Wildcats, Illini to use one end zone at Wrigley

We have a last-minute change to the Northwestern-Illinois football game at Wrigley Field.

And it's a BIG one.

After mounting concerns about the cramped East end zone, the Big Ten in conjunction with the two schools announced Friday that the West end zone will be used as much as possible on Saturday. Yes, you read that right. A football game with one end zone.

Here's a recap of the new rule changes:

  • All offensive plays will head toward the West end zone, including all extra points and all overtime possessions.

  • All kickoffs will be kicked toward the East end zone.

  • After every change of possession, the ball will be repositioned for the offense to head toward the West end zone.

  • As a result of a coin toss held by the conference office Friday morning, Illinois will occupy the West team bench in the first half and Northwestern will occupy the West team bench in the second half and for all overtime periods.

The only way points can be scored in the East end zone is on a punt return, a defensive touchdown or a safety. Wow.

This is going to look really weird.

My big question: Why was this change made so late?

The game has been in the works for a long time and Northwestern brought in field engineers and the like to assess the field before mapping out the configuration. I spoke to several of these folks Thursday morning and they felt confident that the heavy padding behind the East end zone would create a safe enough environment for the players. Head coaches Pat Fitzgerald and Ron Zook admitted the cramped end zone would impact their strategy, but they seemed comfortable with the setup.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany felt otherwise, and as we all know, his voice matters the most in these types of decisions. Still, this decision should have been made a lot sooner.

Looking at how close the back line of the end zone comes to the padding in one stretch, the move makes a lot of sense. If a player crashed into the wall at full speed, it could be pretty ugly.

"The health and safety of our student-athletes is of the utmost importance," Delany said in a statement. "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. Wrigley Field is one of the most historic venues in the country, and playing the Illinois-Northwestern game at this facility will provide a once-in-a-lifetime experience for student-athletes, coaches and fans."

I'm sure those folks with seats near home plate at Wrigley are pretty fired up, while those in the right-field bleachers aren't happy about the change. Can they still kick field goals and extra points onto Sheffield Avenue? That would have been awesome.

The wind now becomes pretty much a nonfactor, as both teams always will be heading in the same direction.

Friday's change certainly adds to the uniqueness of football at Wrigley, but it also likely decreases the likelihood of further games at the Friendly Confines. It's just not football to only use one end zone.