20, 1962. There were a measly 30,701 fans at the game (the stadium then held a capacity crowd of 36,501).

That’s 329 consecutive home sellouts. There have been 10 different presidents of the United States in that time. The New England Patriots have called six different stadiums home in that stretch. The next closest sellout streak in college football is Notre Dame Stadium’s 234 straight sellouts (dating back to 1973).

But the most staggering statistic is the two — yes, two — losing seasons Nebraska has had since 1962.

Over the years, the stadium’s capacity has been expanded, and still the sellouts continue. Over the offseason, Nebraska added some 4,000 seats to its Memorial Stadium, making its capacity upward of 91,000. All four home games this year broke the previous attendance record.

Saturday’s conference opener with Illinois should do the same. And the storylines will be plenty.

Illinois hasn’t won a conference game in two years, nearly to the day. The two starting quarterbacks are two of only five signal-callers in FBS college football with at least 40 career starts (Georgia’s Aaron Murray leads the nation with 45).

When Illinois head coach Tim Beckman asked his squad early this week who had been to Lincoln before, only a couple of hands rose into the air.

One of them was fifth-year quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. As a high school player in the Kansas City, Mo., area, Scheelhaase visited Nebraska three times on recruiting visits. Once he went to a sold out spring game and another time he watched the Cornhuskers host No. 1 ranked Southern California.

“It’s one of the top venues you could ever be in,” Scheelhaase said. “There’s not much that will have to be said in the locker room or on the field to get everybody going. There will be enough electricity in that stadium that everybody will be ready to go.”

Scheelhaase is going to have to be ready to gun it if his counterpart Taylor Martinez returns from a toe injury. Both offenses like to air it out and both quarterbacks are versatile guys who can make something happen with their feet.

Beckman said the Illini have practiced all week as if Martinez will play and defensive coordinator Tim Banks said Martinez is a guy who can keep an entire defense on its toes.

“It’s not always outperforming the defense,” Beckman said. “It’s about outperforming that player that plays your position on the other team.

“That’s how Taylor is and that’s how Nathan is. They’re competitive men, and I’m sure they’ll want to go out and lead their football teams the best way they can.”

Martinez did not play in Nebraska’s last game against South Dakota State and appeared as if his injury was nagging him against UCLA a couple of weeks ago. But whether he or backup Tommy Armstrong Jr. starts, expect a shootout.

Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and his Nebraska counterpart Tim Beck (not to be confused with Beckman) are two of the best in the business. Their offenses rank 26th and 15th in the nation in points scored, respectively.

If there’s anything college football fans cheer for, it’s bucketfuls of points.

And the cheering is one concern for Beckman and his staff. A stadium filled with 90,000 fans can get pretty loud. So Beckman has done what he always does to prepare: Play loud music throughout practice.

“That’s one of the things that will probably never be as loud,” Beckman said of trying to replicate the crowd volume.

“(Beckman’s) done a great job with the noise,” Cubit added. “Listening to that music, it seems to be right behind us all the time.”

It certainly seems to get Teitsma pumped up. He said when he walks out on that field, he’s just going to take a second to look around before getting down to business.

And that’s what Scheelhaase, the veteran who’s been there and seen it in real life, has tried to teach his younger teammates.

“I’ve been telling all the players just to take in a moment like this, and take in the opportunity to get to play at a great venue like this,” Scheelhaase said. “Then strap it up and get ready to go because it’s going to be a heck of a 60-minute football game.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.