Straphangers on Chicago’s Red Line trains were not dreaming on Saturday. The lights were on at Wrigley Field in November — for a reason other than a Cubs World Series title.
For those of you that failed to find or pay for ESPNU within your cable package, college football returned to the North Side of Chicago for the first time since 1938 — and not without controversy. Approximately 24 hours before Saturday afternoon’s inaugural Allstate Wrigleyville Classic between Illinois and Northwestern, the NCAA threw all parties involved for a loop.
ESPN reported that the governing body sent the Big Ten conference and participating schools a letter, notifying them that the stadium’s setup did not meet compliance standards for a playing field. The area in question was the east side of play, which had only a thin layer of padding separating the back of the end zone from Wrigley Field’s brick wall.
So, to solve worries over shattered craniums, the game was played in one direction toward the more ‘spacious’ west end zone. Whether you view that decision as ridiculous, unorthodox or warranted, major injuries were averted on both sides in Illinois’ 48-27 win. Now that the panic button has been put back in the NCAA’s closet, let’s address a more tangible question. How did the complexion of the game change? With no safety screwups, should this venue be used again?
Two teams, one sideline
Barring indomitable crowd noise, coaches and players are constantly communicating from sideline to huddle. Each team usually has its own side of the field to work with. But since the south end of the Wrigley Field setup was wedged right up against the crowd, both teams were forced to share a sideline. With the east end zone not in use, the team on that end of the field operated at a disadvantage, from substitutions to red-zone situations. Thanks to the distorted setup, both teams were relegated to that far spot for one half (the Wildcats in the first / the Illini in the second).
Run, Leshoure, Run
As the NCAA imposed its last-minute precautions on Friday, followers of the pre-1970 Chicago Bears must have been laughing. The Monsters of the Midway called Wrigley Field home from 1921 until the dawn of the disco decade, capturing eight NFL championships over that span. That marked the last time any football was played off of Waveland Avenue. While the stadium utilized a different setup, similar ‘problems’ existed with the north end zone bumping elbows against the left-field ivy. The Bears’ solution? Line up Hall-of-Fame running back Gale Sayers on offense and stack the box with stingy warriors on defense. Illinois must have watched the tapes, as junior Mikel Leshoure pounded Northwestern’s defense for a school-record 330 rushing yards. The Illini finished with 519 total rushing yards as a team, leaving the ‘home’ defense out to dry for an inhuman 41 minutes and 16 seconds.
Fan Viewing Fury
Customers who purchased tickets in the right-field bleachers were in heaven until Friday afternoon. Those seats were right on top of the action — so much so that there was speculation footballs could be flying onto Sheffield Avenue. With the East end zone out of commission, those fans experienced a new first. They watched players’ backsides for three hours. Additionally, the terrace reserve and standing room sections on the west end of the stadium had pristine views of everything — except for when the ball was kicked or thrown above the height of the ‘vintage’ stadium overhang. Some fans were in heaven. Others had pure red in their veins.
The first Allstate Wrigleyville Classic came and went, with a confection of a longstanding rivalry overshadowed by last-minute contentions. While the locals went all in, the NCAA’s nervousness and absence of a real national television platform (no, the Lee Corso-led pregame circus does not count) makes it hard to believe that this game will embody the term ‘classic’ in the future.