Illini AD on Thursday Night Big Ten Opener: “Our team is going to be incredibly excited”

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois is scheduled to host the first Big Ten football game of the 2020 regular season and it is expected to be a national television primetime event.

The Big Ten Conference released its 2020 football schedule Wednesday morning and by doing so, announced Illinois will host Ohio State for a Thursday night contest on Sept. 3 to open its entire league slate.

The game will mark the first time Illinois has opened a football season against Ohio State and while game times and television are yet to be determined, it is assumed this matchup will be on either ESPN, Fox Sports or the Big Ten Network.

When asked about the opportunity to host the league opener on a Thursday night before Labor Day weekend with practically all of the nation watching, Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman said on Big Ten Network that the schedule announcement was a present players and coaches had been waiting for.

“I think our team is going to be incredibly excited,” Whitman said. “I think every college football player in the country has been waiting for some certainty, has been waiting for some idea of what the future could look like. So, for us to be able to put the schedule in front of them and then for our opener to be at home, a national primetime game, the first game out of the chute at a major level, I know our guys are incredibly excited about it.”

Whitman, who played tight end on the Illinois football team from 1997-2000, was celebrating 42nd birthday Wednesday as the Big Ten Conference released its football schedule. 

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Illinois is coming off the program’s first bowl appearance in five years and brings back as many as 14 starters on both sides of the ball. The Illini, which had been pointing toward this 2020 campaign as the turning point of head coach Lovie Smith’s five-tenure, will host the defending league champion Ohio State program that brings back a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback (Justin Fields) and is currently riding a 14-game winning streak against league opponents.

“We’ve been building this program now over these last number of years and we have a really talented, experienced senior class that is hoping to leave their mark in this upcoming season,” Whitman said. “Certainly it’s a great way to get started.”

Due to starting its season one day earlier than everybody else in the conference, the Big Ten officials have authorized both Illinois and Ohio State to start preseason practices Thursday Aug. 6 with the other 12 league schools being able to start preseason camps the following day.

The last time Illinois upset Ohio State was the 2007 game in Columbus where the Illini, which would eventually earn a Rose Bowl berth, defeated the No. 1 Buckeyes 28-21. The last time Illinois defeated Ohio State in Champaign was a 10-7 result in 1991 during a five-year winning streak for the Illini over the Buckeyes from 1988-92. During that winning stretch for Illinois, John Mackovic, the program’s head coach at athletics director, was a perfect 4-0 against Ohio State. The last time the two teams played was the first and only time Lovie Smith’s Illini have met Ohio State. In the 2017 matchup in front of 105,282 at Ohio Stadium, the Buckeyes defense held Illinois to just 105 total yards in a 52-14 blowout win.

While fans got an opportunity to look at a list of potential opponents for a football season, the league officials are still publicly recognizing that starting and finishing this football season is still in a bit of peril due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said Wednesday on Big Ten Network “it would be purely speculation at this point for me to sit here and say ‘this is what percent we will have a season’”.

“While the conference remains hopeful for a September 2020 start in all fall sports, issuing a schedule does not guarantee that competition will occur,” the Big Ten Conference said in a media statement. “While our strategy is to continue planning for all fall sports, if the virus continues to spread among our students despite our many preventive measures, including testing and quarantine protocols, we are also prepared to delay or cancel competition pursuant to local and state public health orders or the recommendation of our medical experts.”

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