CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With a few minutes remaining before kickoff, Friday night lights was looking like a Friday night failure in the Illinois version of Memorial Stadium.
The concrete-and-metal bleachers of Illinois' 93-year-old home were mostly empty as the Illini band finished its pregame show and the captains from both teams met at midfield. For a time it looked as if Husker fans might outnumber fans of the hometown school.
This despite picture-perfect football weather — 69 degrees and clear skies at kickoff — and a halftime celebration honoring some of Illinois’ finest athletes.
For a time, the 60,670-capacity stadium was less than half-full and Nebraska was facing the possibility of playing in front of one of the smallest crowds in more than 40 years.
The last time Nebraska played in front of less than 30,000 fans came Dec. 4, 1971, at Hawaii in the final game of the regular season.
Those top-ranked Huskers beat the Rainbow Warriors 45-3 in front of 23,002 fans a little less than a month before routing Alabama 38-6 in the Orange Bowl to win their second consecutive national championship.
Nebraska hadn’t played in front of a crowd of less than 40,000 since the 2015 Foster Farms Bowl, when 33,527 watched the Huskers down UCLA 37-29 in Mike Riley’s first bowl game as NU head coach.
And the last time less than 40,000 saw a Nebraska regular-season game came earlier in 2015, when 31,351 watched Purdue beat NU 55-45 in West Lafayette, Indiana.
In the end Friday night, though, 43,058 made their way inside by the time action was underway. That total was about 3,000 more than the crowd that watched Illinois upset Nebraska 14-13 here in 2015.
By the time the third quarter started, with Nebraska leading 21-3, pockets of empty bleachers were visible in the stadium’s lower decks.
Moving quickly: Friday night’s first quarter lasted just 29 minutes, or 23 minutes less than the season-opening first quarter against Arkansas State in a game that took nearly four hours to play.
That gained time was quickly lost with a quarter break, followed by an Illinois field goal, followed by a commercial break, followed by a kickoff, followed by another commercial break.
Not exactly the most fan-friendly experience in a stadium that was already only two-thirds full.
Foltz still remembered: Several of Illinois’ specialists wore “SF27” T-shirts in pregame warmups. The Illini football Twitter account shared a photo of the specialists talking with Nebraska kicker Drew Brown before the game.
All-time greats honored: Surprisingly, before this weekend, the University of Illinois did not have an athletics hall of fame.
That changed with the induction of the school's first class, which included two college football greats: Dick Butkus and Red Grange. Butkus was in attendance, much to the delight of the Illini faithful, while Grange, of course, was there in spirit. The Galloping Ghost has a monument in his honor in the northeast corner of Memorial Stadium, as well as a statue outside the stadium's east stands.
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