Illini football look to send seniors off with win

Hugh Thornton is familiar with senior day.

His freshman season, he played alongside Jon Asomoah for his last game in orange and blue before he joined the Kansas City Chiefs.

As a junior last year, he saw Jack Cornell off to the Baltimore Ravens.

But come Saturday, Thornton and his 19 fellow Illinois seniors will be the ones running out onto the field for the last time as players.

“Now it’s my turn,” Thornton said. “It’s a little bittersweet.”

The Illini will look to reverse a senior day trend against Purdue, as Illinois has lost on senior day in each of the last four seasons. The last time Illinois seniors left Memorial Stadium as victors in their final game was the 2007 Rose Bowl season, when Illinois defeated then-No. 21 Northwestern 41-22 to advance to 9-3 on the season.

“My first and last senior day,” defensive tackle Glen Foster said. “It’s sad that it’s my last home game here. I’m going to leave everything I have out on Memorial Stadium because I’ll never be able to play here again.”

Offensive line coach Luke Butkus shared his senior day memories with his players Tuesday morning, although the conditions surrounding his final college home game were entirely different. Butkus and the 2001 Illini were competing for a Big Ten Championship against Northwestern on Thanksgiving Day, a game Illinois won 34-28.

“It’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life, and I’m hoping that, regardless of our situation right now, (offensive linemen) Graham Pocic, Tyler Sands and Hugh Thornton remember that day,” Butkus said. “This is their last day on Zuppke Field at Memorial Stadium. These guys need to make it special.”

The 20 Illinois seniors — which include four redshirt junior walk-ons who aren’t using their final year of eligibility — will be honored on the field with their families before the game.

Each senior gave a speech during Camp Rantoul in the summer that will be played on the big screen as they walk out onto the field.

“I believe it’s a special day,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “And I want it to be a special day, not just for our seniors, but for their families.”

In the midst of a seven-game losing streak and without a Big Ten victory since Oct. 8, 2011, the Illinois seniors aren’t the only ones desperate for a win. While the Illini haven’t reached preseason expectations for a team that had a top-10 defense and won a bowl game in 2011, they still hope to send the seniors off with something to celebrate.

“Our mentality is we just have to go out and have fun and execute,” Thornton said. “Do those two things, and I’m confident we can come out with a win.”

If Illinois (2-8, 0-6 Big Ten) is going to get another victory this season, this week might be its best shot. Purdue (4-6, 1-5) has also struggled this season, though the Boilermakers are coming off a win over Iowa and have played close games with some of the nation’s top teams in Notre Dame and Ohio State.

“It will be another challenge for us,” Beckman said. “I think each week that you step out there on the football field in the Big Ten, every game is a major challenge.”

Chad can be reached at thornbu1@dailyillini.com and @cthornburg10.