Illini Football Agrees To Play FCS Illinois State in 2028 Opener

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Eight years after being forced to cancel the game, Illinois will try to host Illinois State in the 2028 season opener.

Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman announced to national, statewide and local media in his annual roundtable discussion session that the Illini have agreed to schedule Illinois State on Sept. 2, 2028 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

Illinois was slated to open its 2020 football season on Sept. 4, a Friday night, on Big Ten Network against Illinois State, which had advanced to the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last season.

The Big Ten Conference announced last month the plan of its 14 member schools to only play games within its own league for all of the 2020 fall sports, including the most important revenue-generating sports - football. After the league office’s announcement, Illinois had its non-conference home games against ISU, Connecticut and Bowling Green terminated.

“We're excited about the chance to get (Illinois State) back on the schedule," Whitman said. “It was tough to get on the phone with the non-conference opponents to talk to them about changing those games and looking for opportunities to reschedule."

Whitman didn’t confirm a guarantee payment for the 2028 game but Illinois State was scheduled to get a $450,000 paycheck for the game this season. With the Illinois game cancelled, Illinois State will now have to wait to open its 2020 season until Sept. 12 at home against Eastern Illinois.

“It was a Big Ten decision. It wasn’t a University of Illinois decision,” Lyons said. “I think we have to respect that. Josh is a colleague and a friend and he picked up the phone and gave me a call,’ Illinois State athletics director Larry Lyons said on 'The Jeremy Werner Show' on ESPN Radio in Champaign. “He was gracious enough to pick up the phone and call me and explain to me what was going on. Frankly, I appreciated the fact that he did it that way. Doesn’t change the outcome but Josh is a good man and I appreciate that he called me directly.”

The two schools have played three total times in Champaign with Illinois winning three blowouts (79-6 in 1944, 49-22 in 2003 and 45-17 in 2009) but the two schools didn’t have another viable date to play until 2028. Big Ten Conference schedule rules prohibit its 14 member schools from playing lower level Football Championship schools (of which Illinois State is a member) in consecutive years and Illinois already had previous agreements with Chattanooga (2022), Eastern Illinois (2024) and Southern Illinois (2026) in the next three even years of the decade.

Lyons said in July he and Whitman agreed in the Thursday phone call to reevaluate things and figure out if a date for the ISU-Illinois matchup could be rescheduled for a future date.

"Larry and I have been in regular communication throughout the virus, not about that game, just about how we’re each approaching the pandemic and our respective programs and sharing ideas, bouncing concepts off one another," Whitman said Thursday. "He’s a good man, he’s a good friend, he’s a good leader."

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