Illinois and Northwestern agreed Friday to run every offensive play toward the same end zone in their showdown at Wrigley Field this weekend to avoid the possibility of players running into a padded brick wall at the other end of the field.
The surprising announcement came just one day before Saturday's game at the historic home of the Chicago Cubs. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said the NCAA waived several playing rules "in the interest of student-athlete safety."
"Both Illinois and Northwestern did significant due diligence over the past 18 months, but after seeing the actual layout of the field, all parties felt that it was appropriate to adjust the rules to further enhance the safety of our student-athletes," Delany said.
The problem is that the east end zone nearly abuts the right field wall, which has been heavily padded. The field was laid out east-west for the first football game at Wrigley since the Bears left for Soldier Field in 1970; back then, Bears games were played north-south, but there wasn't much room then, either The Illini and Wildcats will run their offenses toward the west end zone, which ends not far from the dugout. All kickoffs will go the other way and after change in possessions, referees will reposition the ball to point offenses to the west.
For the players, the confines will be more tight than friendly. A spot near the southwest corner of the field is only a few feet from another padded portion of the wall, and the tight quarters could affect the play-calling.
Wrigley Field is dressed for the occasion. It's been 40 years since the historic home of the Chicago Cubs hosted a football game and more than 70 since two college teams met, but all that will change when Northwestern hosts Illinois on Saturday.
"It'll probably only happen once in your life, getting to play in a place so special as Wrigley Field," Illinois quarterback Nathan Steelhaase said. Beyond the novelty, there's the reality that this is an important game for both teams.
It will be the first start for Wildcats freshman Evan Watkins after Dan Persa ruptured his right Achilles tendon on the go-ahead touchdown pass against Iowa last week.
Illinois needs to beat Northwestern (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) or Fresno State next week to become bowl-eligible and possibly save coach Ron Zook's job.He was under an improve-or-else mandate from athletic director Ron Guenther following a 3-9 season that led to much of the staff being fired, and until recently, it looked like the Illini (5-5, 3-4) had done just that.
Now, it's open to debate. Two straight losses after a 5-3 start have erased much of the goodwill and left fans jamming chat rooms and message boards with their gripes. As if a 67-65 triple-overtime loss to Michigan wasn't disappointing enough, falling 38-34 to lowly Minnesota last week really riled them, and much of the anger is being directed at Zook.
"For the first eight games of the season we've tackled as well as anybody I've ever been around, and the last two weeks we
haven't," Zook said.
At least they'll be facing an untested quarterback. Persa's injury was a huge blow for Northwestern, which wants to get to a bowl and win one for the first time since the 1949 Rose Bowl. They've had postseason losses the past two years.
Then again, the Wildcats have been here before and come out in decent shape, whether it was Mike Kafka taking over for C.J. Bacher
or Persa filling in for Kafka in recent years. Now, they're turning to Watkins, a 6-6 freshman who has played sparingly. "I'm pretty excited about the opportunity ahead of me so I've got a lot of energy and I can't stop thinking about it," he said. "I'm going to be excited but you just need to stay focused and prevent any distractions you can, keep your mind on winning and what you have to do."
Coach Pat Fitzgerald called Watkins a dual threat, with his mobility and strong arm, and has plenty of confidence. At least he will be sharing the spotlight with the ballpark. The home of the Chicago Bears for a half century, Wrigley has hosted concerts and the NHL's Winter Classic in recent years but no football games since the Bears left for Soldier Field after the 1970 season.