Plan B at Wrigley

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.

photo

AP

The east end zone for an NCAA football game scheduled to be played Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010, between Illinois and Northwestern is seen at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Friday on Friday, Nov. 19. Because the end zone is so close to the padded wall in right field, there were concerns about player safety. The two teams agreed Friday to run their offenses only toward the west end zone. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Turns out, that’s how Northwestern and Illinois will settle things Saturday at Wrigley Field after deciding the friendly confines were just a little too tight — and a little too unsafe.

The Big Ten announced Friday 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-through and raised no issue with the field dimensions, painted lines and boundaries previously approved by the Big Ten.”

Kenney even noted today’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 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 in 1970; 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 today’s in-state showdown.

The Illini (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) need a win against Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) today 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 there 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.”

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.

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.

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 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.”

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