If Illinois can't halt a two-game losing streak when facing Northwestern on Saturday in the first football game played in Wrigley Field since 1970, it puts Illinois one step closer to next season rather than bowl season.

Wrigley Field became a special place for Illinois center Graham Pocic when he first visited the ballpark on West Addison, and nothing's changed in his 20 or 25 trips to see the Chicago Cubs play since that first trip with his grandfather when Pocic was 5 or 6 years old.


"It's the feeling when you're there,'' Pocic said. "The scoreboard. Everyone having a good time, win or lose. It's the tradition of maybe next year.''


If Illinois can't halt a two-game losing streak when facing Northwestern on Saturday in the first football game played in Wrigley Field since 1970, it puts Illinois one step closer to next season rather than bowl season.


Headed for a strong finish before losses to Michigan and Minnesota, Illinois lost momentum, lost its defense and heard the debate growing again about the future of coach Ron Zook. A win against the Wildcats, who are missing star quarterback Dan Persa because of injury, would ease some of the tension by making the Illini bowl eligible for the first time since the 2007 season.


College teams play football in Wrigley for the first time since 1938, although changes in format made it more like a football jamboree than a historical snapshot. Offense will only be run toward the west end zone, where home plate normally sits, because the NCAA determined the east end zone is unsafe.


The right-field wall is a little more than 1 foot behind the end zone at one point. With such a tight fit, the east goal post was mounted on the brick wall. The ball will be repositioned after every punt.


With Wrigley given a tint of purple -- Northwestern moved its home game -- and orange expected to fly on the rooftops across the street, the atmosphere attracted ESPN College GameDay to set up its studio across the street from the famous Wrigley marquee, which didn't avoid the purple spray paint.


"If you can't get excited about all the things going on this week, you need to get checked in,'' Zook said.


Tell that to the people in the right-field bleachers, who thought they had awesome seats. Instead of the north-south home plate-to-left field configuration used by the Bears before they left for Soldier Field after the 1970 season, football will be played east-west (from home plate to right field) because the field was pinched from years of adding more seating.


Illini linebacker Martez Wilson is a South Sider who hasn't been to Wrigley but liked the idea of playing in front his family on ground where Dick Butkus once roamed. Linebacker Nate Bussey didn't know Wrigley geography.


"It's in a state that's right up the road -- Chicago," he said.


The tight fit forced both teams onto the same sideline. Each team gets from the 5- to the 45-yard line. According to the new format, they will switch sides at halftime. The officials apparently will stand over the ball to make sure any late substitutions at one end of the field can be countered by the other side of the ball, although the Illini need to keep pace with Northwestern.


"It's not going to be something that anybody's ever done here,'' Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. "That will be part of the plan to try to fast tempo. They do that anyway.''


Sooner or later, it comes down to football. Koenning's defense fell apart in the last two weeks, but now they get the chance to play Northwestern and rookie quarterback Evan Watkins, who is making his first start after Persa suffered a season-ending Achilles injury last weekend. Expect the Illini to hassle Watkins with blitzes, but that's only if the Illini have some energy.


"We have to be full blast or there's a big drop-off,'' said Illini assistant coach Vic Koenning. "We don't have a bunch of depth or guys get rattled, and then we don't have anybody to go to.''


With only the non-conference game at Fresno State still left after this weekend, a loss in Wrigley is one week closer to wail till next year.


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.


 


Illinois (5-5) vs. Northwestern (7-3)


When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday


Where: Wrigley Field (39,8000), Chicago


Series record: Illinois leads 52-46-5


Big Ten records: Illinois 3-4, Northwestern 3-3


Last meeting: Northwestern 21-16 (2009)


Rankings: Both teams unranked


Radio: 


TV: ESPNU


The line: 


Coaches: Ron Zook, 26-44 in sixth year at Illinois, 49-58 in ninth year overall; Pat Fitzgerald, 34-26 in fifth year at Northwestern and overall.


NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 20th, 207.1; passing 105th, 160.0; scoring 38th, 31.4; total 71st, 367.1. Illinois defense -- rushing 39th, 133.3; passing 53rd, 211.5; scoring 52nd, 23.9; total 38th, 344.8. Northwestern offense -- rushing 72nd, 145.4; passing 27th, 265.3; scoring 78th, 25.5; total 41st, 410.7. Northwestern defense -- rushing 43rd, 137.4; passing 100th, 249.6; scoring 36th, 21.4; total 76th, 387.0.


Notable: Illinois and Northwestern last met in Wrigley in 1923. … This is the first college game played in Wrigley Field since DePaul and St. Louis met in 1938. … The schools play for the Land of Lincoln trophy, which replaced the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk last season. The latest trophy is shaped like Lincoln's stovepipe hat. … Northwestern is bowl eligible for the fourth straight season and fifth time in the last six seasons. Northwestern is 7-2 in November since 2008.


Quotable: "I'm not sure the head coach doesn't coach the linebackers. They play they way he played. They're the energy, the leaders.'' -- Illinois coach Ron Zook, on Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.


Betting line:


Prediction: Illinois 21, Northwestern 16


 


Changes in game format for Illini vs. Northwestern in Wrigley Field:


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


2. All kickoffs will be kicked toward the east end zone.


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


4. 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.