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Wrigley wonder: one end zone

The east end zone at Wrigley Field won’t be used for offensive plays today because it’s too close to the padded right-field wall. (Associated Press)
The east end zone at Wrigley Field won’t be used for offensive plays today because it’s too close to the padded right-field wall. (Associated Press)

Safety issues prompt major field revision

CHICAGO – It sounds like something out of backyard touch football. No matter who has the ball, there’s only one end zone. Teams have to switch around when it’s their turn.

Turns out, that’s how Northwestern and Illinois will settle things today 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 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 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 today’s game between Army and Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium is on a reconfigured field that didn’t require any rule changes.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany released a statement that credited both schools with doing “significant” due diligence 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 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.

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 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.

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 to his knowledge, no game has been played under similar circumstances.

“It was all vetted out. We thought that it would be safe,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Friday. “We’re going to do what’s right. All the other things are irrelevant.”

“I don’t think there’s any remorse,” Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said of the late changes. “We’re still excited about playing. It’s a fantastic venue.”

Beyond the controversy and novelty, this is an important game for both teams.

Beside still having thoughts of a bowl game, Illinois is playing for coach Ron Zook’s job, which again appears in jeopardy after two straight losses leave it 5-5 after 3-9 in 2009.