02-19-2017  6:11 pm      •     

CHICAGO (AP) — 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.

"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."

Earlier this week, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the field layout would be a factor.

"I don't think we're going to be trying to run a lot of go routes," he told ESPN 1000 radio in Chicago. "It's a recipe for disaster.

"We talked already about (having a) 'going east red-zone game plan' (and a) 'going west red-zone game plan,'" he said. "You have to adjust to it. It's kind of like having the elements, whether it's rainy or snowy or windy, sometimes you have to adjust your game plan."

The game was announced with fanfare in August, with sponsor Allstate Insurance Co. proudly backing the first Allstate 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.

"It'll probably only happen once in your life, getting to play in a place so special as Wrigley Field," Scheelhaase 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.

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, 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."

Fitzgerald called Watkins a dual threat, with his mobility and strong arm, and has plenty of confidence.

He will certainly 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.

The most recent college game? That 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.

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 the wall in right with no net but that won't be used now, so fans won't be scrambling for footballs in the seats or on Sheffield Avenue.

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said safety was the most important aspect in planning the game.

"From the very beginning, the players' safety was paramount," he told ESPN 1000 before the rules changes. "That's what took us the longest time. We had risk managers here; we had civil engineers, safety engineers. We had so many people look at it because nobody wants or wanted to put the student-athlete at harm's way at a riskier type of environment.

"We vetted it through all the experts at both universities and felt everyone was comfortable with the dimensions."


Associated Press writer David Mercer contributed to this report from Champaign, Ill.

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