CHICAGO — Pat Fitzgerald remembers the party-like atmosphere and the unusual circumstances the last time Northwestern played at Wrigley Field. It sure was an unforgettable experience.
“I might call it unique,” Fitzgerald said.
Northwestern is set to host Purdue at the Friendly Confines on Saturday, exactly 11 years after the one-way game between the Wildcats and Illinois at the famed old ballpark.
The in-state rivals were looking for extra publicity when they met in 2010. And did they ever get it.
In the first football game at Wrigley Field since the NFL’s Chicago Bears left for Soldier Field following the 1970 season — and the first college matchup there since DePaul faced St. Louis in 1938 — Illinois ran away from Northwestern 48-27 behind Mikel Leshoure’s school-record 330 yards rushing. But what really stood out was a wacky twist brought on by safety concerns about the setup in a stadium known for its quirks.
The two teams agreed late that week the offenses would only run plays toward the end zone near the third-base dugout because the other one came within about a foot of the heavily padded brick wall in right field. That meant the ball was repositioned after changes of possession. The only touchdown scored in the right-field end zone was on an interception return by Northwestern.
Things will be different this time.
The ballpark underwent a massive renovation that allows the third-base dugout top and seats along the left-field line to be removed, creating more room for a football field. That puts both end zones in use for the first college game at Wrigley since Northwestern met Illinois, though the two teams will be on the same sideline.
The Wildcats were scheduled to face Wisconsin at Wrigley last season as part of an agreement in 2013 with baseball’s Chicago Cubs to play five games on the North Side. That was moved to Ryan Field because of the pandemic.
The setting figures to add some juice to the matchup between Northwestern (3-7, 1-6 Big Ten) and Purdue (6-4, 4-3). The 86th game in a series dating to 1895 will be just the second not played in Evanston, Illinois, or West Lafayette, Indiana; the other was at Soldier Field in 1931.
“I think there’s extra excitement for the fans, people that want to go to Wrigley,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. “That’s awesome. It’s an historic, great venue. As far as our football team, they want to win.”
The Boilermakers gave up five touchdown passes in a 59-31 loss at No. 6 Ohio State last week after beating No. 5 Michigan State the previous game — their second win this season over a top-five team. They allowed 45 points in the first half against the Buckeyes after holding opponents to 30 points or less in their first nine games.
Northwestern comes in with four straight losses following a 35-7 romp at Wisconsin last week.
When it comes to accuracy, Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell is tops in the Big Ten. He leads the conference and ranks fifth in the nation in completion percentage (72.4).
O’Connell was 40 for 52 and threw four touchdown passes last week. The Boilermakers finished with 481 yards on offense.
David Bell ranks sixth in the nation with 1,106 yards receiving.
Northwestern will likely be without a home in the not-too-distant future. That’s because Ryan Field is set to undergo a major renovation.
It could mean more games at Wrigley Field or maybe playing at Soldier Field. The Cubs also are at least interested in possibly hosting an annual bowl game. And Fitzgerald said that “would be spectacular” for Chicago.
As for where the Wildcats might play while their stadium is overhauled?
“We’re going to obviously have to play remotely,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ll see how that all plays out. But you know, we’ll all enjoy wherever we get the privilege to play in Chicagoland.”
PICK ‘EMThe Wildcats need to do a better job after throwing four interceptions against Wisconsin.
Andrew Marty got picked off three times in the second straight game before Ryan Hilinski — the quarterback he replaced as the starter — took over in the fourth quarter. Hilinski completed 3 of 8 passes for 25 yards and one interception.
FAMILY TIESPlaying at Wrigley Field has a little extra meaning for Northwestern offensive lineman Peter Skoronski.
His grandfather Bob Skoronski was an offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers from 1956 to 1968. He played at Wrigley Field when the Chicago Bears called the Friendly Confines home.
“I think my dad mentioned the cool picture he had of my grandpa coming out of the dugout and locker room at Wrigley, so kinda getting to re-create that a little bit, I guess,” said Peter Skoronski, a White Sox fan from suburban Park Ridge.