The NCAA threw a flag on the Wrigley Field football game between Illinois and Northwestern. A day before the game -- the first one played in Wrigley since 1970 -- the schools agreed to running offense only toward the west end zone, where home plate normally sits, because of concerns over the proximity of the right-field wall to the back of the end zone. At one point, the wall is a little more than 1 foot behind the end zone. "They were keeping the safety of the players in mind,'' said Illini team spokesman Kent Brown.
The NCAA threw a flag on the Wrigley Field football game between Illinois and Northwestern because of safety concerns.
A day before the game -- the first one played in Wrigley since 1970 -- the schools agreed to running offense only toward the west end zone, where home plate normally sits, because of concerns over the proximity of the right-field wall to the back of the end zone.
At one point, the wall is a little more than 1 foot behind the end zone.
"They were keeping the safety of the players in mind,'' said Illini team spokesman Kent Brown.
Teams will always kick off toward right field. Punts will go toward home plate. All extra-point attempts and overtimes will run toward the west end zone. After every change of possession, the ball will be positioned for the offense to head toward the west end zone.
Illini and Northwestern coaches discussed the changes Thursday and Friday with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. The switch trickled down from the NCAA office, who learned of the tight fit in Wrigley. According to NCAA rules, a stadium must have 12 feet between the field and any permanent structure.
"To conform with the rules of the game, they had to come up with a solution,'' Brown said. "As the game got more attention this week, it became apparent to the folks (at the NCAA office). There were two or three different options suggested.''
Illinois and Northwestern will also switch ends on the sideline shared by both schools because of the tight fit. A coin flip at the Big Ten office Friday morning determined Illinois will have the area closest to the main grandstand in the first half. Northwestern gets it for the second half and any overtimes.
"There are a lot of unique challenges to this game,'' Brown said.
The teams began talking about this game more than two years ago and announced the agreement to play the game last spring after Illini coach Ron Zook and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald toured Wrigley in August 2009.
The field runs east-west instead of the north-south configuration used by the Chicago Bears before they moved to Soldier Field in 1970. Wrigley can no longer hold the north-south format because of extra seating added over the years.
The change in plans came out of left field, Cubs president Crane Kenney said.
"The Chicago Cubs are surprised by the Big Ten's last-minute statement regarding changes for tomorrow's Northwestern-Illinois football game at Wrigley Field,'' Kenney said in a prepared statement released Friday. " Let there be no doubt: the safety of the student-athletes has been -- and remains -- the number one priority since the concept of this game was first discussed more than a year ago, and all parties have gone to complete lengths to ensure student-athlete safety for this contest.
"The essential item in our negotiations to host the football game at Wrigley Field was obtaining approval of both universities and the Big Ten for the field dimensions as related to player safety issues. The field dimension layout was delivered to the Big Ten approximately eight months ago and was approved by the conference.''
A Big Ten official performed an on-site visit to Wrigley and raised no issues after a walk-through, Kenney said.
"This game would not have been scheduled if it did not pass the strict and meticulous standards of everyone involved, a process that began more than a year ago,'' Kenney said. "All are in agreement Wrigley Field is a safe venue to host a football game.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.