Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Holiday

It is not supposed to be chilly and rainy in San Diego.  Football teams are supposed to win games that they lead 20-3.  Northwestern is not supposed to score 28 points in a quarter, and Utah players are supposed to have played a football game in wet weather before instead of performing as if the game had been relocated to a functioning hog rendering plant.  The Wildcats are supposed to melt down in bowl games at the hands of a superior opponent or a ludicrous hail of onside kick return touchdowns that I didn't even know were legal.

For an entire season, Northwestern was supposed to finally lose and conform with conventional wisdom, the advanced numbers, and the aura of losing that pervades the team even though it's been nearly a quarter century since the Wildcats were in the throes of their notorious streak of football abominations and have since been more or less ok.  Instead, they continued winning after a heinous loss to Akron came to define their season as they became Northwestern-Which-Lost-To-Akron, a name that became funnier and more absurd as their feats became more impressive-- Northwestern-Which-Lost-To-Arkon Hangs Tough With Michigan was one level; Northwestern-Which-Lost-To-Akron Advances to Big Ten Championship Game was most bizarre football sentence that could be constructed.

My favorite part of this wild season was the Wildcats' emergence as the numbers-noids of the Big Ten, racking up victory after victory even as advanced metrics kept spitting out spreadsheets saying that they were terrible.  Northwestern, a 9-5 team with a division championship and bowl victory finished the season as the S&P+ metric's 79th best team in the country (the Associated Press ranked them 22; the coach's poll, which is filled out from what I understand, by a coach wadding it up and throwing it out of a truck window while crossing state lines to buy illegally caffeinated Monster Energy drinks and then sending a graduate assistant to spend several hours looking for it by crawling through storm drains in the hope that someone had filled it out had them at 19).
 
The Wildcats finish the season the traditional Treble: 
The Big Ten Western Division, Holiday Bowl, and Hat

The numbers seemed to catch up to Northwestern when Utah (S&P+ rank 16) came out and obliterated them in the first half.  The Wildcat defense, depleted by injury, and configured in the generous zone defense designed to smother the run and dare some truck suspension Big Ten West quarterback to throw a pass directly at Montre Hartage, got sliced up by Utah's passing game.  The Utes flummoxed Northwestern's run game and swarmed Thorson.  Top receivers Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek left the game injured.

And then whatever unholy force it was that propelled Northwestern all season kicked in and set off the greatest single quarter of football I have ever watched.  An interception thrown directly to Blake Gallagher.  A couple of monster blocks springing Chiaokhiao-Bowman to set up a touchdown.  A Gaziano strip has Jared McGee flying down the sideline.  An offensive lineman catches a pass and somehow trips for 12 yards before belly-flopping into the endzone.  A confused Utah team that keeps falling down and flinging the ball at Northwestern players.  In the end, Northwestern put up 28 points in one quarter and that was it for the day save for a couple more hideous Utah turnovers and Pat Fitzgerald's decision to kneel out the clock so much that they literally turned the ball over because Pat Fitzgerald would like nothing more than to score a touchdown and then kneel so hard that he burrows into the core of the Earth.


NUMBERS

To anyone who somehow managed to follow this blog website for the entire season, Northwestern's success this season in the face of some advanced metrics became a running theme.  I appreciate the epistemological project to bring some scientific order to college football rankings, which are now based on branding, recency bias, shadowy cabals of bureaucrats, and ineffectual screaming at the radio.  On the other hand, football, and college football in particular, is subject to many bizarre vagaries and bounces that it remains nearly impossible to predict, and to have the team I like continuing to frustrate math was funny and also weirdly inspiring.

Fifteen years ago, anyone attempting to follow sports on the internet subjected him or herself to a profoundly moronic culture war between the statheads and the rumpled newspaper columnists and flinty-eyed coaches on television wearing the absolute largest sports coats that could be fashioned by human hands.  This phenomenon, in its original baseball origins, weighed so heavily for the argument that fairly basic stats like on-base percentage were better than weird nineteenth-century stats in the face of counterarguments that consisted of "shut up" and "you live in a basement" that the statheads became sympathetic protagonists. 

More than a decade later, the statheads have easily triumphed.  The empirical case became nearly impossible to argue against in sports as teams that leaned heavily on numbers won.  As front offices began to adopt analytics wholesale, the media shifted to hire people who could write about them; the annihilation of the newspaper sports columnist as a job in the face of buyouts, layoffs, and ill-fated pivots to video took out most of the holdouts.

And yet, as a person who enjoys reading about sports on the internet, it is difficult to see the triumph of the advanced analytics movement as an altogether positive thing.  The grouchy, cigar-chomping columnist performatively photographed with a typewriter in 2004 has given way to the lanyard-clad Sloan Analytics Guy who is here to talk about Assets.  Advances in stats and use of new kinds of data from player tracking cameras has unveiled a lot of novel and interesting wrinkles in sports.  And yet, while knowing how fucking hard Javy Baez drilled a home run or how many miles Jimmy Butler runs during a basketball game is enjoyable, advanced analytics are not really for the fans, but for the front offices, and now more than ever the discourse in sportswriting revolves almost entirely around value and efficiency.

Here are some of the things that have happened as a direct result of broad analytics movements in sports and sportswriting: convincing fans that watching a complete and utter garbage shit team do Wile E. Coyote plans for years at a time is not only the smart way to enjoy sports but any other way is for neanderthal dimbulbs who call into sports radio shows with names like Headbutt Stan; looking at the same trades where shitty basketball players move around because the NBA's salary cap is a miserable rube goldberg contraption as genius moves because now players and draft picks are called "assets"; podcasts where people basically list how much money everyone makes for hours each week.

The broad revolution in sports information that comes from analytics and the internet has had two deleterious effects on following sports.  One is to frame everything in terms of what front offices value, which is money.  Yes, it is important for a writer covering a sport to understand the ins and outs of salary caps and taxes in order to understand what front offices are likely to do but it is exhausting to constantly read about how players fit in and out of these dumb and artificial caps in leagues where the only penalty to signing whoever they want is for some third-generation yacht guy to spend slightly more money.

Second, the analytics movement identifies more efficient ways to build teams and play that quickly become correct.  This is true in baseball, where the three true outcomes have triumphed and in the NBA, where teams increasingly gravitate towards the threes-and-layups offenses.  In many cases, these strategies proliferate because they are effective-- the extra point available on three pointers has made it an unassailable strategy not to jack them as often as possible-- but they flatten and homogenize the game in a way that can be less pleasing, aesthetically.  These strategies have also emerged in team building, where the owners' overwhelming concern with maintaining low salaries have made it all but impossible to consider building a winner that doesn't rely on underpaid young players in every sport. 

It was absolutely good that the stat nerds won their culture war because the people on the other side were ridiculous oafs.  At the same time, the analytics movement has loosed a torrent of irritating spreadsheet-mongers and payroll calculators on sports that have warped the discourse in other bizarre ways.  There will probably never be ways to analyze sports that aren't inherently stupid because the amounts of money and attention paid to these games remain unfathomable and ludicrous.  Sports have become too lucrative to risk on weirdos and suboptimal strategies.  

And while I welcome any attempt to bring some sort of empirical debate to college sports, I also can enjoy a hitch in the system when the team I personally root for flummoxes the ratings and continues to win under an undulating crew cut maniac fist pumping the numbers straight into a garbage can.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Bowl

Alabama and Clemson will face off yet again in the national championship after effortlessly humiliating the supposed third- and fourth-best teams in college football, and it sure seems like there is once again little point to a college football season with two teams leagues above all others.  But actually caring about college football's championship is a sucker's game for the rubes who care about playoff positioning determined in smoking rooms full of athletic directors and war criminals; the essence of the appeal of the sport is the roiling chaos just beneath the lofty heights of the Playoff and playing out in delightfully pointless bowl games that are all called the "Big Boy" Chad's Regional Trash Compactor Bowl That Used To Be The Chugg Energy Drink Bowl and next year will be the PotMom.Com Legal Weed Bowl.
 
Amazon says that this 10th anniversary micronpc.com 
bowl program is available for $21.00 plus $6.00 shipping

The point of the Playoff, with its fancy embossed lettering and tacky crystal football is that those games matter, but the 345 other bowls all know that in the cosmic sense, all human endeavors are pointless and you might as well watch two teams throw interceptions at each other in the Cheez It Bowl because one day the sun will explode.

Northwestern has made it to the Holiday Bowl, somehow.  This is a consolation prize, a bizarro Rose Bowl between the two teams that lost in their respective Conference Championship Games, a reminder that somehow the Northwestern Wildcats Who Lost to Akron somehow played against Ohio State in Indianapolis in some insane fever dream.  Even announcer Gus Johnson could not believe they were there, calling John Moten's touchdown for Wisconsin even though he was wearing purple and wearing a shirt that said (and this is a direct quote) "Northwestern."
No, Northwestern did not beat big, bad Ohio State and win the most improbable Big Ten Championship of the divisional era.  They played well enough, but ultimately their tactic of shutting down the run and letting the quarterback beat them was less effective against Dwayne Haskins than the various oaf-quarterbacks of the Big Ten West, and the game got away from them in the fourth.

In Week Three, Northwestern lost to Akron and all seemed lost.  One could do the dismal bowl math and try to figure out where the other five wins would need to come from to even qualify for a bowl game held on a patch of disused mattresses in the middle of a field somewhere.  Instead, they went 8-1 against the Big Ten and won the conference even as every single Numbers Analyst kept insisting they were shitty in one of the most dumb and fun football seasons imaginable and now I own a Big Ten West Champions T-shirt.

HOLIDAY BOWL

Northwestern's season will end with a bowl game in San Diego against Utah that is for some wretched reason being played on New Year's Eve to a nationally televised audience of people having the least amount of fun on New Year's Eve possible.  Given the timeslot and the gray meat and lukewarm potato football played by both of these teams, it would be far more interesting to replace the game with an endless stream of people at terrible New Year's parties trying to feign enthusiasm for the "big game" because they don't want to go into the other room and continue having conversations about how much various things cost.

Northwestern has played Utah twice, both times in Evanston.  They won in 1927, presumably by dazzling the Utes with a halftime show featuring music from the recently-released Jazz Singer.  Then in 1981, they lost 42-0 because it was a 1981 Northwestern game.  Utah's football team is apparently an unstoppable bowl juggernaut that just wins bowls.
 
Here's a 1927 season poster from Northwestern's 
likely depressing History of Northwestern Football exhibit

I am not going to lie to you and pretend that I have watched a single minute of Utah football this year or any other year or am watching film on them to break down how Northwestern will can beat them because I already know: it will be by shutting down their running game, daring their quarterback to have a meltdown, not getting penalties while the other team's fans slowly have an emotional meltdown because of Uncalled Holding, Isaiah Bowser battering people, and Clayton Thorson somehow magicking the exact one play that will give Northwestern exactly enough points to win.

The Wildcats have won their last two bowl games.  Until recently, bowl games had been another vexing and improbable part of the Lore of Northwestern Sports Incompetence as they kept collapsing in increasingly impossible ways; to anyone who says there is no point to winning bowl games, I would suggest rooting for a team that failed to qualify for one for 47 years, waited until they became ubiquitous enough to qualify for them almost every year, and still keep losing and losing and losing until finally pulling one out and see if your coach does not theatrically destroy a plush toy monkey.

And yet, this bowl game may be the most inconsequential bowl game Northwestern has ever played.  They already played their thirteenth game in Indianapolis for the entire Big Ten Championship. Does it matter if they triumph here or, by wriggling out of a festering Big Ten West, have they already proven their point?  

I can make one guarantee: this year has featured the most Northwestern football ever unleashed on this nation, the United States.

BOWL GAMES

The best part of bowl games is the shameless grift by a mysterious coterie of Bowl Executives and marketing people who are all in charge of skimming millions of dollars from exhibition football games put on by athletes compensated with a Playstation and a digital watch.  The Washington Post has a wonderfully entertaining story about a man paid more than a million dollars a year whose only job is putting on the Outback Bowl that starts with this incredible, withering lede:
In the gated communities of waterfront mansions north of this city, not far from mansions belonging to the chief executive of the Tampa Bay Lightning and former NFL star turned broadcaster Ronde Barber, there’s one particularly impressive home, featuring a 600-bottle wine cellar, a wraparound shower with massage jets, and a sizeable pool with a waterfall and jacuzzi overlooking a lake. It belongs to Jim McVay, a sports executive who for the past 30 years has run the Outback Bowl, a second-tier college football postseason game featuring third-place teams.
But it's not a goofy make-work job for the man who invented the Bucs firing cannons after scoring touchdowns.  The man is working hard.  Every night, he has to hire James Brown's Cape Guy when he comes home from another backbreaking meeting in Rosemont.

 “It’s not a situation where he sits on his thumbs for three years,” [Outback Bowl board member Steve] Schember said. “He goes up to Chicago a lot [Big Ten headquarters] . . . he goes up the SEC offices . . . it’s an important job, maintaining those relationships.”

"People don’t understand the bowl world. It’s very unique,” [Outback Bowl spokesman Mike] Schulze said. “People are always going to say, ‘Gosh, I didn’t even know that was a job.’ But we all work hard. We’re here every single day.”
 
Here I would like to imagine the Outback Bowl Board and Outback Bowl staff sitting around a giant model of the Tampa football stadium with jewelers' eyes and then McVay says we're going to put the end zone here while everyone applauds and they all open up bottles of champaign and inhale powders made from the appendages of endangered animals.
 
My favorite waste of bowl money this year is the Maker's Wanted Bahama's Bowl.  This game, pitting Florida International against Toledo, was sponsored for $300,000 by Chicago suburb Elk Grove Village. I can't think of a funnier waste of taxpayer money than sponsoring a bowl game between FIU and Toldeo.  As a person who has been to a bowl game, the most horrifying and awkward part of the bowl game is when the Vice President of Bowl Sponsorship or whatever gets to give a little speech only this time it will be some Deputy Comptroller who hopefully has a honking Chicago accent representing an industrial park in the shadow of O'Hare talking about how much it means to the residents of the Village's Little Toledo neighborhood. 

Bowls fit into a bizarre entertainment landscape where unending television money props up weird spectacles that no one seems to want.  Television networks need football content so we have a proliferation of half-empty bowl games between listless teams pawing at each other or, occasionally, letting loose the sublime insanity that happens in college football.  These bowl games aren't stupid or pointless or unnecessary for the players or the fans, but their existence also seems on the same plane as a Nic Cage movie released exclusively on Hulu Plus for the benefit of someone who is either unaware of the quality of the Eastern European Nic Cage canon, actively seeking it out for some bizarre B-movie sense, or is on a startling combination of drugs.  

The lesser bowls, propped up by unpaid players, executive-level hamburgling, graft, chicanery, and wrapped in a chintzy layer of pomp that usually involves a halftime show involving the Original Bassist from 311 are not some bizarre college football sideshow-- in this way, more than the oxygen-sucking Playoff, they are the very embodiment of this , ridiculous sport.
https://twitter.com/BigTenNetwork/status/1069044507969110017
https://twitter.com/BigTenNetwork/status/1069044507969110017

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Wheel Has Turned and the Cycle Continues Anew: The Bulls Have Hired a Bald Asshole

For some reason the Bulls, an already crummy team ravaged by every single player tearing the same knee ligament, decided to fire gormless PTA Dad Fred Hoiberg.  Hoiberg had little going for him as a head coach.  At the same time, he faced bizarre circumstances where he was put in charge of a roiling, conspiracy-prone Three Alphas team that had little time for his pajama party bonding sessions because they were headed by veterans more concerned with invading Silesia.  The next year, they tanked; Hoiberg also had a player just completely and utterly destroy another player's face and the organization decided that the guy crumpled on the floor deserved it.  And then, just when Lauri Markkanen returned from injury and the team could be poised to Space and Pace as prophesied many moons ago from Ames, John Paxson and Gar Forman burst into his rumpus room and fired him out of nowhere because it was time for them to bring in a Bald Asshole.
 
An extremely normal image that comes up when you google Jim Boylen

The Bulls have a pattern for coaches that rotates between ineffective Hair Guys and Bald Assholes.  They brought in Scott Skiles to scream at everyone about playing defense for several seasons until they had to stop players from assassinating him after practice.  His replacement was Vinny Del Negro, a man with a glorious mane and a confused look on his face.  Then they brought in the ur-Bald Asshole in Tom Thibodeau, a bizarre basketball monomaniac who spent all of his time sitting around in the same black track suit watching film and just vibrating with anger that somewhere a basketball player was not boxing out.  Thibodeau, with his manic floor-bellowing, his complete inability to take a single play off even during a grinding 82-game season, and his Sipowicz-but-less-put-together aesthetic, fell into an unending conflagration with the front office that went as far as to involve rumors that coaches turned on fans because they feared their offices were bugged.  It turns out that Derrick Rose's knee ligaments were the only things holding the fractious Bulls together.

Jim Boylen is a classic Bald Asshole. He wants to talk about Defense. And Fundamentals. They're going to do Suicides.  And he's going to scream at everyone until his throbbing skull glows red as a heating lamp over a 7-11 hotdog roller.  He has been the Bulls coach for less than a week and has nearly incited a mutiny.



It's not Jim Boylen's fault that he looks like a crooked prosecutor who "strongly denies" involvement in a boat license entrapment scheme, but he made no bones about his public image and immediately decided it would be the hardass vice principal from Back to the Future.

On Saturday, the hapless Bulls were utterly dismantled by the Celtics in their worst loss in the history of the team.  Boylen reacted with hockey substitutions and pulling starters presumably so he could scream at them in practice the next day.  The Bulls then started a group text about whether or not to even show up to practice because they did not want a pointy-headed doofus setting up dozens of desks so he could angrily clear everything off of them while yelling that they shouldn't have done the worst loss in the history of the team.  Now everyone is saying what they need to in order to prevent Boylen from looking like an even angrier, redder asshole than he already did.

What's next for Boylen? Will he stop a game in the middle and just leave?  Move into Jabari Parker's house so he can tell him to pick his knees up for godssake pick your GODDAMN KNEES UP?  Will he burst forth from Zach Lavine's chest while angrily tooting a whistle?

Is there a worse archetype in sports than the Bald Asshole coach, the guy who decides he's not gonna have any LOLLYGAGGING around here? Is there anything more absurd in the NBA, where multi-millionaire adults are really going to listen to some glistening sausage casing who looks like the alderman's brother-in-law who is somehow on the payroll?  And, this is a completely unrelated subject, but what are the odds that the Bulls have interim coaches named Jim Boylan and Jim Boylen and they are two different guys because honestly before Coach Tugboat came in there and started throwing things that simple fact broke my brain for several hours?

The answer to all of those questions is John Paxson.  Paxson loves this shit.  A guy who literally choked a coach and who has spent the past two decades in Chicago playing dumb macho headgames absolutely loves it when he opens the door and some guy who is already putting fist dents into a filing cabinet has prepared a rhyme about how every player is dogshit DOGSHIT.  Perhaps we can find a the biggest, baldest asshole humanly possible, just a smooth-headed maniac radiating spittle and sprouting auxiliary whistles, just a nine-foot colossus who is so angry that he must be wheeled around in a plexiglass box to prevent him from causing millions of dollars of property damage at all times to come in and yell at John Paxson two inches from his face while blasting on a whistle and punching the walls of his traveling prison-box and telling Paxson to stop running this basketball team like a goddamned opera.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Championship

Northwestern football has them all doing the one thing they don't want to be doing and that is talking about Northwestern football for an extra week.  The Wildcats did this by remaining standing atop a Big Ten West where every team poisoned itself, by playing a brand of ugly, unwatchable football, and scoring very close to the minimum number of points needed to do so.  They are 8-4, lost every single non-conference game including one to a four-win Akron team that had literally never beaten a Big Ten Opponent, and sported a losing record at home.  SBNation calls them the "lowest-rated power five team to ever win a division championship."  Pat Fizgerald has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year; they are sixty minutes away from winning the Big Ten and going to the Rose Bowl.
 
I had no idea the Big Ten West Champion got a trophy until this year

 Every advanced metric seems to cry out that the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats suck.  And yet, nobody wants to see their team play them.  This is partly because Northwestern plays aesthetically revolting football loved by punters and the punters who love punters.  Northwestern has a great punter who has also been kicking field goals because it is his turn to score some points and at Northwestern, the punter is king.

The Wildcats were bound to break through to Indianapolis at some point, and this is the platonic ideal of a Northwestern team to do so-- reviled, appearing seemingly by default, irritating the hell out of everyone especially Big Ten West teams whose own vile and inept outfits managed to fall short.  This is what Northwestern football looks like under Pat Fitzgerald-- not the Randy Walker squads that used the then-novel spread offense to try to beat teams 61-55, but a brutal, grinding, defense and punts machine that has sprung fully formed from the meaty forearms of a neckroll linebacker.  Northwestern hangs in against great teams and they rarely blow anyone out.  In the last five years of Fitzball in which Northwestern has had arguably its strongest run of the modern era including multiple ten-win seasons and heretofore unthinkable bowl victories, the 'Cats have made almost every clutch play they've needed-- they are probably a few dozen minutes from going like 3-9 every year.

For a long time, opposing teams would react to losing to Northwestern like frustrated cartoon supervillains, shaking their fists and perplexed that their plans had once again gone awry.  It was mildly infuriating that teams could lose again and again to the Wildcats and their fans would be incredulous because Northwestern had been really bad in the 1970s and 80s.  How could people not fathom that Northwestern is sort of good?  They put up a spirited fight in the Sun Bowl.  But not this year.  Everyone is infuriated they lost to Northwestern because Northwestern punted 75 times and then a wide receiver teleported into the endzone or they fumbled and the ball bounced into a roll and hit the pole, and knocked the ball in the rub-a-dub tub, which hit the man into the pan, the trap is set, Northwestern ball.
 
Northwestern Offensive Coordinator Mick McCall draws up the 
"Win The Game" play

The metrics and pundits have no way to quantify exactly good enough, and the Wildcats in Big Ten play have made pretty much exactly every play they needed to at the right time.  Maybe it's luck, maybe it is a conference gerrymandered for Wisconsin watching as Wisconsin realizes only too late that Ryan Field is inexplicably a Badger Death Trap, and maybe it is because the Wildcats have some sort of bizarre intangible toughness that allows them to grind out games like this while causing the S&P+ computers to overheat and become sentient, eventually going on an endless wave of destruction.  All I know is that the Wildcats are in Indianapolis, the bumbling jabronis of the Big Ten West are not, and I would not write them off.
 
THE INCIDENTAL HAT

If hideous, unwatchable victories characterize this Northwestern season, then the 24-16 victory over a malingering Illinois team was their masterpiece.  The Wildcats bludgeoned the Illini with Isaiah Bowser; the Illini run defense seemed mainly to consist of reasoned argument.  But then, Fitzgerald took everyone out.  The 'Cats already played the game with no starting defensive backs, no top receiver, and without a key defensive playmaker.  Early in the third quarter, Fitz benched Bowser, and by the fourth had benched Clayton Thorson.  The offense basically decided to kneel for the rest of the game, and Illinois inched back with a great game from quarterback A.J. Bush.  Fitzgerald decided to win the Hat with one head tied behind his back.

And once again Mystical Northwestern Bullshit struck again.  Part of it came from Illinois just being a woeful and sorry football team that couldn't stop committing doofus penalties; the game ended on a first down granted from a personal foul.  Part of it came from Lovie Smith stoically electing to kick field goals instead of raining touchdown hellfire in order to try to salvage some dignity by seizing the Hat from the division champs.  Even me, a person who has written thousands of words about retaining the Hat, was screaming at Lovie for kicking a field goal inside the five, a luxury I could enjoy because the game had no bearing on Northwestern's conference championship position, and a loss would only give them a another truly hideous and embarrassing defeat to drag into Indianapolis and theoretically make them even more powerful.
 
Using archival photos of Lovie as the head coach of the 
Bears, this blog has expertly recreated what would happen 
if Lovie shaved his mustache and grew a Lincoln Beard, 
perhaps the most effective way for him to win his first Hat

I like Lovie Smith a lot.  He was a great Bears coach and always struck me as a beacon of calm in the manic football coaching world.  I have no idea why Illinois has played so poorly under him and, it pains me to say this, but Tim Beckman would have absolutely won that game.  He would have won that game, he would have gotten the Hat, and then he probably would have spontaneously combusted while screaming at his players all the way back to Champaign-Urbana only because he understood the power of the Hat and it drove him into madness.
 
FOOTBALL APOCALYPSE II

The last time Northwestern and Ohio State met on a stage this big, ESPN's College Football Gameday came to Evanston.  Northwestern was 4-0, coming off its first bowl win in the NATO era, and seemingly poised for a big run in the Legends Division that I still can't believe that multiple people saw that and said that was an acceptable name for a division, sure we'll put it on merchandise and trophies and everything.  Instead, Ohio State eked out the win and Northwestern fell into an unfathomable death spiral where they managed a single win the rest of the season.  This meeting is projected to be more bleak.
He got the First Down

This game has Playoff Implications.  Because the college football playoff is decided by an unaccountable committee that selects playoff participants from secret chambers with ghastly rites and unthinkable augurs, Ohio State may still qualify.  There is no objective way to determine whether, for example, it is better to have Oklahoma's defense where they try to tackle people and then fly back on wires like in kung fu movies or to have gotten annihilated from the face of the Earth by Purdue.  The Playoff Committee deals in conjecture, in ratings and money, and just plain old bullshit.  But Ohio State will only make the Playoff if they beat Northwestern, and they have every incentive to try to run it up as much as possible.  Unfortunately for them, Northwestern football this season is an inflatable clown that keeps popping up.

Conventional wisdom says that the Buckeyes will run away with this one.  But they do not fully understand the force they are dealing with.  Northwestern's 2018 football team was not designed to get blown out, clobbered, or run out of Lucas Oil Stadium.  It makes no sense.  It defies all logic, reason, and empirical ranking systems, and only exists to profoundly annoy and fuck up college football.  Ohio State has the best quarterback in the Big Ten and a high-powered offense.  Northwestern has the ability to show up to the Rose Bowl and get asked what the fuck are you doing here before a 25-minute phone conversation clears things up and the Tournament of Roses people react with Marc Maron levels of incredulity.  There can be nothing less likely or more ridiculous than Northwestern pulling this one out.  Tell the Buckeyes the Wildcats will see them in Indianapolis, they will see them in hell, and they will see them in Overtime.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Statistics

Pat Fitzgerald has a saying he likes to bleat out from time to time: "stats are for losers."  This sort of sentiment comes partly from Fitzgerald's frustration from feeling overlooked and underrated due in part to Northwestern's historical ineptitude, a bizarre and thin-skinned fascination with media figures (it will always remain a mystery to me why he spent so much time calling out some ESPN guy I've never heard of repeatedly for daring to pick Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl), and a sort of cheeky macho posturing where Pat Fitzgerald feels the need to act like the model of his look, a gritty, middle-aged Duke Nukem.

And yet one of the curious things about Fitzgerald's tenure as head coach has been a consistent gulf between Northwestern's rating by various advanced statistical metrics and the team's performance.  This comes from a bizarre pattern where the Wildcats struggle against a coterie of profoundly non-threatening foes like the Central Eastern Corner of Illinois Feeblemen or Jabroni Technical College before somehow roaring back to life against Big Ten opponents, all of whom are defeated by seven points or less if they cannot be dragged into Northwestern's overtime chamber.

This season, Northwestern has somehow risen to win a profoundly troubled conference and play in the Big Ten Championship game; SBNation/Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings say that the Wildcats are the 76th best team in the country.  College football can work this way because football itself is a bizarre and impossible game where the outcome of games can hinge on one or two plays, and Northwestern has made nearly all of them. “They beat teams just like that," P.J. Fleck said about last week's loss. "Iceman from ‘Top Gun,’ for all the people who know that. Cool as ice. Never makes a mistake."
 
"I.C.E.M.A.N." Fleck said. "Intensity. Coolness. Execution. Mangling. 
Anklyosaurus. Neurotransmitters."
I also want to point out the incredible next paragraph from the  
Star Tribune article where I got the Fleck quote from columnist Jim Souhan: 
"Most of Fleck’s speechifying targets 18-year-olds who may be impressed by 
such silliness. Iceman from ‘Top Gun’? I may have been one of the few people
 in the room old enough to know what he was talking about, yet I had no idea 
what he was talking about. He might as well have been comparing Northwestern 
to Gatsby, or Shemp."

The season is short or, in statistics jargon, the samples are small.  With the exception of the world-devouring Alabamas of the world, it is very difficult to tell if a team is better than another, and because of the nature of the game, it is almost impossible to predict if a team will beat another team or whether a team is better.

Fans and pundits have several strategies to deal with the ambiguity baked into college football.  One way is to try to build empirical models and rankings.  The other way is through rhetoric, logical fallacies, transitive property wins, television analysts with tie knots so large that they are orbited by smaller tie knots going on television and talking about the Positional Matchups with grim certainty even though they have absolutely no idea how any of this is going to play out, ad finally people screaming at each other. 
 
There is also the tried and true method of Plushomancy, divination 
by Giant Mascot Head

And yet, one of the strange epistemological paradoxes in sports in general, but particularly in college football, is that you could build a computer that takes of several acres with whirling tape machines and people dressed like NASA ground crews scurrying around with armfuls of printout graphs that could tell you precisely how good every team is and it has no effect on what actually happens.

The central question surrounding Northwestern football this season is: why? And also: how?  A Northwestern team that has not looked particularly impressive has amassed enough ugly wins over the exact configuration of teams it needed to beat to win the West.  Have they been profoundly lucky?  Do they have some sort of transcendent clutch switch that allows them to make the exact play they need to make at the exact instant they need to make it and no other time?  Are they the avatars of a cursed football deity, brought forth by the unholy addition of Rutgers and Maryland brought in to smite the maniacs who dared to divide the Big Ten into this precise configuration of divisions by forcing Jim Delany to watch Northwestern play in the championship game?

There are some answers.  Northwestern's early-season struggles came from an offense juggling two quarterbacks as Clayton Thorson returned from his horrifying knee injury.  Then, star running back Jeremy Larkin retired, and the Wildcats' running game stalled until the emergence of freshman battering ram Isaiah Bowser.  Wisconsin played Northwestern with a quarterback making his debut.  Kirk Ferentz is being held hostage by a Speed-inspired madman who has threatened to destroy Kinnick Stadium if the Hawkeyes go above eight wins.  Northwestern refuses to blow anyone out because the program is in the grips of an overtime cult. 

Regardless of what the numbers say or what cavalcade of coincidences and clutch play has allowed Northwestern to make it this far, the fact is that they are the Big Ten West Champions.  They cannot be stopped from playing in the Conference Championship Game by anyone.  And should they do it one more time, they look at the numbers and the statistics and Pat Fitzgerald prints them out and rips them apart on the sidelines like the time he had the team destroy a stuffed animal monkey when they finally won a bowl game, they would be finally proving once and for all that beating Ohio State or Michigan and knocking the entire conference out of the playoff would be extremely funny.

SOFTENING THE CLAIMS TO THE HAT

With the big Hat Showdown coming once again, it is important to point out that the state of Illinois is in the midst of a full-blown Hat Crisis, a seething cauldron of intrigue, fraud, and skulduggery involving the prize Lincoln Hat in the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.  According to this tremendous report from WBEZ, which I cannot to full justice to in this blog post, the a private collector sold the hat to the museum, claiming that Lincoln gave it to a farmer from Southern Illinois as a gesture of gratitude in 1858.  Even that information remains cloudy-- an affidavit from a descendant of the family suggested that William Waller received the hat in Washington D.C. sometime after 1861.  Those reports represent the sum total of evidence that the hat ever belonged to Lincoln and is not just some nineteenth-century hat that some people had lying around in the closet.
 
The Lincoln Hat of Dubious Prominence casts a hat-shaped 
shadow over Springfield

According to the WBEZ article, the Lincoln Presidential Library spent $25 million on Lincoln artifacts in 2007, and the hat was the centerpiece of the collection.  As the article says "in 2007, an appraiser valued the hat now in Springfield at $6.5 million and used adjectives like 'transcendent' to describe its apparent majesty."  In my imagination, this involved the entire board of the Library seeing the hat and determining they must have it during a bacchanalian Lincoln trivia contest and speech-reading competition and paying for it with cash in a priceless period-accurate briefcase that may have belonged to Stephen Douglas.  Now, with the Lincoln Library and Museum in some financial trouble, the authenticity of the hat is coming into question.

When historians looked into the hat in 2013, they were unable to find much evidence that the hat had ever belonged to Lincoln, although they found nothing to specifically disprove the claim.  This is when the foundation called in the FBI and presumably its top Historical Hat Authentication Team led by grim, black-suited agents, battle-hardened from the never-ending Pancho Villa Sombrero Debacle and at least one of whom has scars from a violent confrontation with someone claiming to own a fraudulent Betsy Ross Bonnet.  As WBEZ reports, "two tests were performed in 2015, comparing DNA samples from the hat itself with Lincoln’s blood-spattered handkerchief, gloves, and shirt from the night of his assassination, and two tufts of Lincoln’s hair, among other things."  But even these sophisticated tests could not prove that the hat belonged to Lincoln.  

Here are some sentences from the rest of the article:

"In an interview, Nick Kalm, the foundation’s vice chairman, said his organization is still satisfied that the hat is Lincoln’s and that nothing uncovered by the FBI testing or museum curators disproves that. He went on to note that with some historic relics, “leaps of faith” sometimes exist in determining their authenticity."

"Underscoring the secrecy, federal agents were encouraged by the museum’s former Lincoln curator, James Cornelius, to “disguise themselves as a news crew” when they entered the museum, [Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Executive Director Alan] Lowe told WBEZ, based on internal correspondence only recently discovered.
Lowe described the overall secrecy surrounding the FBI testing as a form of 'subterfuge.'"

"'I have been on the front lines defending the provenance of the hat, but I have been doing that not having all the available information. This is unacceptable. We simply cannot operate that way,' Lowe wrote to foundation CEO Carla Knorowski and foundation Chairman Ray McCaskey."

To sum up, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum may have been snookered into buying a fraudulent Lincoln Hat based on just some guy saying so 150 years ago, and at some point an FBI Hat Crew snuck into the museum in disguise in order to DNA test the hat based on Lincoln's bloody death pillow and absolutely nobody knows what to do with this dubious hat other than the obvious thing-- make it the trophy for the Illinois vs. Northwestern Rivalry Football Game and allow the winning coach to parade around in it.

HAT GAME

Meanwhile, there is a football game to get to.  Illinois, fresh off the worst defeat in school history, is in a traditional death spiral to end the season.  They have had another difficult year, one where the most notable thing that happened was Lovie Smith growing a spectacularly grizzled beard and then the school handing out some incredibly soggy bottom boys-ass fake beards.
 
The Beard Out is a tremendous gimmick, I sincerely hope 
none of the beard recipients tried to eat a hot dog

The game has essentially no stakes beyond the hat.  Illinois will not go to a bowl.  Northwestern has already clinched its spot in the Big Ten Championship game, and the only question remaining is whether Jim Delany would hire a mercenary militia to stop a 7-5 Northwestern team with a loss to Illinois from appearing in Indianapolis.  The Wildcats are heavily favored but will also be looking forward to next week's game.  

There is nothing on the line except for the Hat, the Greatest Rivalry in American Sports, a knock-down drag-out fight between these two august programs fighting for a trophy.  And whoever gets it can hire the FBI to figure out how to put it on their dang head already.  I am on the front lines defending the provenance of the Hat.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Championship/Rivalry

Let's just lead off with it: the Northwestern Wildcats have won the Big Ten West.  There are two games left; Northwestern could spend its road trip in Minnesota lounging on hammocks and its Hat Game against Illinois in a beach resort, zinc-nosed and sun-addled, and they can be 6-6, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them from showing up in Indianapolis to represent the entire Big Ten West.  Football analysts, burning out their BCS computers and going through cartons of green accounting visors have all stared at their Johnny Mnemonic virtual reality devices and come to the same conclusion: this is incredibly funny.
 
College Football analysts try to deal with their computer models that 
keep showing that Northwestern won the Big Ten West

This is not to take anything away from the Wildcats, who have had a simultaneously disastrous and heroic season.  It is to say that Northwestern has managed to win an entire division championship to the point where they get to wear special hats and get a trophy that I had no idea even existed until Saturday by what has been very close to the absolute minimum number points required.  Northwestern will be the first major conference team to win a division without defeating a single out of conference opponent-- this includes Akron, a profoundly shitty MAC team whose win over Northwestern was its first over a Big Ten opponent ever in a football history that stretches to the nineteenth century.

Northwestern won the West by racing to an enormous lead against Purdue then failing to score a point in the second half, by beating an at-the-time winless Nebraska team in the throes of its worst season in recorded history by scoring ten points in less than three minutes including a 99-yard touchdown drive to send the game to an overtime period won by a backup kicker playing in his first game, by somehow needing to come back against a Rutgers team so putrid that they had been trying to consolidate their turnovers with an agency so they just owed the entire Big Ten a few interceptions on weekly installments.
 
When you're coaching Rutgers

The Wildcats have confounded predictions, statistics, numbers, gamblers, logic, and reason.  They have won the Big Ten West through what appears to be the absolute minimum amount of success.  For three months, the Big Ten West has been told to get its act together and, with minimum competence, seize the division but no one has; Northwestern's stand is like the terrifying and insidious effects of climate change.

And so the Wildcats go into their next two games in the perfect position.  They cannot lose.  Yes, they should beat Minnesota, a team that is currently thrashing about every week while deciding whether or not to turn into a werewolf.  And yes, they should beat the flailing Illini, who remain under a tailspin under Lovie Smith who has just decided to cope by getting grizzled, even with the prized Hat at stake.  But consider this: what if they lose?  What if they get rowed by the Gophers or the Illini sneak by while Northwestern follows their patented just sort of hang out and see whatever happens is good with me gameplan and then they lose? 

They can't get taken out of Indianapolis at this point.  Jim Delany can't deploy a cardboard Yosemite Sam that says "you must win this number of games against the Illini to play in the Big Ten Championship."  And while the Big Ten would prefer to set up road blocks between Evanston and Indianapolis for this game than let a 6-6 Northwestern team play there, there is nothing stopping them.  Of course, it would be a giant bummer for Northwestern to lose the next two.  But it would also be extraordinarily funny, and the Wildcats have seized the mantle of America's Funniest Power Five Division Winner as an avatar of chaos that will easily carry them over whatever unlucky chump gets served to them in the Big Ten Championship that they are actually playing in (you can look it up) and then head to the Rose Bowl to attempt to win their first out of conference game.

RIVALRY

It has the sorry lot of Iowa fans to wake up in the middle of the night over the last decade and realize they have a rivalry with Northwestern.  They would, like most Big Ten fans, like to have a rivalry with a traditional Big Ten Power like Ohio State or Michigan or even Wisconsin, the type of rivalry where you have a Farm Implement Trophy and songs about how you hate each other and the Big Ten Power actually does despise them back but instead they are forced to deal with Northwestern every year.  The Iowa-Northwestern rivalry is not a traditional football rivalry where fans taunt each other and letter jacket guys kidnap the mascot and perform sporting japes worthy of stories that will last for generations at the Grim Waterfowl Club; their rivalry is more like the one between homeowners and termites.

Northwestern has now beaten Iowa three years in a row.  Each victory has been a disgusting affront to football.  Last year, in the midst of a howling southern gale at Ryan Field, both teams refused to score until Northwestern lured them into overtime.  This year, they battled to a putrid 3-0 half and basically refused to play offense until Bennett Skowronek made one of the greatest catches I've ever seen from a Northwestern player almost at random and then Iowa decided to close the game by bashing themselves in the head with large, comical props.  My sources on Iowa message boards inform me that Northwestern got away with numerous Uncalled Holding Penalties.

This is what life is like now, for the Hawkeyes.  Their fans do not want to give in and debase themselves to admit they have a rivalry with Northwestern; every year, Northwestern comes in and the teams blow raspberries at each other until the Wildcats ruin their season. 

In 2000, the Wildcats took on an abysmal Iowa team with an outright Big Ten Championship and trip to the Rose Bowl on the line and they lost one of the most devastating games in Northwestern history.  It was bitterly cold, and on the way out of the stadium, Iowa fans gleefully taunted anyone in purple to enjoy San Antonio, taking it as a given that the Citrus Bowl would pass up Northwestern for the more lucrative Michigan fanbase even though Northwestern had beaten the Wolverines head to head in one of the greatest games ever played.  Those vengeful Hawkstrodamuses were proven right.  This time, though, Northwestern's win, combined with just an absolute Rube Goldberg Machine of Big Ten shittiness propelled them to a Division Championship to celebrate upon Kinnick Stadium in front of disgusted Iowa fans who had, along with every other Western team, squandered an opportunity to win this wretched division.

Last week, Northwestern took on Notre Dame in another sort of quasi-rivalry game.  There is no way that Notre Dame considers Northwestern a rival: all of Notre Dame's rivalry is with the past itself, a sepia-toned succession of leather helmet mustache guys gouging the eyes of Army or valiantly battling the Spanish Flu; Notre Dame's current rivalries seem to mostly be with the entire sport of college football as everyone else has grown sick of the men's hats of the Associated Press constantly vaulting them into title games based on a stale, ghostly aura only to see them humiliated by a never-ending succession of JaMarcuses Russell.  This is how Notre Dame exists now, its pugilist cartoon mascot now squaring off at every fanbase in the world waiting for them to lose.  It is fitting that Notre Dame will play today in Yankee Stadium as their football program is the closest thing to every Boomer anecdote about Mickey Mantle made flesh.  A middling Big Ten program that resurfaces every dozen years when Notre Dame deigns to play them until they lose and mysteriously vanish off the Irish schedule cannot compete with History.
 
A 1991 image of "Mickey Mantle," a fictional 
baseball player invented in the late 1980s by 
Bob Costas and Ken Burns has created a cottage
 industry of fake Boomer Baseball Anecdotes and 
must be exposed by courageous people not afraid 
to put the truth on Blogspot.com

College football rivalry fits within the sport's completely discursive tradition in that the biggest marker of a rivalry are fans talking about whether or not a fanbase is or is not their rival.  Conferences and schools try to cement these with annual games on the schedule, "rivalry week" showdowns, and trophies, but the concept of rivalry belongs entirely to the fans.  The greatest moment in the history of college football rivalry was Bob Diacco's laudably insane quest to build a trophy from scratch and instigate a Big Game with UCF and UCF's hostile indifference to the Civil ConFLiCt.  No one has seen the trophy since it was abandoned somewhere on a sideline, ignored by UCF who would not even deign to parade it around.  In an ideal world, the complete rejection of this Rivalry Overture would eventually twist its way into a real rivalry, with UCONN coaches bringing larger and more elaborate rivalry trophies to the stadium every year while UCF makes more pointed shows of ignoring it until the Huskies roll up with a semi full of life-sized Dog-Knights while UCF has hired a crew of backhoes to immediately bury them.  The other great rivalry moment of the twenty-first century is this:

 
The accepted, Branded Rivalries are the most boring in college sports.  Instead, it's the ones at the margins, the ones that are constant sources of bickering about whether the teams are actually rivals, whether one team cares as much as the other about a rivalry, ones where there very nature of the concept of rivalry is contested in a way that would make an absolutely unreadable and dreadful paper called like "'Little Brother' or 'Big' Time Rival: College Football 'Rivalry' and the Discourses of Disparagement in American Society 1978-2012" in PAAAWWWWLLL Quarterly.   

The sole exception remains America's greatest rivalry game, the Battle for The Hat and I'm concerned because Lovie would look tremendous sporting that thing with his silver beard. 

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Overtime

Yes, there may be a person, huddled in a shack somewhere or in one of those vans that are full of computers where people karate chop keyboards and scream that they’re being hacked by an animated ASCII skull, who has analyzed the film and advanced data that can tell you credibly what the hell is going on with Northwestern football this season, but you can stop right there because I can tell you that it is because the entire program has been subsumed into an overtime cult.


Last year, the Northwestern Wildcats were exposed to three consecutive overtimes; they emerged victorious but forever changed from a mid-tier Big Ten West team to an organization based entirely on the concept of overtime, the suspension of normal time into an infinite dimension where time itself falls away into a worthless abstraction, where football can continue indefinitely to a period of never-ending Perfect Overtime stretching into infinity and also (it goes without saying) everyone gets a really cool cape.

Once you understand the idea of Northwestern as a twisted overtime cult, their season makes far more sense: once the Wildcats, clearly an unstoppable force in Big Ten football, have staked out numerous imposing leads over teams in the first half, Pat Fitzgerald gathers the team in the locker room, puts on the Overtime Crown (a gigantic, bejeweled flat top that fits on top his normal flat top), assembles the Overtime Implements, and implores the team to let their opponent take them into overtime in the way that a river carries silt through its tributaries into the ocean.  Yet, even a team like the Northwestern Wildcats cannot always achieve overtime without the co-operaion of the other squad, and Northwestern has been forced to hang on to win against Purdue, to blow the lead to Michigan, to lose to Akron through a series of ludicrous misfortunes that can only be explained as the machinations of a football cult, or to do whatever it is occurred at the end of the Rutgers game that led to an impossible, blasphemous five point lead.

Only once this year, did the Wildcats manage to successfully go to overtime on a ludicrous 99 yard drive.  There, with the sideline and the crowd chanting in a hideous dead language, their fists curled into claws, and with Pat Fizgerald foaming at the mouth from a psilocybin protein powder, the Wildcats achieved their aim, a single overtime period.
Northwestern performs the Ritual of the Pump├ęd Fist upon achieving Over Time

Ask anyone about installing a secret overtime cult at a major college football program and they will tell you that it is harder than it looks.  For one, overtime did not exist in college football before 1996.  All noted overtime cults beforehand had been conspiracies to bring about the existence of overtime itself: the Society of the Skinned Hog, the Hearty Touchdown Lads known for sporting cravats (to display their disdain for ties), and the Grackle's Call Syndicate whose writings were easily dismissed as forgeries written decades later by the famed hoax specialist A. Quintet Pumnt (undone, in the end, by attempting to fake a trove of heretofore undiscovered James Joyce love letters, the infamous "I am also into pee" series).

Many people underestimate the logistics involved in developing an overtime cult.  The selection of Implements alone can sometimes take years.  Because of the layers of secrecy involved in the Northwestern football program (it is a private school shielded from FOIA requests; Fitzgerald uses a series of arcane codes to disguise his injury reports) this blog is unable to give a full report.  Several credible accounts point to a juddering countdown clock, a live falcon named Lance Moses, a music box that only plays unearthly cackling noises, and thousands of jodhpurs whose use has never been explained.  Furthermore, Northwestern's new quarter-billion dollar practice facilities contain at least two ziggurats to be used for blaring horrid music from a compact disc entitled "royalty free music for cults and public access breathing programs."

This week Notre Dame will visit Ryan Field with their playoff ranking and their legions of Chicago-area fans and their medium-rare coach, and they think they will be playing a football game.  Notre Dame makes its first visit to Evanston since 1976.  They play after Northwestern unexpectedly beat them on the way to the Rose Bowl and then they stopped playing for nineteen years, exactly long enough for Northwestern to return to South Bend and beat them as part of an elaborate prank.  

These teams do not play nearly enough for this game to have meaning, but it does.  They mirror each other.  Notre Dame has a large nationwide fanbase that is the closest thing that Chicago has to a college football team; Northwestern has billboards.  Notre Dame celebrated national titles in the twentieth century while Northwestern fans ripped down the goalposts after breaking a record for futility.  This meeting will the be the fifth time these teams play in 25 years but for some reason the rivalry has a wikipedia page

But Northwestern no longer cares about victory.  They are here to drag the Fighting Irish to overtime, to extend the game beyond the boundaries of time and space, to dwell in Evanston in overtime as the universe is destroyed and reborn over ageless eons.  The last time Northwestern played them, Brian Kelly's brain became warped and twisted by the promise of overtime, and he kept trying to go for two unsuccessfully until he found himself in overtime and at the mercy of the Wildcats and their Baseball Kicker. 

We already live in an insane world ravaged by the ripple effect of overtimes.  The Northwestern Wildcats currently sit in first place in the Big Ten West-- this game against Notre Dame has far less import for them than the three remaining games against Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois after another stirring Northwestern win against Wisconsin at Ryan Field, a reliable abattoir for Wisconsin title hopes.  The Wildcats can literally win the Big Ten West.  They can arrive, with their buses and their trucks and their secret unmarked vans carrying Mick McCall's overtime cowl and conjuring lanterns, in Indianapolis where they can unleash upon the dome an overtime heretofore unseen by college football spanning days, months, and eons, the whole time yelling and fistpumping and trying to figure out which configuration of emojis translates to "Beauty and the Beast" or "There Will Be Blood."  All Notre Dame is trying to do make the college football playoff.