General

Illinois at Soldier Field: What you need to know

This weekend’s newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

illini-soldier-field-chicagoThe WISCH LIST

By Dave Wischnowsky

In one week, Illinois football is coming to Chicago.

But is winning football coming to Illinois any time soon?

That’s still TBD. Although, judging by last Saturday’s shaky 42-34 season-opening victory over Southern Illinois, it might also be TBQ.

You know, “To Be Questioned.”

What isn’t in doubt is that the Illini, who face Cincinnati at Memorial Stadium today, will take their show on the road to the Windy City next Saturday when they face No. 20 Washington at 5 p.m. at Soldier Field.

If you’re attending the game, the following is a primer to get you up to speed on everything you need for your trip to Chicago. Good tickets are still available at fightingillini.com.

The opponent

Last year, the Washington Huskies went 7-6, losing 28-26 to Boise State in the MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas. This year, the Huskies opened up by stomping that same Boise State team 38-6 in Seattle.

Uh oh.

With 17 starters back from 2012, Washington is a formidable foe for Tim Beckman’s struggling Illini program. With this weekend off to prepare, they’re downright scary. But don’t let that scare you away from what could still be a unique and fun day at Soldier Field.

The heritage

The Bears’ nickname is derived from their relationship with the Cubs, since it was at Wrigley Field where the team first played its football games in Chicago.

But the Bears’ orange-and-blue team colors? They came from the University of Illinois, where George “Papa Bear” Halas played football for legendary Illini coach Bob Zuppke.

Illinois is billing the Washington game as its “Chicago Homecoming,” and with a longstanding relationship between the school the Bears, in many ways it is even if Illinois hasn’t played a game at Soldier Field since a season-opening 10-9 loss to Washington State in 1994. With Illini all-time greats Red Grange and Dick Butkus also being Bears all-time greats, the ties between the teams run even deeper.

The pregame

tailgateA 5 p.m. kickoff provides ample time for tailgating, which might actually prove to be the best part of the day.

From 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., the university will host the free Illini Fest next to Soldier Field on the southeast lawn with live entertainment, face painting and sweets, as well as food and drinks for purchase.

Meanwhile, from 1 p.m. to kickoff in the Burnham Harbor Lot, Illini football legends Dana Howard, Simeon Rice, Kevin Hardy, John Holocek and Kelvin Hayden will host a tailgate with live music and all-you-can-eat food and drink. Flyin’ Illini members Kendall Gill and Stephen Bardo will also be in attendance, along with CBS Chicago anchor Ryan Baker, an Illinois alum. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased at illinitailgating.eventbrite.com.

The parking

If you drive to Soldier Field, visit soldierfield.clickandpark.com for full details about parking for the Washington-Illinois game. If you want to leave the car at home, visit metrarail.com for details about taking the train to the 18th Street station and walking over to Soldier Field.

The point

When Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas was hired in 2011, he spoke during his introductory press conference about elevating the University of Illinois’ profile within the Windy City.

“I think we need to become better branded nationally, and that starts within the state,” Thomas said. “I think we need to be the king of the state. I think we need to be the king of Chicago.”

The Illini very well might get crowned by the Huskies – in the wrong way. Nevertheless, playing at Soldier Field is still a step in the right direction for the program, and hopefully a sign of future Chicago events to come.