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He was under an improve-or-else mandate from athletic director Ron Guenther following a 3-9 season that led to much of the staff being fired, and until recently, it looked like the Illini (5-5, 3-4) had done just that.

Two straight losses after a 5-3 start have erased much of the goodwill. As if a 67-65 triple-overtime loss to Michigan wasn’t disappointing enough, falling 38-34 to lowly Minnesota last week really riled them, and much of the anger is being directed at Zook.

“For the first eight games of the season we’ve tackled as well as anybody I’ve ever been around, and the last two weeks we haven’t,” Zook said.

At least they’ll be facing an untested quarterback.

Persa’s injury was a huge blow for Northwestern, which wants to get to a bowl and win one for the first time since the 1949 Rose Bowl. They’ve had postseason losses the past two years.

Then again, the Wildcats have been here before and come out in decent shape, whether it was Mike Kafka taking over for C.J. Bacher or Persa filling in for Kafka in recent years. Now, they’re turning to Watkins, a 6-6 freshman who has played sparingly.

“I’m pretty excited about the opportunity ahead of me so I’ve got a lot of energy and I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “I’m going to be excited but you just need to stay focused and prevent any distractions you can, keep your mind on winning and what you have to do.”

Fitzgerald called Watkins a dual threat, with his mobility and strong arm, and has plenty of confidence.

He will certainly be sharing the spotlight with the ballpark.

The home of the Chicago Bears for a half century, Wrigley has hosted concerts and the NHL’s Winter Classic in recent years but no football games since the Bears left for Soldier Field after the 1970 season.

The most recent college game? That was the 1938 clash between DePaul and St. Louis. Illinois and Northwestern last met at Wrigley Field in 1923, when the Cubs‘ championship drought was a mere 15 years.

Gone are the pitchers mound and home plate, and the infield and warning track are covered by a thick layer of turf. One goalpost is in front of the third-base dugout, the other on top of the wall in right with no net but that won’t be used now, so fans won’t be scrambling for footballs in the seats or on Sheffield Avenue.

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said safety was the most important aspect in planning the game.

“From the very beginning, the players’ safety was paramount,” he told ESPN 1000 before the rules changes. “That’s what took us the longest time. We had risk managers here; we had civil engineers, safety engineers. We had so many people look at it because nobody wants or wanted to put the student-athlete at harm’s way at a riskier type of environment.

“We vetted it through all the experts at both universities and felt everyone was comfortable with the dimensions.”

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