Commentary: Reaction to Wrigley Field Rule Changes
by Jonathan Hodges

In case you missed it, the Big Ten announced on Friday morning (yes, the day before the game) that the east/right field end zone of Wrigley Field would not be used during the upcoming Northwestern vs. Illinois game at the facility.  To summarize the changes to the rules that will be used for the game:

- All offensive plays will head toward the West end zone, including all extra points and all overtime possessions.
- All kickoffs will be kicked toward the East end zone.
- After every change of possession, the ball will be repositioned for the offense to head toward the West end zone.
- 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.

Note that all of the changes required an NCAA rule waiver that was requested and received.

Game Impact


What this means, first, is that there will be no chance of running into the right field wall (which was heavily padded anyway) during a play, which was a distinct possibility when running offensive plays towards that end zone.  Obviously this alleviates the most obvious safety concern, although it will add quite an interesting wrinkle into the game.

The west end zone does come close to the seats at the northwest corner of the field, though, but pads are in place there as well.  But, overall, it is a lot more spacious behind that end zone when compared to the east end zone.


It also means that no kicks during the actual game will be attempted towards the east goalposts, removing the possibility of kicks going into/over the right field bleachers.  Although this removes an interesting twist to the game, it will be replaced by another interesting twist.

Scoring in East End Zone

Here are the only ways to score in the east/right field end zone under the rules above:

- Defensive turnover return for touchdown.
- Blocked kick/punt return for touchdown.
- Punt return for touchdown.
- Safety.

Note that all point after tries following such scores will be attempted going towards the west end zone.

Student Section and Noise Level

A significant "loser" in this change will undoubtedly be the Northwestern student section, which is situated in the right field bleachers.  All of the action will now be going away from them, meaning that the only time they will be close to it is when a team is backed up in their own end.

This provides an opportunity for the section to get loud when Illinois is backed up in its own end, though, while removing the chance of it getting loud when Northwestern is backed up on offense.  When approaching the end zone on the other side of the field, both teams will have to contend with the bulk of the fans who surround that end of the field.

Substitutions and Play Calling

In order to make the sideline situation a bit more fair, the conference dictated that the teams swap sides of the sideline at halftime (since both teams will be sharing the north sideline due to space constraints).  Originally, Northwestern was to occupy the west portion of the sideline for the entire game.  Now, Illinois will be on the west end for the first half, and NU will have that half for the second half and any overtime periods.

When either offense is backed up on the east end, substitutions and play calling for the team positioned on the opposite end of the field will obviously be challenging.  I assume that the officials will allow sufficient time to perform substitutions, but it will require players traveling a very long distance in order to get onto the field.  This was going to be the case anyway, and this change even things out a little bit, especially considering we know which way the offense will travel on every drive.

Northwestern, with the ability to go into its hurry-up offense, should have an advantage here, especially when Northwestern occupies the west end of the sideline (since Illinois defenders will have to travel the furthest to get onto the field).  It also helps that the 'Cats will have the west side of the field in the second half and any OTs, so that they will be able to use the change of pace on offense to either come back or extend a lead.

I believe this will be the most significant impact of the rule changes, and we'll see how the teams try to affect the pace of the game depending on which part of the sideline they occupy and where the ball is on the field.  It would also be wise for the teams not to get too caught up in this and instead to focus on executing on the field because in the end, overcoming any distractions and playing well will still be the deciding factor in this game.

Decision Timing and Execution

It's clear that most everyone involved in the game (but particularly Northwestern, who is, of course, hosting) has come out of this looking bad.  Many in the media (both local and national) questioned the configuration of the field (relative to the right field/east end zone wall) once it was actually set up, but it was stated that both universities had experts fully vet the safety aspect and both sides approved and signed off on it.  The teams seemed to be moving forward with plans to play as the field was set up, until this sudden change, which, according to Illinois Sports Information Director, was a "unique challenge that came up within the last 24 to 48 hours."

This game has been in discussions for basically two years now, with numerous surveys and studies done to ensure that the field would fit inside the stadium and to ensure the safety of all those involved, particularly the student-athletes.  When the game was officially announced 7 months ago, the field configuration was also announced and the position of the wall relative to the end zone was clear.  Why nobody made these rule changes at that point or why both schools signed off on the initial plans without asking these questions is unknown.

Also, both teams had access to the plans and thoroughly reviewed them before the game was even announced.  The conference must have also been aware of the situation.  So, again, it's unknown why this issue was not addressed up front.

There seem to be conflicting reports as to who made the decision to re-evaluate and make the rule changes listed above.  Coach Fitz and Coach Zook seemed to be fine with the configuration (rightly deferring to their university's respective experts) and were making the appropriate game plans leading up to the game.  But, it seems interesting that the rule changes came out on Friday morning, Illinois' scheduled day for a practice on the field.  It was also reported that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany himself stepped in and called for this change.

Either way, it is clear that the timing and execution of the decision were bad for everyone.  Leading up to the game, everyone said that the configuration was fully reviewed and approved by experts on both sides.  Now, they pull back at essentially the last possible minute.  The game will go on, and it will still be quite an event, but the decisions leading up to the game are now very much in question.


I don't believe the actual play on the field will be adversely impacted by this change, and it's clear that player safety definitely improved with the implemented rules, which is the most important thing.

Fans will also be impacted by being deprived of some of the unique aspects of the game: the potential for game kicks to go into or over the right field bleachers as well as the wall affecting play in that end zone.  But those are not that big of a deal, especially considering the overall setting for the game anyway.

Another fan impact will be those with seats in or close to the right field bleachers.  Now, all of the action will be going away from that area.  But, it's important to note that given the seating configuration of the stadium, most people will now benefit as the bulk of the seats are closer to the west end zone (in the grandstands).  Also, those close to right field will still be close to the action when either offense is backed up in its own end or if a team uses one of the aforementioned methods to score in the east end zone.

Finally, the most significant take-away, is that all involved mishandled the situation by letting it get to this point.  I still believe the game is a success already (and should prove to be again on gameday), but leaving this decision for the last minute will stain what was otherwise looking to be a great celebration of Northwestern football (and, college football in general).  If it came to having to implement such rule changes, it should have been discussed and approved up front.

Now, hopefully we can all get over the distractions and get to what should be an entertaining game on Saturday afternoon.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.