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
- All kickoffs will be kicked toward the East end
- 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.
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
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
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
Scoring in East End Zone
the only ways to score in the east/right field end zone under the rules
- Defensive turnover return for touchdown.
- Blocked kick/punt
return for touchdown.
- Punt return for touchdown.
that all point after tries following such scores will be attempted going towards
the west end zone.
Student Section and Noise Level
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
hopefully we can all get over the distractions and get to what should be an
entertaining game on Saturday afternoon.
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