Big Ten Notebook: Wildcats and Fighting Illini ready for Wrigleyville showdown


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The last time Illinois and Northwestern faced each other at Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs' World Series title drought was only 15 years old.

Illinois bested the Wildcats, 29-0, on Oct. 27, 1923, in front of 32,000 fans in the Friendly Confines. At the time, Northwestern's stadium was only able to seat 17,000, but Illinois ticket requests exceeded 10,000, thus prompting the move.

The 104th meeting of the rivalry will return to Wrigleyville on Saturday, slated for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff on ESPNU.

Saturday's sold-out contest is considered a home game for Northwestern (7-3, 3-3), and the marquee outside the ballpark has been painted purple. ESPN's "College GameDay" will also be on hand to host its football preview show.

Called "The AllState Wrigleyville Classic," the game marks the first time in 40 years that a football game will be played at Wrigley.

Wildcat head coach Pat Fitzgerald said he and his players haven't thought much about Saturday's game until this week, but he noted that having the chance to play in such a historic venue is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Wrigley Field regularly hosted college and professional football games from 1916 to 1970, and it was the home field of the Chicago Bears from 1921 to 1970. The last college game was played in 1938 between DePaul and St. Louis — two schools that no longer have football programs.

"It's just icing on the cake to our rivalry," Fitzgerald said Tuesday during the weekly Big Ten coaches' teleconference. "This is a big game for both programs … It's going to be a great atmosphere. It's going to be a bowl game here in Chicago."

Wrigley Field will likely present some different challenges for both teams.

The field is oriented so that one end zone is in right field and the other is on the third base line. This layout could cramp an offense when it nears the end zone — the end zone in right field is very close to the outfield wall.

Illini head coach Ron Zook said there are a couple of tight corners, but that's the case for a lot of fields.

"They've got it padded up pretty good," he said. "I jokingly told our wide receivers, 'It gets you ready for the Arena League if that's where [you go].' But there was a lot of concerns and a lot of thought put into that before the decision was made that we would play."

While playing at Wrigley will be fun and exciting for both schools and their fans, the game holds major implications for both teams on the field.

With only two games remaining on its schedule, Illinois (5-5, 3-4) must win at least one more game to ensure bowl eligibility. A win for the Wildcats would give them eight this season, improving their chances of playing in a New Year's Day bowl game.

"This is the best sports town in the world," Fitzgerald said. "It's going to be awesome. It's going to be a lot of fun. But when the ball goes up in the air, all that stuff doesn't matter; it's about executing for 60 minutes."

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