NFP Saturday Tailgate

The regular season is nearing its conclusion as we enter the third weekend of November. With some teams finishing its schedule Saturday, it’s a bittersweet day. However, for other squads, there is plenty of football yet to be played.

So get that grill fired up and let’s start this weekend’s tailgate.

Let’s play ball!

No, it’s not time for pitchers and catchers to report to spring training yet. Sadly, we have about three months to go.

But that doesn’t mean baseball won’t be on the minds of Northwestern and Illinois fans Saturday afternoon as they watch their Wildcats and Fighting Illini match up in the inaugural Allstate Wrigleyville Classic at Wrigley Field — the home of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs.

Wrigley FieldWrigley Field will host Northwestern and Illinois Saturday afternoon.

This will be the first football game at the Friendly Confines in 40 years, since the Chicago Bears left the stadium following the 1970 season after playing 370 games there, when the field ran in a north-south direction from left field to home plate. It’s been even longer since a college game was held at the venue. Try 1938, when DePaul and St. Louis locked horns. Of course, those two schools don’t even have football programs anymore.

And, based on their loss to Western Carolina at home this past Tuesday, my beloved Blue Demons apparently don’t have a basketball team either.

I was lucky enough to see the Chicago Blackhawks battle the Detroit Red Wings on New Year’s Day 2009 when Wrigley housed the NHL’s Winter Classic, and I also was in attendance when the Dave Matthews Band staged back-to-back excellent shows at the home of the Cubs this past summer. But I will get to experience something brand-new on Saturday afternoon. And I can’t wait to see the Illini and the Wildcats meet at Wrigley for the first time since 1923.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, star dual-threat quarterback Dan Persa will be out of action for the rest of the season after rupturing his Achilles on his game-winning touchdown pass last week against Iowa. Persa was NU’s offense. And while it’s a nice story that Illinois native Evan Watkins will make his first start in such an historic game, the Wildcats not only lose Persa’s great ability to create something out of nothing on broken plays but also his heart and toughness. I’ve had the pleasure of covering NU home games this season, and it can be argued that he is the best in the Big Ten.

The Illini, meanwhile, still need a win to become bowl-eligible — and perhaps save head coach Ron Zook’s job. Many thought that the Zooker was off the hot seat heading into last week’s game against Minnesota, but the Illini dropped that contest to the Gophers — an inexcusable defeat.

Nathan ScheelhaaseICONWith Dan Persa out for NU, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase will be the most seasoned QB in the Big Ten battle.

Illini freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is getting better every week, but he still has his inconsistent moments. What drives the offense for Illinois is junior running back Mikel Leshoure, who rushed for 141 yards and two scores in the loss to the Gophers a week after recording five touchdowns at Michigan. It’ll be a tough test for the front four of NU to contain Leshoure, who could use this season as a springboard to the NFL draft much like Rashard Mendenhall did during the Illini’s Rose Bowl season a few years back.

Expect this one to come down to which young signal caller makes the fewest mistakes.

If you’re in the Chicagoland area, be sure to head to Wrigley early for ESPN’s “College GameDay” telecast. And, yes, the lovely Erin Andrews will be in attendance. Let’s play two!

Wrigley Field isn’t the only baseball field being converted for college action this weekend. New Yankee Stadium will host the Notre Dame-Army rivalry Saturday night. With just the road tilt against USC remaining after playing the Black Knights, the Irish are one win away from becoming bowl-eligible in Brian Kelly’s first season in South Bend.

Although these two programs no longer dominate the college football landscape as they used to, this is a must-watch game for any college football fan — and anyone who appreciates the rekindling of tradition.

It will be the 50th meeting between the schools, and the Irish will be donned in their green jerseys — the same apparel that has been more of a bad-luck than good luck charm in recent seasons.
These teams have played seemingly everywhere — including in West Point, South Bend, at the Polo Grounds, old Yankee Stadium and at old Soldier Field.

From 1932 to 1943, Notre Dame won 10 of 12 meetings against the Black Knights. The other two games ended in ties. But the Irish lost their best players because of World War II, and Army not only retained its best but acquired a certain Heisman Trophy winner, as well. Fullback Doc Blanchard came to West Point after spending his freshman year in Chapel Hill at North Carolina.

Doc BlanchardFormer Heisman Trophy winner Doc Blanchard.

Army won 59-0 in 1944 and 48-0 a year later, acquiring two national championships along the way. When the two schools met in 1946, Army entered with a 25-game winning streak. But ND had many of their best players back from the war. An incredible four Heisman Trophy winners played in the game in ’46 — Blanchard and Glenn Davis for Army, and Johnny Lujack and Leon Hart for Notre Dame. Yankee Stadium was insane, buzzing with a reported intensity never before heard.

The final score in the game? Notre Dame 0 — Army 0.

Army remained No. 1 in the AP poll after the tie, and the Irish stayed at No. 2. However, Notre Dame passed the Black Knights in the final poll.

The academy announced later that year that the 1947 game would be the final game in the series. The Irish won that one in South Bend.

It was a rivalry with a lot of heat and a lot of angst. But there was a lot of respect as well. The teams didn’t meet again until 1957 in Philadelphia, and they played 14 more times after that — including 1969 at old Yankee Stadium.

While it’s likely both teams will never reach such heights together ever again, it’s always good for the sport when a college football Saturday includes a Notre Dame-Army game.

The Big Ten race

Which team will claim the Big Ten’s automatic BCS berth — most likely a ticket to Pasadena?

Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State all enter the weekend at 5-1 in conference play. The Buckeyes travel to Iowa City to play the Hawkeyes, the Badgers are on the road in Ann Arbor to battle the Wolverines and the Spartans play host to the Boilermakers. If all three finish at 7-1 in the conference, the automatic bid goes to the team highest in the BCS standings. If the Buckeyes falter at Iowa, then the Spartans could grab that BCS bid if they win out because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Badgers. Michigan State wants to avoid a two-way tie with Ohio State because the Buckeyes likely will remain ahead in the BCS standings, which would of course give them the automatic berth.

The ACC divisional races

Leonard HankersonICONCan WR Leonard Hankerson and the Hurricanes stay in the ACC Coastal race?

The Coastal division race will be decided Saturday if Virginia Tech could beat Miami on the road. The Hokies need just one more victory to clinch the division and earn a trip to Charlotte for the league title game. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes need to win out and hope the Hokies trip up against Virginia the following week. It might be asking a lot for the Hokies to lose twice, but first thing is first. Freshman quarterback Stephen Morris will make his third straight start for the ‘Canes, who are 2-0 with him under center. The ‘Canes will be seeking revenge after losing in Blacksburg last season. Miami has run for more than 200 yards the past two games, so Bud Foster’s unit will have to be ready. Hokies quarterback Tyrod Taylor, meanwhile, has the feet to elude the pressure from Miami’s front seven.

In the Atlantic division, two big matchups occur on Saturday. NC State travels to Chapel Hill to take on the Tar Heels while league coach of the year candidate Ralph Friedgen and Maryland host Florida State. The Wolfpack own the tiebreaker over FSU and they finish with Maryland, so they’re still alive in the division race. Meanwhile, the Terps’ offensive line was able to hold their own in the loss to Miami. Can they withstand the pressure from the Seminoles?

To get more analysis of this week’s games, check out the latest On the Quad podcast, featuring yours truly and NFP Director of College Scouting Wes Bunting.

Click here for my latest 2010-11 Bowl projections.

Check out the latest edition of the NFP Heisman Watch and NFP Top 25.

Have any suggestions for this column or have a college football question? Feel free to send me an email at dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com.

For updates throughout the games — and pretty much 24/7 because I don’t really sleep too much — follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

Enjoy the games!

Upcoming Games

Aug 5th, 8:00 PM

Dallas

Pittsburgh

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Aug 12th, 7:30 PM

Washington

New England

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Aug 12th, 7:30 PM

Pittsburgh

Philadelphia

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