The Illinois football team has several reasons to play well as it travels to Chicago to challenge Northwestern in ancient Wrigley Field. It needs to right it's ship after listing the last two weeks; the game is its third straight opportunity to gain bowl eligibility; and the Land of Lincoln trophy is at stake.
Of course, all that may be overshadowed by the uniqueness of playing on the old ball diamond. Everything that can be painted purple has been in an effort to give the Wildcats a home field edge. But regardless of what anyone says, it is Illini who made football important at Wrigley Field.
Former Illini George Halas brought his Chicago Bears to Wrigley back in 1921, and they played there fifty years. Halas had an affinity for Illinois players even before the immortal Red Grange barnstormed with him. Dick Butkus was one of his Illini draftees, along with J.C. Caroline, Ed O'Bradovich and numerous others. If the ghosts of Wrigley have any say, the Illini will feel at home.
The park was designed for baseball, so quarters are cramped. The Illini will be in the visitor's locker room, and it is so small two players share each locker. Both teams must operate from the same sideline, posing a number of potential problems.
The football field used to be marked off down the third base line, but this year it will be down the first base line. There is precious little space beyond the field, especially at the East end where the goal post had to be anchored to the ivy-covered wall.
There is special concern about the receivers, who are required to run full speed toward the end zones. Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino minimizes concerns about his players' welfare.
"I will tell the receivers to catch the ball. There will be pads, so first catch the ball. When you're playing, you play. I really don't think it will (bother them). When you're flying around playing football, I don't think you worry about that. You go out and play as hard as you can and make plays."
Petrino will not call the game differently to prevent someone crashing into the wall.
"You've got to catch it inside the lines anyway."
Receiver A.J. Jenkins claims the tight field will not affect him. At least, he is abiding by Petrino's notion to run through the wall if necessary to make a play.
"I'll probably run into the wall three or four times this game. Coach P. says if baseball players can run into it with no pads on, we should have no problems doing it. Yeah, just run through it."
Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase reminds how important it is to learn where everything is in this unusual field.
"I think this will be the most important Friday walk-through we have, trying to get a feel for the field. Get a feel for where the play clocks will be, where the game clocks will be. It'll be a little bit different, but those are things you want to take care of Friday so when you come out Saturday you're not thinking about anything else but the game."
Head coach Ron Zook tried to put a positive spin on the wall proximity.
"I just told them they're getting for the Arena League. If they don't make it to the NFL, you go to the Arena League.
"I don't think it's as big a deal as everybody's trying to make it myself. Now, in looking at the pictures, there are a couple areas that are tight. But I really don't think it's quite as big a deal as it's made out to be. I may get there and think differently after the game."
Scheelhaase is looking forward to the game.
"Everybody knows about Wrigley Field, about that whole mystique. Just to get an opportunity to play a game in that stadium, it's one of the most famous stadiums in the world. It's a great opportunity. It's something you'll look back on years down the road. Not a lot of people get a chance to do something like that."
Linebacker Martez Wilson is not a Cubs fan, but he's glad to be playing in his home town.
"It's good to be a part of history again this year. It's exciting for me to play in front of my family and friends in Chicago. It will definitely be a game to make a difference. We're the first teams to play there in forty years, so that's a great mark to make to play there again."
Center Graham Pocic is a life-long Cub fan, so he looks forward to seeing the lockers and other things hidden from spectator view. He was asked if he has any special memories in Wrigley Field.
"Not really. Being a Cubs fan, we haven't had many. 2003 was bad. I can't remember much before that. It's been bad since then. A win against Northwestern would definitely be my favorite memory.
"It's a cool opportunity. I'm gonna really remember this. It's an interesting place to be at, the vines on the wall, the scoreboard. There's a lot of history there, a lot of great players have played there. I'm real excited to go up there and play."
Hopefully, the Illini team will focus on Northwestern and not the all the distractions. The Wildcats have proven again this year to be a tough-minded, well-coached team that battles everyone to the end.
The biggest news leading up to the game is that star quarterback Dan Persa is out for the season due to injury. A candidate for All-Big 10 honors, Persa was completing 73% of his passes and proving to be an effective runner as well.
His backup Evan Watkins is a redshirt freshman with minimal experience. But Illini coaches expect the Wildcat offense to be powerful and efficient.
"I don't know a lot other than that every year I've been here they've always had a good quarterback," Zook reminds. "We know about him (Watkins) because we did recruit him. He was a big strong-throwing guy, and at the time we were more into zone-option stuff. But he's a good player. I can assure you they've always had a quarterback since I've been here, and they'll have some answers."
Zook is uncertain how much different the NW offense will be with Watkins at the helm.
"In a week's time you can't change everything, obviously. They'll have some plans for him, and anybody else they happen to use in that spot.
"If you remember before now, the last two years in particular, they've brought in the back-up guys, a lot of times he would come in for running situations, almost a wildcat-type situation. You know they can go to things like that. We'll have to make adjustments in the game once we get into it."
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning is having enough problems solving Illini defensive woes without having to figure out Northwestern's strategy for this game. But the uncertainty is a definite complication.
"They've got so many different packages, so many things they can go to. We don't know exactly what they're gonna do. Hopefully we can force them to get to things they haven't done. We'll just try to react as best we can."
NW head coach Pat Fitzgerald will undoubtedly have his defense fired up even more than usual, figuring it must win the game while a rookie quarterback spreads his wings. Zook has great respect for what former linebacker Fitzgerald is doing with his defense.
"It's a defense that plays extremely hard and is extremely well coached. They don't do a lot of things, but I'm not so sure that the head coach doesn't coach the linebackers because they play the way he played. They're the energy, they're the leaders, they're the guys that you can tell keep everybody going.
"They're very sound in what they do. They pressure a little bit, not a lot, but there's no particular area or down and distance or place that they call the pressure, so they're going to keep you off balance that way. They're just very sound and play extremely hard."
Pocic has great respect for the Northwestern front seven on defense.
"They are a great front seven. They've got a couple great linemen. 98 (Vince Browne) and 94 (Corbin Bryant) are two of the better players we've played. The linebackers are athletic, they fly to the ball. As a defense as a whole, they play fast and swarm to the ball. It's something you definitely see when watching their defense."
Petrino is devising packages for the Wildcat defense, but the key is how well the Illini play.
"They're gonna play quarters coverage, maybe a little quarter half, three defense. They don't blitz a whole lot. They'll plug their linebackers at times. It's gonna come down to effort, who plays harder and out-executes the other team. That's what we have to do."
Scheelhaase loves the unique opportunity this game presents, but he's focused on winning. The rest can take care of itself.
"It's a single game. We're not looking in the past, we're not looking in the future, we're just looking at this game. It's gonna be a tough challenge, and we're up for it."
Petrino is always fired up, but this game takes on extra meaning for everyone.
"I think we're gonna go up there with great fire, great emotion. We've got to get bowl eligible, we've got to win the state championship, and we've got to win on Gameday. That's a whole lot of things to go play for."