Column: Football returns to Wrigley Field, and Iowa fans could make themselves at home on the road against Northwestern

When Northwestern and Iowa kick off Saturday at Wrigley Field, it figures to be the biggest home crowd of the season for the Wildcats.

That’s not saying much. NU fans have mostly avoided going to Ryan Field to watch a team scarred by the hazing scandal that continues to make news several months after the firing of coach Pat Fitzgerald. Will they turn up at Wrigley for the ambience?

Fortunately for the Cubs, it might not matter. The ballpark should be mostly filled and alive for the third edition of Northwestern football, thanks to what’s expected to be a large contingent of road-tripping Hawkeyes fans.

What can we expect from the matchup, the third for the Wildcats at Wrigley since the famous “one direction” game in 2010?

A lot of punts and only a few points, according to oddsmakers. One had the over/under at 29.5 points, the lowest ever for a modern-day college game. But the stats don’t lie. Iowa ranks 133rd and last in Division 1 FCS in yards per game (232.4). Northwestern isn’t far ahead, ranked 121st at 307.4 ypg. Three yards without the cloud of dust seems like a likely outcome.

Here are five other things to watch.

1. Northwestern interim coach David Braun is in the spotlight.

Braun is fighting to become the long-term answer for the Wildcats, who turned to the first-year defensive coordinator from North Dakota State after firing Fitzgerald on July 10. Athletic director Derrick Gragg has yet to give any indication of whether he believes Braun deserves the job full time, though Gragg generally doesn’t have much to say about anything outside of a news release.

The Wildcats (4-4, 2-3 Big Ten) have chalked up upset wins in conference over Minnesota and Maryland, and a third might make Gragg’s decision easier. A bowl game is still not out of the question, especially if Northwestern wins Saturday, with games against lowly Purdue and Illinois remaining.

Considering everything that has happened to the program since last summer, a bowl game would be like going to Super Bowl in the eyes of some alumni.

2. Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has been told he’s out the door after the season.

Interim athletic director Beth Goetz announced this week that Ferentz, son of coach Kirk Ferentz, would remain through the bowl game and then be relieved of his duties afterward to provide “clarity during this pivotal time in the schedule.” Firing him would’ve provided more clarity, but hey, whatever.

His job status has been a distraction from the start. Ferentz signed a contract amendment before the season agreeing to be terminated if the Hawkeyes didn’t average 25 points per game, which they’ve done only twice and not since Sept. 30 against Michigan State. Due to nepotism laws, Brian reports to the AD instead of his dad, a powerful figure at the university.

3. Despite its woeful offense, Iowa remains in good position to win the Big Ten West.

The Hawkeyes are in a four-way tie for first after losing 12-10 to Minnesota on a controversial call they’re still talking about in Iowa City. Cooper DeJean’s late-game, 54-yard punt-return touchdown was negated after a review when officials said he was waving his arms in an “invalid fair-catch” signal. DeJean said he held out his left hand to balance himself and didn’t make the signal.

Either way, the Hawkeyes, Gophers, Wisconsin and Nebraska are all 3-2 in conference play entering Saturday. Iowa plays Rutgers, Illinois and Nebraska the final three games, so this is a must-win. None of the Big Ten West co-leaders are ranked, and any of the four would be prohibitive underdogs against Ohio State or Michigan in a Big Ten championship game.

At least the much-maligned Big Ten West will bite the dust after 2023. With the addition of four Pac 12 teams next year, the conference has eliminated the divisional format and will send the top two teams, after tiebreakers, to the championship game.

4. The star of the show is Wrigley Field.

The first Northwestern game there in 2010, dubbed the Wrigleyville Classic, turned into a punchline when the Big Ten determined a day before the game that the east end zone was unsafe because of the narrow distance between the end zone and the brick outfield wall. All offensive plays were directed toward the west end zone, so the ball had to be repositioned after normal changes of possession.

NU tried to put its spin on the odd field condition. “You want to talk about maybe the most unique game ever played in college football history? We have it right here. I think it will be really cool,” Fitzgerald said, comparing it to a sandlot game where the mantra was “losers walk.”

Illinois crushed Northwestern before a large crowd of 41,058 that didn’t seem bothered by the constant moving of the ball to start every drive. Renovations were made to Wrigley later to allow for a 100-yard field with enough space for players to avoid crashing into a brick wall. NU and Purdue played the second Wrigley game in 2021, which Purdue won in another romp before a lesser crowd of 31,500. The buzz just wasn’t the same.

5. Could Chicago ever host a bowl game?

The Cubs in 2017 floated the idea of hosting a bowl game at Wrigley, but it never came to fruition. “The Cubs said they’re not looking for a lower-tier bowl game; they’re very selective in what they do,” then-Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein reported in 2018.

Perhaps they’re less selective now as the 2016 World Series fades in the distance?

The frigid weather in December wouldn’t exactly make Chicago a top choice for most bowl-bound schools, with the exception of those dying to play in one for whatever reason, such as NU this season.

Eventually the Chicago Bears’ new domed stadium could be the home to a future bowl game, assuming one gets built.

The Papa Bear Bowl does have a nice ring to it.