Illinois, Northwestern will have 1 end zone
It sounds like something out of a backyard touch football game. No matter who has the ball, there's only one end zone and everyone has to switch around when it's their turn.
Turns out, that's how Northwestern and Illinois will settle things Saturday at Wrigley Field after deciding that the friendly confines were just a little too tight - and a little too unsafe.
The Big Ten announced Friday that the schools had agreed to some drastic and unusual changes for the game at the home of the Chicago Cubs - including running all offensive plays toward the end zone that doesn't happen to come within a foot or so of a padded brick wall.
That change was approved along with a few others by the NCAA. And if the move sounds like a last-minute surprise, well, the Cubs thought so, too.
''The field dimension layout was delivered to the Big Ten approximately eight months ago and was approved by the conference,'' Cubs President Crane Kenney said. ''Last month, the field was built exactly to the dimensions previously approved by the Big Ten. Last week, a Big Ten official performed an onsite visit at Wrigley Field, participated in a field walk-thru and raised no issue with the field dimensions, painted lines and boundaries previously approved by the Big Ten.''
Kenney even noted that Saturday's game between Army and Notre Dame would be played at Yankee Stadium on a reconfigured field and that one didn't require any rule changes. Not that the $1.5 billion showplace of the Yankees is much like the second-oldest ballpark in the majors.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany released a statement that credited both schools with doing ''significant'' due diligence over the past 18 months. But he said the actual layout prompted the change to keep the players safe.
The problem is that the east end zone nearly abuts the right field wall, which has been heavily padded. The field is laid out east-west for the first football game at Wrigley since the Bears left for Soldier Field following the 1970 season; back then, Bears games were played north-south, but there wasn't much room then, either, and everyone decided the east-west layout was the way to go for Saturday's in-state showdown.
The Illini (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) need a win against Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) this week or next week against Fresno State to become eligible for a bowl game. The Wildcats are already planning a postseason trip, hoping to win a bowl for the first time since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
They'd better plan on getting familiar with the west end zone.
The Illini and Wildcats will run their offenses toward the dugout on the third base side. All kickoffs will go the other way and after a change in possession, referees will reposition the ball to point offenses to the west. The only time a player would end up in the east end zone would be after a turnover, a punt or a safety.
''I know that the brick wall and whatever is right there,'' Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said before the rules were changed. ''You've definitely got to be aware of that. You don't want to have anybody smacking into a wall after they catch it.''
In the land of black cats and Billy goat curses, it seems only fitting that there would be some unusual subplot for the first football game at Wrigley in 40 years. NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said that, to his knowledge, no game has ever been played under similar circumstances.
Earlier this week, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN Radio in Chicago that certain plays would be ''a recipe for disaster'' and that the layout could affect play calling.
''It was all vetted out. We thought that it would be safe,'' he said Friday. ''We're going to do what's right. All the other things are irrelevant.''
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips was asked why the decision came so late.
''We had a chance to walk the field the first time earlier this week, over the weekend,'' said Phillips, whose campus is eight miles from the ballpark. ''The more we looked at it, the more we dug into it and talking to the conference and everyone involved, we just felt that maybe it didn't come out exactly the way we thought it potentially would. ... The timing isn't ideal. I don't dismiss that at all.''
Phillips said risk managers, safety engineers and others approved the east-west layout, which gives the most space for a football game.
''I don't think there's any remorse. We're still excited about playing. It's a fantastic venue,'' he said.
Illinois sports information director Kent Brown said concerns arose last week about ''the tightness'' of the right field end zone.
''Any institution that plays there in the future wouldn't want to be in this situation we're in,'' he said. Asked if it might have been better handled earlier: ''I think everybody would agree with that, yes.''
Either way, Illini coach Ron Zook said Wrigley is ''still a neat venue.''
''I think it's exciting,'' he said. ''Our guys are excited about it.''
Zook pointed out there are tight configurations around the Big Ten. At Wrigley, he added, ''It seemed like it was all right to me, but once again, that's not my decision.''
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.
Former Bears receiver Harlon Hill ran into a wall more than once - without padding over the bricks or the more protective gear players now wear. Hill played eight seasons in Chicago and he said Wrigley had what might have been the NFL's worst configuration for football in those days.
''I caught a pass, a touchdown pass - I believe we were playing the Packers,'' the 78-year-old Hill told The Associated Press from his home near Florence, Ala. ''I caught it and I couldn't stop before I hit the wall. It knocked me backward. It didn't break any bones, but it sure made some bruises on my hip and arm.''
''It was pretty dangerous,'' he added, ''but I had to play.''
The most recent college game at Wrigley was the 1938 clash between DePaul and St. Louis. Illinois and Northwestern last met at Wrigley Field in 1923, when the Cubs' championship drought was a mere 15 years.
The latest game was announced with fanfare in August, with sponsor Allstate Insurance Co. proudly backing the first Wrigleyville Classic. The famed marquee has been painted purple, flags with the letter ''N'' line the rooftop and one goalpost is mounted on the right-field wall, though it won't be used now.
Beyond the controversy and novelty, this is an important game for both teams.
Zook 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. Until recently, it looked like the Illini had done just that.
Two straight losses after a 5-3 start have erased much of the goodwill. As if a 67-65 triple-overtime loss to Michigan wasn't disappointing enough, Illinois fell 38-34 to lowly Minnesota last week.
At least the Illini will be facing an untested quarterback. Wildcats freshman Evan Watkins will make his first start after Dan Persa ruptured his right Achilles' tendon on the go-ahead touchdown pass against Iowa last week. Watkins, a 6-6 freshman, 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.''
Watkins - and everyone else - will certainly be sharing the spotlight with the venue.
Gone are the pitchers mound and home plate, and the infield and warning track are covered by a thick layer of turf. One goalpost is in front of the third base dugout, the other on top of that wall in right field with no net - but no chance now of fans scrambling for footballs in the seats or out on Sheffield Avenue.
Fitzgerald said he didn't think the unique rules would change much for his team, though he knows it will be a memorable game no matter the final score.
''You want to talk about 30 years from now maybe the most unique game maybe in college football ever, we've got it right here,'' he said. ''It's going to be a 100-yard field. It's going to be played with the same rules as it would be; we're just heading west. So you recover a fumble, you pick off a ball, you go score in the east end zone - we're going to celebrate in that east end zone.
''Then we're going to kick the extra point the other way.''
Associated Press writer David Mercer contributed to this report from Champaign, Ill.