Bob Asmussen | Field of dreams? Not so much at Northwestern

Apr. 15—CHAMPAIGN — Yes, Illinois football coach Bret Bielema has considered the issue Northwestern is facing with its home field this season.

Even though his Illini won't visit the Wildcats for 229 days.

Eager to get started on the renovation at Ryan Field, Northwestern has already torn down its former home.

The school announced last week plans to play its home games at its practice facility on the Evanston campus, near Lake Michigan.

"I don't know if it's going to be real," Bielema said after Saturday's afternoon scrimmage. "You can announce whatever you want."

It will be a great view, for sure. But the building is expected to seat considerably less than Ryan Field, which will be a problem.

Though the Illinois-Northwestern game has often been one of the smallest draws of the year, Illini fans in Chicagoland are used to being able to go if they desire. Never a problem at "good-seats-available" Ryan Field.

Northwestern said it is considering other options, which could include Soldier Field and Wrigley Field. The Cubs will be done by Nov. 30, but the Bears might have a conflict. The NFL has announced opponents for its teams in 2024, but the dates won't be be known until early to mid-May.

When that is done and the schedule for the Bears is finalized, it should offer more clarity on the building availability for Nov. 30.

Bielema has no interest in playing a game where both teams share the same sideline like Iowa and Northwestern did at Wrigley in 2023.

"I know this: We're not going to play that game with two guys on the same sideline," Bielema said. "I know it was a big issue in the Iowa game a year ago.

"You can't have an American football game with two teams on the same sideline and say it's going to be a competitive, fair game, It's not just real. I think there will be a lot of powers involved to make sure logistics of what we know become reality. I want to play a cool game and if Wrigley's it ... but I just think it's got to be similar to what everybody else in college is used to."

A month ago, Bielema watched the TV copy of the Iowa-Northwestern game, played last November. Iowa won 10-7.

"It was too different," Bielema said. "To get your team ready to play every week is hard enough. Now, if you have to play in an environment where it's not used to what you're playing off of, that isn't going to happen."

It was the last loss of the season for the Wildcats, who took their final four games to finish 8-5.A reminder for Illinois fans: The last Illinois-Northwestern game at Wrigley Field, in 2010, went quite well for the team from Champaign-Urbana.

Sure, the quarters were tight, but it wasn't an issue for Mikel Leshoure, who ran for a school-record 330 yards in a 48-27 Illinois romp. At that point, I might have suggested Illinois ask to play the Wildcats at the home of the Cubs every year.

Moving onAnthony Johnson, a defensive lineman who joined the Illini in the spring after transferring from Youngstown State, is leaving the program.

The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Pittsburgh native is entering the transfer portal. He started his career at Bowling Green.

"We're out of the mix with him," Bielema said.

Was Johnson's departure a surprise to Bielema?

"I could see it the last couple weeks," the fourth-year Illinois coach said. "There were guys playing that I don't know if he saw himself getting that starting role. I get it. The guy's got one year left.

"I asked him to think about it, but I totally understand where he's coming from. He quit and moved on. It really does a good job for us because now we know where we're at with one week left."

Good workJunior college transfer receiver Mario Sanders is back in practice after missing time with a hamstring issue.

"Very impressive there," Bielema said.

Three guys who aren't participating in the spring — running back Kaden Feagin and defensive backs Xavier Scott and Matthew Bailey — thrilled Bielema on Saturday by helping out.

"I really challenged our coaches to engage the guys that aren't out there this spring," Bielema said. "It's been positive so far."

Joining the celebrationIt was Mom's Weekend at Illinois and the football program participated.

"One of the things that I've discovered since I've been here is there are different things here on campus," Bielema said. "One of the things we can do as coaches is blend that together."

A few years back, a recruit and his family were having a hard time finding a hotel in Champaign-Urbana for a weekend visit. The closest they could get was in Danville.

The moms had taken all the rooms.

Since then, Bielema has invited the moms from the football team in for the annual celebration. He said 50 came in during the weekend, and they had a barbecue.

"Kind of a neat day for everybody," Bielema said.

Tuning inMany of the Big Ten spring games are televised. The Illinois staff records every bit of it.

The Illinois spring game will be televised by BTN at 1 p.m. Saturday. Current forecasts call for football weather. Cloudy skies, Temps in the 50s and no rain.

"Even for us, it's not going to be the same game as it's been in the past," Bielema said. "We"re going to try and engage the fans and do some things."