The first five weeks of the 2023 season have not gone as planned for Illinois Fighting Illini football, and it got even worse Tuesday.
The southwest corner of Memorial Stadium caught on fire, according to a statement from the program. Workers reported hearing a loud boom around 8 p.m., and smoke could be seen from the lower level of the stadium's south side. Firefighters rushed to the scene to keep the blaze from getting out of control.
Memorial Stadium, where the Fighting Illini play football and are schedule to play Nebraska on Friday, is at least partially on fire. Smoke can be seen pouring out from the the lower level on the south side of the stadium. We have a crew working to get more info. pic.twitter.com/FcCgRT9I6T
— Kevin Lighty - WCIA 3 Chief Meteorologist (@KevinLighty) October 4, 2023
The good news is that no injuries were reported and the blaze was contained about 20 minutes after the firefighters arrived.
A university spokesperson told WOWT the fire occurred away from spectator areas, and program officials are optimistic that Friday night's scheduled game between Illinois and Nebraska will take place.
"[The Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics] will continue to evaluate the facility over the course of the next day, but early indications are positive that the stadium will be prepared to host the game, as scheduled and without interruption of seating or services, for the game on Friday," the spokesperson said.
It's been that kind of season for the Fighting Illini, who come into the game with Nebraska sporting a 2-3 record overall and 0-2 in Big Ten play. They've suffered embarrassing losses to Kansas, Penn State and Purdue by a combined score of 108-55. Their only two wins came against Toledo and Florida Atlantic by a combined eight points.
On the bright side, Illinois has won the previous two meetings against the Huskers, who are also 2-3. Illini head coach Bret Bielema has won four out of five meetings in his career against Nebraska, including a 30-22 victory in his first game as Illinois head coach in 2021.
The team had high hopes after winning eight games in 2022, the first eight-win season since the 2007 squad that went to the Rose Bowl. They fell to Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl, although it was their first bowl appearance since that 2008 Rose Bowl.
Bielema is 15-15 at Illinois and 112-73 overall as a college head coach. He signed a new, six-year contract in December after taking over the program in late 2020.
The Illini would need to win six of their next seven games to equal their output from last season. That's a tall order to fill — but after this latest incident, there's nowhere to go but up.
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