CHICAGO — If football comes to Wrigley Field again, Mikel Leshoure wants to be there.
“I think that would be fun,” he said.
Particularly after a performance like this.
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.
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.
Anybody who wasn’t aware of this one certainly knew about it after the Big Ten announced Friday the schools had agreed on several rule 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.
An interception return by Northwestern was the only touchdown scored in the east end zone.
Not since the Bears left for Soldier Field following the 1970 season had football been played at Wrigley. It had been even longer since the last college game. That was the 1938 clash between DePaul and St. Louis, and Illini coach Ron Zook didn’t hesitate when asked about a return appearance.
“Absolutely, I’d like to do it again,” he said.
During the walkthrough Friday, Zook noticed White Sox and Cubs fans on his team talking trash, having fun at each other’s expense.
“It was just a great venue,” he said. “It was exciting. You think about all the great players that have played here and gone through here, I think it was something that our guys are going to remember for the rest of their lives.”
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase called it “a great atmosphere, something I’m always going to look back on.”
And Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the atmosphere was “incredible” and that running offenses to the west was “the right move.”
The controversy surrounding the late rule 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 Bears’ old home.
“The No. 1 thing was to get the win, help my team out and get to that bowl game,” he said. “I’m happy the stats were the way they were, but that definitely wasn’t on my mind going into the game.”
His 330 yards were a Wrigley Field record, eclipsed the previous school mark of 315 set by Robert Holcombe in 1996 and were the most by an FBS running back since Navy’s Shun White had 348 on Aug. 30, 2008. His day included 4- and 1-yard touchdown runs on the first two possessions, plus a 70-yard gain in the first quarter.
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 1986, 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 for 135 yards.
Leshoure ran for 156 yards in the first quarter alone. 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 a game played under circumstances like these.
The goal post 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. The teams shared a sideline but switched spots at halftime.
“It was different to get adjusted to at the start,” Scheelhaase said. “Minor things. Like the first time our defense got an interception, we were all ready to run that way. No, go back.”
Quirky rules aside, the stadium had a different look, too — no mound, no home plate. Turf covered the infield and much of the warning track, and the third-base dugout was sealed off.
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.
“It was a great experience, no doubt,” Watkins said. “It was awesome. The fans were awesome.”
Andrew Seligman/The Associated Press