Wildcats in final prep for Wrigley game

CHICAGO -- Northwestern players were predictably wide-eyed as they entered Wrigley Field on Thursday morning for a practice session at the Friendly Confines.

They had seen pictures and video of Wrigley's conversion from baseball field to football, but nothing quite compared to the real thing.

The Wildcats and their opponents from Illinois will be the first men to play football at Wrigley in four decades when they line up Saturday afternoon. While it's impossible to completely prepare for such a unique setting, Northwestern tried to cover all the bases.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald called Wednesday's practice "the most difficult practice since I've been the head coach." The Wildcats worked out at their home stadium, Ryan Field, but the coaching staff simulated the shared sideline, cramped field area and crowd noise that both squads will deal with Saturday.

"We put our guys through a crucible," Fitzgerald said. "We had very chaotic crowd noise, we had a worst-case scenario situation all during practice. Every rep was down on the far side of the field, and I thought the guys handled it very well. ... We made sure we got everything substitution-wise and communication done to the best of our ability to have the guys prepared."

Sideline substitutions will be a little different, as both teams can exit the field along the west sideline all the way down to 5-yard lines. Fitzgerald spoke with Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen this week about when the Terrapins dealt with a similar field configuration at AT&T Park in San Francisco during the 2007 Emerald Bowl.

Northwestern's staff also reached out to the Navy coaches as the Midshipmen played in the Emerald Bowl in 2004.

"At the end of the day, they said it's a 60-minute football game," Fitzgerald said. "After a while, you just get used to it. I'm not concerned about any of the logistics at all."

What about those wide eyes? Fitzgerald wanted his players to get "the eye candy of the whole moment" out of the way before game day.

"That's why we're here today," he said. "If you would have seen that on Saturday morning, I would have been concerned."