The Big Ten Conference announced a series of rule changes Friday morning for Northwestern’s historic game at Wrigley Field against in-state rival, the Illinois Fighting Illini. Due to safety concerns in the east end zone, where a limited amount of padding is the only barrier between the end of the end zone and the stadium’s outfield brick wall, all offensive play will head towards the west end zone.
This unique system of play has the sports world abuzz with rapid reaction. The Chicago Cubs, who set up the football field in the Friendly Confines, were surprised with the ruling, explaining in a statement, “The field dimension layout was delivered to the Big Ten approximately eight months ago and was approved by the conference. Last month, the field was built exactly to the dimensions previously approved by the Big Ten. Last week, a Big Ten official performed an on-site 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.”
Northwestern Director of Athletics Jim Phillips defended the Big Ten Conference’s decision. “Though it’s not ideal, it’s the right thing,” Phillips said. “The more we looked at [the field], 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.”
Other sports writers also expressed concern over the integrity of play, predicting Saturday’s football game at Wrigley will be its last. Sports Illustrated columnist and Medill ‘98 alumnus Stewart Mandel dubbed the Allstate Wrigleyville Classic “football mockery”, writing “What seemed like a cool idea has turned into a colossal embarrassment for the teams, the conference and the stadium … Saturday’s game should still produce an incredible atmosphere and a unique experience for teams and fans. But integrity of the game should come before aesthetics.”
Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz also echoed disdain regarding one-end-zone football in a Friday morning column. “The Northwestern-Illinois game, scheduled (still!) to be played Saturday at Wrigley Field, now has a funny and pathetic twist,” Schultz wrote. “OK, I’ll be the first to say it: This would never happen in the SEC.”
Northwestern students also reacted poorly to the change in rules, especially since it will affect the view from their student section, which is placed near the east end zone. Wildcat nation will end up watching Evan Watkins & Co.’s backsides all day as they march down the field.
“This isn’t what football is all about,” McCormick senior Albert Liu said. Liu, who bought tickets to watch the game in the student section is “going to stay positive until I see it … even though they’re taking the student section out of the game.”
Weinberg sophomore Jimmy Clifton agreed with Liu’s concerns, citing a change in atmosphere that will hurt a Northwestern fan’s experience. “The fact that we’re never to going to see a touchdown in our end zone nor are we going to see a goal line stop just complete takes away from the game,” Clifton said. “It’s going to completely make our seats completely not worth the $58.”
Northwestern alum (McCormick ‘05) Jonathan Hodge, a writer for Wildcat football blog Hail to Purple, broke down the rule change implications for Saturday’s game in a Friday blog post. Hodges brought up similar concerns over play integrity and the decreased impact of Northwestern’ student section, and more importantly, he questions the timing of Friday morning’s last-minute announcement, especially since Saturday is the culmination of two years of planning.
“Leaving this decision for the last minute will stain what was otherwise looking to be a great celebration of Northwestern football (and, college football in general),” Hodges wrote. “If it came to having to implement such rule changes, it should have been discussed and approved up front.”
Despite the concerns over the quality of play and fans’ view, there was an overwhelming consensus that the changes were made first and foremost for the safety of student athletes. Lindsey Willhite, a columnist for the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper, praised the Big Ten Conference for their gusty rule change.
“Anybody who thought it would be enough to have six inches of squishy padding on the right-field wall to protect the players … deserves to have his risk-manager’s license stripped,” Willhite wrote. “I’m thankful the Big Ten ruled as it did.”
Additional reporting by Josh Sim.