Chicago Colleges: Northwestern-Illinois at Wrigley Field
CHICAGO -- Go figure. Illinois turned a potential circus into a spectacle.
In one potentially disastrous afternoon, the Fighting Illini and one very special running back elevated a PR stunt gone awry into a must-see performance. They walked into a purple haze at Clark and Addison on Saturday and ran off with a school record, a bowl berth, a much-needed measure of pride and, very likely, their coach's job secured.
Illinois' 48-27 victory over Northwestern, made possible by Mikel Leshoure's school- and Wrigley Field-record 330 yards rushing, rose above circumstances that threatened to embarrass both schools, the Big Ten Conference, the Cubs and whoever else was unlucky enough to be involved.
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CHICAGO -- A quick look at Illinois’ 48-27 win over Northwestern at Wrigley Field on Saturday.
How it happened: The Illini, behind the record-setting performance of running back Mikel Leshoure, flew out of the gate and barely looked back, running up 559 yards in total offense and toughening up just enough defensively in the third quarter to secure the 48-27 victory. Leshoure’s 17-yard gainer with 7:31 left in regulation broke the Illinois school record of 315 yards and is the most in the NCAA this season, surpassing Nebraska’s Roy Helu Jr.’s 307 against Missouri.
What it means: Illinois’ sixth victory makes them bowl eligible, a virtual guarantee given that the Illini will finish sixth place or better. Northwestern was already going with seven wins.
Stat of the day: Leshoure’s first half performance, 153 yards rushing on 10 carries and two touchdowns, set a frantic pace that initially looked as if Northwestern would never match it. Leshoure went over the 300-yard mark with a 62-yard carry early in the fourth quarter to set up another Illinois touchdown, and finished with a remarkable 330 yards on 33 carries.
Leshoure set the mark for most single-game rushing yards by surpassing the Robert Holcombe's previous record of 315 yards, which was set in 1996.
Leshoure also set the mark for most rushing yards by an NCAA player this season, which was previously set by Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. who gained 307 yards against Missouri.
Leshoure, a Champaign native, has 27 carries for 301 yards, including a 61-yard scamper early in the fourth quarter that set up a touchdown by Jason Ford (his second) to put the Illini up 41-24.
Leshoure's previous game-high rushing total was 184 yards last season against Fresno State.
The most stunning sight of the third quarter? Two of the first three series ending in punts after just one of 18 ending with something other than a touchdown, a field goal, a missed field goal or a turnover in the first half.
Until the final possession of the third, Illinois’ defense seemed to settle down and start tackling in the third quarter, forcing two three-and-outs until Northwestern gained 13, 14 and 23 yards on consecutive plays to set up a first-and-10 on the Illini 29.
Should be an interesting fourth quarter in what turned out to be a really entertaining game.
As White Sox fans, the Murphys “hate coming to Wrigley.”
“The only time we come here is to watch the White Sox pound the Cubs,” Tom said.
The Murphys, along with dozens of other fans, braved plunging temperatures and biting winds in the standing-room-only section to watch the Illinois-Northwestern game at Wrigley Field on Saturday.
And they liked their standing room just fine, thank you.
Katie Ekstrom and her friend, Ian Barbo, always get standing-room-only tickets when they come to Wrigley. Neither went to any of the schools that were represented on the field Saturday, but they are football fans and, unlike the Murphys, fans of Wrigley Field.
“Best seats in the house,” Barbo said of the standing room.
They're the cheapest, too.
Barbo paid $36 per ticket after fees and brought four friends with him.
The Murphys bought their tickets on StubHub.com, paying $40 per ticket, slightly higher than face value. Brendan Murphy said the next lowest price for tickets on the ticket resale website was $150 per seat.
But what about the view?
“If I were in a regular football stadium, I would not be able to see this well,” Ekstrom said. “I don't mind standing. It's just awesome to be here.”
If you’d have asked Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald 12 and a half minutes into Saturday’s game if he’d take a tie at 3-point deficit at halftime, he’d probably look at you as if you were crazy.
The way the Wildcats were going, Fitzgerald may have been happy if his first-team defense was still standing.
But Northwestern’s defense stiffened up just long enough and Mikel Leshoure-- on pace for a 600-yard rushing day after the first quarter -- evidently was catching his breath long enough for the Wildcats to make it a game.
Thanks to two touchdowns by Mike Trumpy, an interception return by Eddie McGee and a 31-yard field goal by Stefan Demos, the game was tied with under three minutes to go in the half. Derek Dimke’s 39-yard field as time expired sent the Illini into their dugout with some modicum of momentum. But Northwestern has to feel awfully good at the intermission.
The big question for the Illini? Um, why are you even attempting a passing game? Why attempt anything at all other than handing the ball to that No. 5 fella? Just a thought as Leshoure, though slowed down a bit in the second quarter, has 208 yards on 18 carries for an average of 11.6 yards per carry.
Northwestern's Brian Peters notched his second interception of the game after a Nathan Scheelhaase bomb went long and Peters secured it falling onto his back.
Illinois 24, Northwestern 17 with 6:22 left in the game.
Forget the bizarre Wrigley Field field setup, the first quarter of the so-called Wrigleyville Classic actually overshadowed the weird circumstances surrounding it.
The Northwestern defense came out looking like it was still getting its bearings, which should not have been difficult given that everyone was going the same direction.
The Illini, specifically Mikel Leshoure, looked like they were running on the surface of the moon, with Leshoure rushing for 153 yards on 10 carries, and Illinois gaining 231 yards in total offense en route to a 21-14 lead.
The east endzone also got a workout with Northwestern’s Brian Peters scoring on a 59-yard interception return. Northwestern's other score came on a Mike Trumpy 80-yard rush, the longest run for the Wildcats since 1982.
Buckle up. At this rate, the Illini will gain almost 1,000 yards on offense.
Donald stepped into the booth following the first quarter to lead the crowd.
Donald, who won the NCAA men's title for the Wildcats in 1999, gave a fine rendition of the Wrigley favorite, but elicited a mix of cheers and boos from the Illini-heavy crowd.
Northwestern's defense ended an inconsistent first quarter with reason to cheer. After giving up 212 yards on the ground with 1:12 left in the first quarter, they stopped the Illini on third down. Illini kicker Derek Dimke missed a 28-yard field goal attempt.
On Northwestern's next play from scrimmage, Mike Trumpy took a handoff 80 yards for a touchdown to bring the Wildcats within a touchdown at 21-14.
Despite the best efforts of the Big Ten and both schools to prevent their players from being tackled in the east end zone, Peters was mobbed near the wall -- by his own teammates.
Illinois immediately returned to the ground attack with Mikel Leshoure netting a 70-yard scamper. Jason Ford punched it in two plays later from five yards out.
Leshoure has 147 yards on eight carries, and it doesn't look like he'll be done any time soon.