Northwestern, Illinois battle for Chicago at Soldier Field

Soldier Field
Northwestern and Illinois will face off at Soldier Field Saturday. (FLickr user Loco Steve.)

By Jordan Ray

For Northwestern, it’s a chance to get one step closer to making program history.

For Illinois, it’s a chance to prove Chicago isn’t just the domain of one Big Ten football team.

The Wildcats and Illini face off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Soldier Field for the first time in the rivalry’s 123-year history. The teams played in Chicago in 2010, but that was at Wrigley Field in a bizarre game that required offensive possessions for both teams to go in the same direction for safety concerns.

“We’re looking forward to bringing our show to Chicago,” said Jason Lener, senior associate director of Illinois athletics.

In February, Illinois announced plans to play its next three home games against Northwestern at Soldier Field instead of in Champaign.

“Ending the regular season at a historical site and one of the best stadiums in the world will make for a big-time event for our student-athletes and will be a great springboard for our football program into the postseason,” former Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, who was fired in November, said in a February press release.

While Northwestern brands itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” on billboards throughout the city, Lener said Illinois’ “home games” at Soldier Field aren’t meant to  specifically combat that per se.

NU Illinois pie chart
Breakdown of wins in the Northwestern-Illinois football series rivalry. (Jordan Ray/MEDILL)

“We’ve got a quarter of a million alums in Chicago alone,” Lener said. “It’s a market that we want to spend more time in, and it’s important to us. (We) just thought it was a good fit to move our game up there.”

A little extra cash doesn’t hurt, either.

The Illini played the University of Washington at Soldier Field in 2013, and Thomas told Chicago Business in February the school netted nearly $2 million from it.

The financial success of Saturday’s game will depend on ticket sales, Lener said.

“We’ll be paying very similar to what it would cost to run a game here up there,” he said. “It’s just there’s more revenue potential to play a game up there than there is at our stadium.”

While Illinois is marketing the game to season ticket holders and football fans in the Chicago area, Northwestern is not, according to Northwestern assistant AD for communications Paul Kennedy.

“It’s Illinois’ home game,” Kennedy wrote in an email. “They chose to play it (and their next two home games) here in Chicago. I didn’t even find out about it until they made the public announcement.”

Northwestern has the normal allotment of tickets it can sell for any road game. Kennedy added that selling the tickets at $65 per person has been frustrating when Illinois is selling them 50 percent off on Groupon.

Tickets with a face value of $60.90 were selling on Groupon for as low as $30.

Kennedy told The Daily Northwestern in February Northwestern was “thrilled” to be playing more games in the Chicago area.

“Opportunities are rare to play a road game in a venue accessible from campus by public transportation,” Kennedy said. “Particularly over a holiday weekend, this is incredible news for our student-athletes, coaches, families and fans going forward.”

Pat Fitzgerald NU Coach
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is pictured. (Big Ten)

The game itself has major implications for both teams.

A win would leave Northwestern at 10-2 overall this year. The Wildcats’ senior class would be the first in school history to reach the 10-win mark twice.

“That’s a pretty special legacy,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said on Monday. “Then that would give you an opportunity to go into some uncharted waters.”

Northwestern has never had an 11-win season, but beating Illinois would make that possible in a bowl game. It also would keep Northwestern in the Big Ten’s first tier for a bowl bid and give the Wildcats an outside shot at a New Year’s Six bowl.

Illinois, on the other hand, is playing to keep its season alive.

The Illini (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) need a win to become bowl-eligible, which means the Wildcats have an opportunity to exact some revenge. Last season, Illinois beat Northwestern 47-33 to keep the Wildcats out of a bowl, ending their season.

“As a competitor and athlete, you have to flush those sort of feelings and just prepare for what’s important now,” Wildcats defensive end Deonte Gibson said. “At this moment now, we have Illinois. Yes, I think about that game, I play it back … but this is a new year, a different team.”

Reaching six wins would help Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit’s case for staying as head coach. Cubit replaced Tim Beckman, who was fired a week before the season started amid allegations of mishandling players who were hurt.

“Somebody gave me a little stat: I think the most wins a first-year coach ever had here was six,” Cubit said. “So that’s what we’re gunning for.”

Photo at top: Soldier Field from afar. (Flickr User Loco Steve/Creative Commons)