If the 2019 RedBox Bowl on Dec. 30 were a battle of the marching bands, Illinois would have been the clear victor.
But of course, it wasn't, and in just about every aspect of the event, the opponent California Golden Bears had the upper hand. The disparity wasn't most apparent in the stat sheet – actually, the Illini led the Bears in most statistical categories including passing yards, rushing yards and third down efficiency. The only one-sided category in favor of the team out west was the only one that really matters: points.
But from pregame tailgates to postgame celebrations, Cal's home field advantage was apparent. One side of Levi's Stadium was a sea of Cal blue and gold, the other more evenly split but still leaning toward the Bears. The "Go Bears" choruses echoed throughout the stadium all day, while the "I-L-L-I-N-I" chants were fewer and further between.
It reflected the development of the game quite accurately. What started off as a back-and-forth battle between the two schools – which traded first-quarter touchdowns and leads in the early going -- turned into somewhat of a rout at one point in the second half and was all but decided with plenty of time remaining in the fourth quarter.
In fact, Illinois fans' biggest reason to cheer after halftime came after a desperation dive for an attempt at a first down on a fourth-and-17 by quarterback Brandon Peters with under two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. It was a valiant effort but a turnover on downs nonetheless, and besides that, the orange- and blue-clad fans lacked much reason for excitement.
While the outcome on the field was different from what many Illinois fans had hoped or imagined, the general feeling that it was a home game for Cal didn't come as much of a surprise. In reality, the Illini were dealt a tough card. Levi's Stadium is located 2,156 miles from Memorial Stadium in Champaign, and just 44 miles from Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California, the home of the Golden Bears.
Not that the orange and blue deserved a spot in the College Football Playoff, and not that Lovie Smith's group was the victim of an NCAA conspiracy – but it was clear the site wouldn't be a neutral one, strong contingent of U of I alumni in the Bay Area aside.
California head coach Justin Wilcox acknowledged that natural home field advantage after the game. "[I'm] appreciative of our fans for coming out and supporting us," Wilcox said in the postgame press conference. "It was great to be here in the Bay Area so they could all make it."
Still, what the Illini crowd lacked in quantity, its band at least partially made up in volume. The Marching Illini sent its entire group to the West Coast, and in comparison to Cal's seemingly skimpy unit, it stole the show. As it became clearer and clearer that Illinois would leave California without a bowl win in its hands, the band seemed not to have gotten the memo. Oskee-Wow-Wow blasted after each first down, the group made its presence felt after strong defensive plays and the drum-line continued the show on its way out of the stadium as the group headed toward the buses.
"I thought the Marching Illini performed superbly, as they usually do," said Al Grosboll, an Illinois fan and a father of a saxophone player in the U of I band. "Even after the Illini football team fell considerably behind, the band never stopped performing their best. The team may get down, but the band plays on with gusto."
Cal-Illinois predictably didn't manifest as a bitter, fierce and passionate rivalry close to what U of I fans might experience against Michigan or Ohio State. Many Illini and Bears fans attended the game together, and there seemed to be a mutual respect between the two sides rather than a vile distaste emanating from every corner of the building.
"Even with a worsening score, the fans continued to have fun," Grosboll said. "Everyone was in a good mood ...There were a few Cal fans on our side of the field, and it was fun talking to them. Overall, the fans on both sides of the field had a good game-day experience."
It wasn't an ideal outcome for the Fighting Illini on the gridiron, but the game was about much more than that. "Win or lose, it is good to see the football team in a bowl, and it is always fun to watch the Marching Illini," Grosboll said.
Nathan Ackerman of Alamo, California, is a sophomore, journalism major at the University of Southern California. He covers sports as a managing editor for the Daily Trojan, USC's student newspaper. He attended the RedBox bowl with his father, Randall Ackerman, a Springfield native and U of I grad, and his California relatives who are Cal fans.