Nathan Scheelhaase (2) is tackled by Northwestern's Vince Browne. (AP)
Nov. 20, 2010
CHICAGO (AP) - Mikel Leshoure ran for a school-record 330 yards and two touchdowns, and Illinois beat Northwestern 48-27 Saturday in a game played under unusual circumstances at Wrigley Field.
The Wildcats and Fighting Illini were looking for publicity when they scheduled the first football game in 40 years at the old ballpark and did they ever get it.
Anyone who wasn't aware of this one certainly knew about it after the Big Ten announced on Friday that the schools had implemented several rules changes because of safety concerns.
The most notable: offensive plays ran only toward the west end zone near the third-base dugout. The east end zone in right field came within a foot or so of a heavily padded brick wall. So after changes in possession, the ball was repositioned.
All but one touchdown, an interception return by Northwestern, was scored in the west end zone.
Not since the Bears left for Soldier Field following the 1970 season had football been played at Wrigley and it had been even longer since the last college game. That was the 1938 clash between DePaul and St. Louis.
The controversy surrounding the late rules changes and the novelty of playing in the Chicago Cubs' beloved home overshadowed the fact that Illinois (6-5, 4-4) was trying to become bowl-eligible and Northwestern (7-4, 3-4) was going with a freshman quarterback.
Leshoure was simply spectacular, doing a good impression of Gale Sayers in the Bear's old home. His 330 yards were the most in the nation this season and eclipsed the previous school record of 315 set by Robert Holcombe in 1996. It included 4-yard and 1-yard touchdown runs on the first two possessions plus a 70-yard run in the first quarter.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase ran for 97 yards and Illinois finished with 559 yards in all--519 coming on the ground.
Northwestern got 129 yards from Mike Trumpy, including an 80-yard touchdown that was the longest run by a Wildcat since 1982, but it was a rough afternoon for quarterback Evan Watkins.
Making his first start after Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles' tendon while throwing the winning TD against Iowa last week, he was 10 for 20 with an interception and 135 yards.
Leshoure ran for 156 in the first quarter alone as the Illini took advantage of three turnovers while jumping out to a 21-14 lead.
Northwestern tied it at 24 late in the second when Mike Trumpy took it from the 2 for his second touchdown of the game, but Derek Dimke ended a wild half with a 39-yard field goal that gave Illinois a 27-24 lead.
Scheelhaase made it a 10-point game with a 10-yard TD pass to A.J. Jenkins midway through the third and the Illini sealed it early in the fourth, after another big run by Leshoure--this one a 62-yarder that put the ball on the 8 and set up a TD run by Jason Ford.
Northwestern and Illinois last played at Wrigley in 1923, when Cubs fans bemoaning a 15-year championship drought had no idea what they were in for.
The same could probably be said for the officials who organized this game. When they saw the plans, they thought there would be just enough room between the back of the right-field end zone and the wall.
When they actually saw the field, they had second thoughts. So they altered the rules and the result was something straight out of a backyard game.
NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said that, to his knowledge, there had never been one played under circumstances like these.
The goalpost mounted on the right-field wall served as nothing more than a hood ornament, with all kicks going the other way. The right-field end zone rarely came into play, one exception coming in the first quarter when Northwestern's Brian Peters returned an interception 59 yards for a touchdown. Even so, he was all alone and in no danger of crashing into the wall.
With the west end zone only in use, the quarterbacks at times had to turn all the way around rather than simply glance toward their side to get calls from the coaches.
And because the teams shared a sideline, they switched locations at halftime.
The stadium had a different look, too--no mound, no home plate. Turf covered the infield and much of the warning track, and the Northwestern band set up in front of the center-field wall.
The stands were a mix of Wildcats purple and Illini orange as were the streets and bars surrounding the ballpark.
The famed marquee above the main entrance was painted purple, and panels along the stadium's facade showed past and present Northwestern players instead of Cubs stars.
There were purple and white flags with the letter "N" flapping above the roof and along the foul pole, too. And inside, there was one memorable game unfolding.