Whatever we saw at Wrigley, it was good
BY RICK MORRISSEY firstname.lastname@example.org
Mikel Leshoure dives from one yard out for his second touchdown in the first quarter. Illinois (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) rushed for 519 yards, its highest output since 1944.
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When they squeezed a football field inside a baseball stadium and declared that all offensive plays had to go west due to space constraints and safety concerns, a game of ridiculous, especially disorienting proportions was the only logical outcome.
Northwestern and Illinois put on a show at Wrigley Field on Saturday afternoon, though I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I saw. It was part football, part spectacle, part great migration. It was wholly entertaining.
I'm serious when I say it didn't matter who won, though let the record show that Illinois clobbered Northwestern 48-27. I think. Watching this game was like looking at a painting, trying to figure out what it meant and deciding that the artist had been drunk for days.
No, it was like watching a driver refuse to make left turns. I don't know.
PGA star and former Northwestern golfer Luke Donald led the crowd of 41,058 in singing ''Take Me Out to the Ballgame'' after the first quarter. The wind was blowing in. The whole thing was confusing, OK-
The fact that decision-makers had deemed the east wall -- Wrigley's right field -- dangerous explained everything that happened Saturday, in a weird, upside-down, feng-shui sort of way. A contest between two fine, not great, teams turned into a titanic battle of long runs, fumble recoveries and interceptions.
Officials from both schools and the Big Ten made the right move in declaring the east wall a safety hazard. In some places, the back of the end zone was mere inches from the padded bricks. It was so close they could have sold advertising space to personal-injury lawyers.
See if you can follow
Here's how it worked: A player would field a punt, run it back in an easterly direction and get tackled. Then everyone would make the circus trip down the field so that the offense could start its drive on the east side and head west. Confused- Good, you're getting into the spirit of things.
''I really don't think it changed the game,'' Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ''I don't know what it looked like on TV. ... I'd be lying to you if I told you I wasn't a little shocked walking off the field here Thursday and being told this might happen. [The decision] came totally out of the blue to me. ... But I don't think it impacted the game much.''
One thing is certain: The field setup meant that game officials became major-league buzzkillers.
''The first time our defense got an interception down in their territory, we're all ready to run that way, and the officials are like, 'Going back on the right hash this way,''' Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. ''That thing was a little [tricky] to figure out at the start, but once you got down to it, it was a 100-yard field.''
The game itself was about as subtle as a crowbar. Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure had 215 rushing yards -- at halftime. He finished with 330 yards and two touchdowns. Crazy numbers for a crazy game.
Northwestern, without injured quarterback Dan Persa, didn't throw much. Illinois had its starting quarterback and threw even less.
Due to space limitations, both teams shared a sideline. The poor people sitting in the east stands might as well have been wallpaper. All of the offensive action was moving away from them. Almost all of the scoring was done in the west end zone.
Fully charged ... and fun
The good news- Illinois became bowl-eligible with the victory, Alfonso Soriano couldn't misplace a fly ball in left field, and the atmosphere for a football game in a ballpark was electrifying at times.
''Once we got on the field [for warm-ups], you could kind of feel things boiling up, boiling up,'' Scheelhaase said. ''I think that's why we got off to such a fast start.''
Would they want to do it again- Like this- With the strange concessions made to the confining Friendly Confines-
''I'm open to anything,'' Fitzgerald said. ''It's thinking outside the box a little bit, trying to have some fun. It's college football, guys. It should be fun. Obviously the outcome of this game isn't fun. There's no doubt about that. To get Chicago to embrace college football, I think it was a good first step.''
Fun, indeed. Strange, weird, bizarre -- that, too. You don't want to make a habit of having offensive players going in one direction because it obviously goes against the laws of nature. But for one afternoon, it was pretty cool.
Horace Greeley popularized the phrase, ''Go West, young man,'' the perfect slogan for Saturday's game. For you kids out there, Greeley was a famous newspaper editor in the 1800s. For you kids out there, a newspaper is something that is printed using ink ... oh, never mind. The day was confusing enough. No reason to muddle it up further.