So much went on during Illinois' 48-27 victory over Northwestern at Wrigley Field Saturday that you forget the offenses always were going only westward by Big Ten mandate due to the inadequate space beyond the east end zone.
The Ilini's Mikel Leshoure and Northwestern's Mike Trumpy ensured the chilled sellout crowd of 41,058, with enough orange around to keep the purple gang on their toes, would not focus on the unused end zone, trod upon only by the Wildcats' Brian Peters' via a 59-yard interception return in the first quarter. Peters was able to put on his brakes long before reaching the controversial padding with an insurance sponsor's name festooned all over.
When Leshoure had 147 yards on his first eight carries and 215 by halftime, while Trumpy, who hails from Illini legend Red Grange's hometown of Wheaton, dashed for an 80-yard touchdown run, the goofiness of re-spotting the ball down the field after every change of possession was forgotten. By game's end, Leshoure, who had 70- and 62-yard runs, was the all-time Illini single-game ground gainer with 330 yards. He also goes down in history as Wrigley Field's best-ever one-game rusher, easily blowing past Grange, Gale Sayers, Bronko Nagurski and all the greats of yore. You could safely say the only other Clark and Addison individual football performance that rivaled LeShoure's was Sayers' six-touchdown spree on Dec. 12, 1965. Open the Wrigley Field gates and history will be made several which ways.
All of which was doggone great entertainment that made up for the game planners' oversights on the space problems caused by the end zone hugging the right-field bleachers. Good for them the oversight no doubt attracted the Big Ten attorneys' attention did not result in a megabucks lawsuit in the event of a player racking himself up on the right-field padding.
Since the whole shebang was considered the strangest atmosphere for a football game in modern annals, it figured perfectly that it took place in a ballpark where in 1959 two baseballs were put in play at the same time in a Cubs-Cardinals game. Or in a windswept bandbox where the Phillies won games 18-16 and 23-22, both in 10 innings, after trailing 13-2 in fourth inning of the first game and allowing the Cubs to tie it at 22 in the eighth inning of the second contest. Goats or ghosts don't roam Wrigley Field, but there definitely is an aura unlike any other stadium in the world.
The symbolism of the late afternoon was summed up by the crack in the Harry Caray statue, made by a vehicle helping convert the field to football. The Cubs had not repaired the crack by gametime, so a sympathetic fan affixed a small band-aid over the fissure.
Harry was witness to street scenes that have scarcely been duplicated even when the Cubs hosted postseason games. Sheffield Avenue was turned into a Wildcat Way, packed so tightly with merrymaking fans no one could move forward. At a bandstand near the intersection with Waveland, a lusty singer stripped off her coat despite the 40-degree chill and belted forth in a leather micro-mini skirt outfit. She warmed herself and the crowd good.
Around the corner, fans happily strolled the middle of Waveland with just a creeping bus interrupting the mall atmosphere. The Marching Illini band entertained at a spot normally staked out in the summer by ballhawks waiting descending home-run balls.
A few feet away were three trucks belonging to Musco Lighting Co. of Oskaloosa, Iowa. They provided portable light towers, at the behest of ESPN, to further illuminate the field since Wrigley Field has no backlighting behind the bleachers. Musco's arrival at Wrigley was 27 years delayed.
Back in 1983, ABC-TV asked Musco if they could illuminate Wrigley Field for its first night game, earmarked for a Monday telecast -- the network then had a prime-time game of the week. But the plans become moot when the Cubs weren't scheduled to play that night. Five more years and some overturned anti-lights ordinances later, the Cubs scheduled their first game after dark on 8/8/88, and then rain delayed the actual first night game until 8/9/88.
Musco crew chief Dan Combs wasn't aware of the 1983 derailed illumination plan, but he's sure Musco could have pulled it off then. His lights were on at 3:15 as the field grew steadily darker -- literally the "gloamin'" of Gabby Hartnett fame. Not all the baseball lights above the left-field roof were on. But as sunset approached around 4 p.m., the lights from all sides took full effect on the field was as bright as any properly illuminated, classically-designed stadium built specifically for football.
Five hundred feet away from the southwest corner of the end zone was the venerable scoreboard, which has seen everything. The Cubs' grounds crew transformed the edifice into a semblance of its old Bears layout. Instead of batter, ball and strike, the center of the scoreboard featured "Yards to go," " Down" and "Quarter." Other Big Ten game scores were posted. The lettering for the schools looked like something out of the 1950s. Old was good here.
And despite the crabbing of fans angered by the one-way offense mandate of the Big Ten, few no-shows were apparent. The only block of empty seats appeared to be a few bleacher benches below the Toyota sign in left field, which filled in by late in the first half. Rooftops were packed. The gaping blocks of empty seats from the Cubs season were forgotten for one late-fall afternoon.
Too bad the spectacle of NU-Illinois will have to be frozen in place as a likely one-time event due to the field dimensions problems. Northwestern got to play on the big stage of a legendary ballpark. Amid its roller-coaster season, Illinois became bowl-eligible with its sixth victory. A good time was had by all.
Now, the question becomes: What do they do with that unused east goalpost? There's got to be a baseball function to which it can be converted. Maybe a strike zone for Carlos Zambrano's bullpen sessions?