Friday, December 2, 2016

Week 14: Who Cares About the Playoff, They Got the Hat

High noon eastern time and the whole country is simultaneously tuned to Big Ten Country for the nation's greatest rivalry spectacle in college sports.  It has been impossible to find anyone with the remotest interest in college football who does not have an opinion on the titanic showdown between the Illinois Fighting Illini and their arch-nemesis Northwestern Wildcats with every snap watched by the selection committees for the Foster Farms, Pinstripe, and possibly Heart of Dallas bowls.

The bowl panels meet to decide the fate of Northwestern

I can't imagine a football game with more at stake: for Northwestern, a chance to secure bowl eligibility for real although they probably would be able to sneak in as a 5-7 team because there are now so many bowl games that teams will be forced to play themselves in brutal scrimmages while executives from Zaxby's bray for blood by waving chicken pieces at the players gang tackling their roommates.  For Illinois, all they had was the opportunity to diminish Northwestern's bowl chances and cackle as the Hat blotted out the sun and winds blew in from the Lake and shrouded Evanston in a year of hatless darkness.

In the end, the Wildcats triumphed.  Illinois, feeble against the run all season, had no answer for Justin Jackson and John Moten IV, who scored his first two touchdowns by flying past Illinois defenders.  The game was much closer than it appeared.  The Illini rallied from 21 down to within a touchdown thanks mainly to Wes Lunt's best game.  Lunt took advantage of Northwestern's soft coverage on the edges to complete the same eight-yard out route approximately 35 times.  The Illini also got a heroic performance from an injured Malik Turner who would come into the game, make some insane diving catch, roll around in agony, and then come back in to make another great play.

Illinois outplayed Northwestern for several stretches in the second and third quarters.  But every time they threatened, something went haywire.  The Illini fumbled the ball away three times, including one on the Northwestern eight yardline with a chance to tie and once on a punt return down only seven.  The most egregiously awful reversal of fortune involved an interception deep in Northwestern territory early in the game negated by a twelve men on the field penalty, an event whose cruelty was mollified only by the fact that it was extremely funny.

Bells rang out in celebration, ceremonial Hats were put onto every statue, and people poured into the streets to celebrate this incredible sporting event.  Lovie Smith and Pat Fitzgerald, old friends as Chicago Sports Icons, embraced on the fifty yard line while Smith waited. He'd have the opportunity to prise the Hat from the collective head of Wildcats next year in Champaign-Urbana, where he would now return and use the ceremonial key to the Illini's Hat Loss Brooding room with a full year to plan his revenge.

AN INVESTIGATION INTO THE WEARABILITY OF THE HAT TROPHY

If there is one thing you can take away from your visit to this web log, I hope it is the insane and arbitrary decision to mount the Hat trophy on a base instead of allowing it to be worn by victorious players in triumph.  A recent tweet by Northwestern's athletic department caused some confusion on this position:
How is this possible?  Has there been some sort of trap door allowing the base to be crudely worn in hat-like fashion?  Was I succumbing to Hat madness?

For hours, I poured over BYCTOM's detailed Hat Archive for any sort of schematics.  I interviewed top statuary haberdashers and scoured the most recent academic journals of hat science, including "(Base) Jumping to Conclusions" in Brims: The Journal of Hat Trophies and Hamburger Restaurant Advertisements and "That's All Pretty Convenient" in The Journal of Implausible Hat Conspiracies, but could not make any headway.

Eventually, with the help of digital photography from years of Hat Trophy photos, including several obscene ones involving Tim Beckman, I began to slowly chip away at the greatest Hat trophy mystery of our time.  You can see the shocking conclusion below:

Proprietary BYCTOM schematic

It appears the hat can, in a fashion, be worn by a player as long as his head is not so grotesquely bulbous that it envelops the entire hollow base area.  But that only raises a larger question and that is this: why?  Why create a trophy of a hat that requires some diabolical secret head chamber in order to fit on a standard-sized head so the only way it can be worn is approximately?  Was the base in mind initially to prevent players from corroding the trophy with their sweat-drenched noggins only to be foiled by the statue's only weakness, a base soaked in the head sweat of dozens of Illinois-based Big Ten football players?  Is there a heretofore unknown Lincoln habit of wearing a stovepipe hat attached to an unwieldy base, his spindly neck straining to keep the whole apparatus on his head while Stephen Douglas made rhetorical mincemeat of him?  I demand answers from government officials immediately on this matter.

Lincoln discovered in a rare photo wearing a gigantic wooden recessed box underneath his 
trademark stovepipe hat while guys with standard non-base hats look on sullenly, reaching 
into their pockets for a notebook so they can write down reminders to buy bulky wooden hat bases

COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP IS A LUDICROUS CIRCUS

While Illinois and Northwestern waged their titanic struggle in front of dozens of tarps at Ryan Field, a minor Big Ten squabble took place in Columbus.  There, Ohio State managed to prevail in an overtime game filled with controversy, the best possible result that throws the playoff rankings into chaos and has prompted a Million Michigan Man march on the Capitol where they will read their manifesto entitled "This Manifesto Uses The Phrase Dereliction of Officiating Duties" from You Sir, the News Letter of Michigan Football Harrumphsmanship.  

The playoff picture remains in disarray.  The Committee will have to figure out how to justify including an Ohio State team that did not even qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game over a Penn State team that has a chance to win the conference and already beat the Buckeyes head-to-head; an undefeated MAC team; and potentially a Big 12 champion with a loss that hinged completely on an erroneous referee decision and a minor miracle.

The task of naming a college football national champion remains the most delightfully arbitrary and absurd ritual in sports.  They have tried to do so through polls run by disparate media organizations which means that a large amount of college football history involves a process of claiming championships and defending them through postmodern deconstructionism.  They have tried to do so with computers, which is a sound attack on the narrative-driven insanity of college football.  And now, they try to fit exactly four teams into a playoff, but do so with an unaccountable committee that meets with the solemnity of a papal conclave.  
White smoke by the Playoff Committee signals a triumphant De-emphasis 
of Conference Championships

All this week, people have been attempting to make logical arguments to fill the three non-Alabama playoff spots.  Conference championship upsets this weekend can occlude the picture even further. But logical arguments and opponent defeat flowcharts have no place in this process.  The Playoff is set by the Committee that has its own gonzo decision-making processes that have previously involved things like Body Clocks.  There is no way to know what they value or what sorts of formulae they use.  They could, for all we know, pick teams by throwing knives at walls or basing their selections entirely on the result of human hungry hippos while they hurl goblets of wine and hoot things like "you call that gobbling, you inadequate artiodactyl."

This twisted spectacle is how your college football playoff field is chosen, probably

College football sells itself as a mythological journey where teams rise up and meet challenges by upsetting high-ranked rivals or winning conference championships or even going undefeated in a minor conference and hope that their deeds prove them worthy of inclusion in the Playoff.  Instead, the only mythological elements are a class of powerful, capricious individuals with their own conflicts and agendas that can wipe all that out at a single stroke.  If you are lucky enough to follow a team good enough to aspire to playoff contention, all the college football season does it add increasing opportunities for you to get mad.  And, as fans of college football fans melting down on the internet, we could not have asked for a better system.

HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT

Northwestern finds itself at the mercy of unaccountable committees when they meet to decide which bowl game they will be inflicted upon.  The two main possibilities are the San Francisco bowl, which has has turned over sponsors as often as a postwar Italian government and is now played at the Niners stadium located 2,000 miles outside San Francisco and the Yankee Stadium Hey I'm Playin' Football Here Bowl, which offers Northwestern fans the opportunity to see football played in a baseball stadium with more than one operational endzone.  

The game and the opponent do not matter.  The Wildcats clawed back from the portents of a miserable year to enter the postseason.  They boast the Big Ten leader in rushing yards, receiving yards, and sacks.  Austin Carr will have one more opportunity to bamboozle defensive backs. Northwestern has a chance to end the season with a winning record.  This will all be clearer when the bowl fatcats have emerged from their estates with their scrolls.  Until then, we can all luxuriate in the retention of the Hat in all of its mysterious, semi-wearable glory.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Week 13: Clean, Old-Fashioned Hat

There is one week left of Northwestern football and the Wildcats are out of time.  Either beat a putrid Illinois team and qualify for the Wattle Farms Chicken Gizzard Remainder Bowl or fall apart, a hatless husk of a team forced to try to shamefully sneak into the Harvester Combine Injury Bowl with a 5-7 record, only allowed into postseason play by dint of their Academic Progress Rate like Dolph Lundgren sneaking into the lead of a 1990s action movie called Viscount Cop only after Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal, Snipes, Willis, Gibson, and even Emilio Estevez have turned it down and it will only be released on special Bulgarian region DVD players.

What is the plot of my fictional Dolph Lundgren Viscount Cop move?  I'm 
glad you asked. Dolph Lundgren stars as a sheltered aristocrat brought up 
with courtly, nineteenth-century manners who joins the police to track down 
a tough, Habsburgh-themed motorcycle gang on the streets of New York City 
where only his knowledge of fencing and post-Metternich diplomacy can 
stop them while his wisecracking partner assimilates him in what the person
writing a Viscount Cop movie would imagine that hip, New York culture is

The 'Cats are reduced to this after a poor showing in Minnesota.  Clayton Thorson spent the entire game in a football version of the Running Man, as various Buzz Saws and Professors Sub-Zero sacked him in a house of bloodthirsty gopher worship.  Pat Fitzgerald decided to abandon his kneejerk football traditionalism and go for it on fourth down repeatedly.  These plays did not work, but we have possibly seen the emergence of a new Fitzgerald, one who goes for it on fourth down, one who occasionally takes it more than one game at a time, and one who joins with other Big Ten coaches in the Society of Slightly Less Punting and shows up with frosted buzzcut tips, BASE jumping anecdotes, and motorcycle jousting injuries.

Kirk Ferentz appears at a press conference to discuss going for it on fourth and two from Iowa's 
36 yardline.

Northwestern caps off a bizarre season.  After the loss to Western Michigan and the demoralizing collapse against Illinois State, the Wildcats seemed on target for a bleak, Purdue-esque tribute to football miserablism.  Instead, Northwestern rallied, developed a prolific and at times unstoppable offense centered on Austin Carr, and started winning games in the Big Ten/ They even managed to give probable division champions Ohio State and Wisconsin a hard time.  The Wildcats could be described as better than you think, although in the given "you" of college football fandom, the baseline seems to be successfully showing up to football games on time and calling at least one recognizable play.  Instead, the tough loss to Minnesota shattered that illusion and the Wildcats have returned to their traditional Thanksgiving position: desperately hoping to keep the Hat and qualify for Amalgamated Bleacher Tarp Bowl located in a floating island in the middle of the Great Lakes accessible only by garbage scow.  After the first two games, this represents a remarkable turnaround and a tribute to the team's resilience.

HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT

The last time these two teams met in America's Greatest Sports Rivalry with bowl eligibility represented the apotheosis of the Northwestern-Illinois game.  Two 5-6 teams met with it all on the line: either a berth in a crappy bowl game against a Conference USA team or football oblivion with no bloated glut of bowl games and 5-7 APR bullshit to bail them out.  That maniac Tim Beck Man was still in charge of the Illini, and he took advantage of an injury to Northwestern's superstar NFL quarterback Trevor Siemian to lead Illinois to an unthinkable victory that still chills Chicago's Big Ten Bones.

(UPDATE: I forgot that last year's titanic Hat Contest involved a five-win Illinois team straining for bowl eligibility, although it is possible that the Illini could have rebranded the game the Victory Auto Wreckers Chicago's Big Ten Quasi-Bowl and then salvaged their season in the wilderness).

The Illini's first season under Lovie Smith has had growing pains.  Illinois's only Big Ten wins are Michigan State in full collapse and a Rutgers team that is offering the exact amount of resistance towards its conference foes as a henchman in the movie Commando.

This henchman meets one of the dozens of gruesome ends he and his comrades all played by 
the same stuntman will meet at the hand of John Matrix

Illinois currently nurses a quarterback controversy between Wes Lunt, who has been in Champaign-Urbana long enough to qualify for tenure, and Literally Jeff George Junior.  Northwestern is favored, at home, and will play in front of a sellout hat-thirsty crowd, many of whom will comes disguised as empty bleachers.  The status of Northwestern's superstar receiver (and Biletnikoff Award finalist) Austin Carr is up in the air; Carr left last week's came after a head-to-head shot ruled targeting and is listed as day to day with an upper-body injury, although Pat Fitzgerald would also describe the National Convention as voting to inflict an upper-body injury upon Louis XVI.

But throw out the record books.  It is Hat Week, it is Big Ten Network Regional Coverage, and nothing would give Lovie Smith and the probably two other Illinois players I can name off the top of my head a better Thanksgiving than to mercilessly yank the hat from the Wildcats' heads and drag it back to Champaign in a bus that Tim Beckman had specially designed to hold the Hat to transport it to and from Beckman family functions.

HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT

It is a sad confession that the Hat Game has lost some its hat luster over the past couple of years.  This is the second consecutive year with a new Illini coach.  Lovie Smith has not had years to marinate in the spectacle of the Land of Lincoln Rivalry: the parades, the endless media attention, the jawing on the state-wide sports talk radio between fanbases whose trash-talking is based on the relative margin of defeat to Western Michigan. 
 
It is also the second year of the post-Beckman era, and if Illinois fans are not going to get on the internet and become as semi-ironically obsessed with the Hat as I am the least they can do is get rid of the frustratingly levelheaded Lovie Smith and hire another insane head coach who looks like he would never appear on television on Thanksgiving weekend unless he was a victim of a deep-fried turkey incident or giant inflatable pilgrim mishap with a pathological obsession with beating Northwestern.

Perhaps Lovie Smith, an icon of unflappable cool in his days with the Bears where he had to be transported around town in a Popemobile to prevent 300-pound mustache guys from screaming at him about Rex Grossman, will snap and become unhinged in the pressure of winning this great College Football Rivalry Game.  Maybe he will become the victim of an insane Face/Off incident where Beckman, now disguised as Smith, attempts to retake the Hat by force before escaping in a blimp while Smith has to feign ignorance of hamstring injuries in order to infiltrate Beckman's gang of rogue, fired football coaches.

Hat/Off

I hope that the rivalry has not already climaxed with a crappy bowl elimination game masterminded by the only coach on the face of the earth capable of caring enough about Northwestern to hate it. Maybe Lovie Smith will bring about an Illini football renaissance which, along with a Northwestern team that has remained semi-respectable in the Fitz era, will allow for a game with Big Ten West implications.  Failing that, the dream remains a game between the two teams when they are decent at the same time, which as far as I can tell has never happened.

Or maybe the Hat Rivalry just needs a bit more egregious dick kicking.

HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT

It all comes down to this.  The pageantry, the rivalry, the all-engrossing spectacle enveloping Chicagoland as these two titans of the Big Ten clash for the 110th time at Ryan Field.  There's a bowl berth on the line for Northwestern.  There's an emergence of hope at stake for the Illini.  And most importantly, there's the Hat, carried off the field by the victorious team, with a giant metal tophat installed on the Art Institute lions and a mysterious light emanating from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library from a secret chamber that is said to be the source of the Hat's mysterious football powers that no one goes into for fear of resurrecting an angry Lincoln ghost that will rampage across the state, destroying all who tries to stop it with heretofore unknown rhetorical flourishes.

Northwestern and Illinois exist in a shared college football obscurity.  They are on national TV only when some Big Ten Football Brand school deigns to flatten them on the way to the Playoff or when they manage a rare upset.  It is safe to say that absolutely no one outside of these tiny, tarp-augmented fanbases cares about the Hat Game; the Big Ten Network could run last year's game at 11AM Saturday and have no one actually notice while changing only the graphics to say "Ryan Field" and dubbing over announcers saying "2015" in the same way that Bruce Willis miraculously discourses on melon farmers in network television airings of Die Hard movies.  But for Northwestern and Illinois fans, this dumb game and its ludicrous trophy that remains molded to a base instead of allowing the coach to wear it is ours.  It is my favorite sporting event of the year.  

-Hat- 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Week 12: SINKHOLES

I remember a time when Purdue cut a reign of terror through the Big Ten, when Purdue regularly sent its quarterbacks to the NFL instead of to SEC teams as ghoulish Big Ten specters, when the mustaches were blond and resplendent on the sidelines like an army of Bounty Men ordering a neverending bombardment of touchdowns while Purdue Pete taunted the opposition with his blank homicide face.  That was not that long ago.

Everything Purdue Pete does is disturbing and threatening

But recent years have not been kind to the Purdue Boilermakers who have devolved into a pit of forlorn football ineptitude.  The pit is not metaphorical.  Earlier this season, a burst water main caused the formation of a large sinkhole in the Ross Ade endzone, as reported by a twitter account described as "The Official Twitter of the Purdue University Intercollegiate Athletics Sports Turf Crew."
It was as if Purdue's own stadium had grown sentient, preferring to devour itself instead of bearing witness to the miserable football perpetuated against it, against long-suffering Purdue fans, and against the various interim personnel haplessly watching mediocre teams treat Purdue like sports movie winning streak montage opponents.

The strange thing about the Boilermakers is that they have not played up to their bumbling reputation.  They have started games strong and have taken leads to halftime.  They leaped to a 10-0 lead against Northwestern on Saturday, and they took close games to halftime against Minnesota and Penn State.  Then, it all falls apart.  The most foreboding site for Purdue has not been another member of the injury-ravaged roster limping to the sidelines or former coach Darrell Hazell attempting to draw up another ineffectual play with a puzzled look; it is the chilling thump of the World's Largest Drum unleashed during a halftime spectacle to signal the impeding doom of the Dread Second Half.


Normal football fans have pointed to Purdue's injuries and lack of depth for its second-half descent into the abyss.  What I like to imagine, though, is that it is completely due to interim coach Gerad Parker's halftime speeches.  Parker, perhaps wearing a false blond mustache, walks into the locker room before the game screaming football things at them about clear eyes and full hearts and they go out inspired to football greatness.  Then, at halftime, Parker attempts to rally the squad but he starts sweating and screaming before finally a larval Purdue Pete bursts forth from his chest and scuttles into the air ducts and then when David Blough rears back to throw he thinks he sees the creature incubating in the very football he is holding and is forced to repeatedly throw it to Montre Hartage.

BIG TEN FOOTBALL ACTION

The Wildcats will travel to Minnesota to take on the Golden Gophers, desperate to get that sixth win and claim a crappy bowl berth like the third son of a dynasty bumbling into a minor bishopric.  The Gophers lost their opportunity to contend for the Big Ten West after falling to Nebraska and now jockey to move up the arbitrary hierarchy of also-ran bowls.

Last year, the Wildcats pounded Minnesota.  They were unable to run the ball, and Anthony Walker terrorized quarterback Mitch Leidner into throwing footballs like they had been replaced by lead football sculptures.  Northwestern inched over the field on a drive that took almost the entire third quarter.  This year, the Gophers look for revenge with an improved team with a tough defense and fearsome running back Rodney Smith, the Big Ten touchdown leader.

But the Gophers will also have to deal with Austin Carr.  Yes, Carr was on last year's Northwestern team.  He recorded one catch for fourteen yards in last year's Minnesota game.  This season, though, Carr has seemingly come out of nowhere and emerged as the best receiver in the conference.  Carr has already tied Jeremy Ebert's single-season touchdown record, and he leads the Big Ten in every major receiving category.  Carr, along with an improving Thorson, has helped transform Northwestern's offense from a lurching tank designed to throw Justin Jackson at the defensive line long enough for the defense to rest and attain punting position to an actual threat to move the ball.  

Northwestern's 2015 offense practices its offensive system known as the "pre-punt"

The Gophers are favored, but these teams appear evenly-matched.  The Wildcats hope to head back to Evanston garlanded in Belks.
  
BASKETBALL SEASON

Northwestern's basketball season is here and so is heartbreak.  The 'Cats lost to a buzzer-beater against Butler, and suffered an early blow against the eternal and seemingly-impossible quest to actually make a postseason tournament.  Northwestern basketball exists in an endless continuum of buzzer-beaters, overtime losses, and last-second putbacks in every game that they play against an opponent that is not leaving Welsh-Ryan arena with a suitcase full of cash for getting violently dunked on for 40 minutes.

The Wildcats graduated stalwarts Tre Demps and Alex Olah who now play together as noted by the greatest sentence ever written about Northwestern basketball: "Olah joins his former Northwestern shooting guard Demps on Belfius Mons-Hainaut, which plays in the Belgium Scooore! League." (It should be noted that the Scooore! League is now known as the Euromillions Basketball League, which is slightly less delightful).

Belfius Mons-Hainaut's mascot, Le Renard Clip Art

This basketball season will be the final one at Welsh-Ryan arena before it undergoes renovations.  The team will move to the empty, desolate All State Arena for a year and move back into a disappointingly opulent arena, resplendent in video boards and actual seats and this is terrible.  Welsh-Ryan Arena is a gloriously dilapidated barn, and the only renovations allowed should be to add side backboards like an elementary school gymnasium and a cage from which spectators can hang and taunt the opponents like you'd find in any respectable thunderdome.  They should redecorate the arena only if Northwestern qualifies for the tournament and then the whole thing should be decorated with elaborate friezes depicting the team's glorious entry to the four-team quasi-Tournament by dint of winning a second game in the Big Ten Tournament forcing all of Indianapolis to cower before the might of its zone defense.

Northwestern's renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena includes a much-sought cage ticket and 
complimentary chainsaw check

INEVITABLE NORTHWESTERN BASKETBALL SCANDAL

Anyone who follows college sports does so with clenched teeth waiting for the inevitable scandal because college sports are an insanely corrupt enterprise propped up by a shocking gulf in compensation between the players and the institutions that profit from the spectacle.  The whole thing is orchestrated by the NCAA, which polices this tension by drawing up hundreds of pages of guidelines about the exact hours which maniacal coaches can text emojis at teenagers.  So it is inevitable that this system that remains a vestige of nineteenth-century mustache guys literally stomping each other to death on football fields leads to shit that can best be described as fucked up.

This week, former Northwestern basketball player Johnnie Vassar sued the school, alleging that basketball coach Chris Collins and the entire athletic department pressured and harassed him into leaving the team after the NCAA rules prevented him from transferring.  The complaint argues that Collins, who recruited Vassar, felt he was not good enough to play on the team and wanted him to give up his athletic scholarship and accept an academic scholarship so the school could use it on a different recruit.

The lawsuit alleges that Northwestern tried several ways to get get Vassar to relinquish the athletic scholarship: by replacing his practices with something called the "Wildcat Intern Program" that involved menial janitorial work at athletic facilities, by crudely doctoring his time cards to threaten him with dereliction of duties as a means to yanking the scholarship, and by informally offering a cash payment to "go away."

Northwestern has denied the allegations.

Vassar's lawsuit also attacks the NCAA's transfer rules, which prevented him from moving to a different school.  The Tribune's Teddy Greenstein explains the reasoning behind the NCAA's restrictive transfer policy at the end of the article [italics mine]: 
NCAA transfer rules exist to discourage schools from "poaching" players from other programs. Schools put in a considerable amount of time and money to recruit players, so the feeling has been that their investment should be protected.  Plus coaches believe that if a player can simply leave and immediately play elsewhere when he or she faces adversity or tough coaching, it promotes a bad life lesson.
This last part raises eyebrows considering that successful coaches often leave for more attractive jobs without warning on train cars specifically designed to ferry them out of the town that they have paid for with the giant canvas sacks full of money with which they are compensated.

The Vassar lawsuit's allegations are disturbing.  The legal process is ponderous, and we don't know if a court will find that Northwestern's pressure on Vassar to transfer was as grotesque as the methods listed in the complaint.  

Collins desperately wants to get Northwestern to the Tournament, and has method includes an aggressive approach to his roster.  His arrival saw the departure of numerous walk-ons and players recruited by Carmody to pave the way for players that fit his system.  But the Vassar lawsuit shows that, even ignoring the troubling allegations of payoffs and internship time card frameups, Collins is willing to move on from his own recruits just as easily if he doesn't feel they will get him to March Madness.

To me, the appeal of Northwestern athletics has always been its obscurity.  The stakes remain low: desperate attempts to qualify for low-rent bowls, a defining failure to make it to a tournament that allows an ever-increasing number of entrants, and the howling from opponents of far more historically successful teams shamed into losing to a team whose most visible fanbase is tarps.  I had thought that these low stakes could shield Northwestern from the worst of the NCAA's inherent bullshit not because Northwestern is any less corrupt any other school with major sports programs but because the ruthless recruiting and rostering shell games that are absurd enough in the quest for national championships become unabashedly ludicrous when they apply to a team whose greatest recent success involves disdainfully refusing to play in the CBI. 

Of course that is naive and stupid.  For Chris Collins and the athletic department, bowls, Hats, and downmarket basketball tournaments that weave perilously in and out of existence are not enough. Collins seems to think that his management of scholarships will help him win. As we've found from the fallout from the football union, the NCAA's byzantine restrictions infect every instance of big-money college sports.  Historical crappiness cannot save you. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Week 11: Extraneous Football

They were weeping in Madison on Saturday, fans hugging their older relatives and long-time supporters gathering outside Camp Randall Stadium as their Badgers finally managed to knock off the Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston for the first time since 1999, a streak that spans over four entire football games.  

The streets of Madison are red in celebration of the long-awaited twenty-
first-century win at Ryan Field

The Badgers dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball; their running backs galloped across the field and kept their rotating carousel of quarterbacks relatively unscathed, and their defense held Justin Jackson in check.  Still, Northwestern remained within striking distance largely because of Austin Carr's remarkable transformation into an unstoppable receiving force who was still hauling in balls long after it became apparent that he was the Wildcats' only option and the Badgers were draping defenders on him and hastily trying to build medieval fortifications around him and then hustle the guys with shovels and mortar and the field engineers with parchment blueprints off the field before suffering from an illegal substitution penalty.

Wisconsin's playbook shows its halftime adjustments for defending 
Austin Carr, who finished with 12 receptions for 132 yards, a touchdown, 
and a claim to the County of Rapperswil

After facing two top-ten teams in a row, Northwestern settles down to the task at hand: winning at least two of the three remaining games to qualify for a bowl game sponsored by a company that will be defunct within three years and, far more importantly, retaining the Hat from rookie head coach Lovie Smith, who has never coached in a game with higher stakes or more national attention.  This is after the Illini reportedly retreated from holding its home hat games at Soldier Field, terrified of playing Chicago's Big Ten Team in Chicago in front of last year's showing of dozens of fans.  The move also alleviates a concern that Smith would go into a Soldier Field-induced trance where he would continually attempt to send Rex Grossman into the game until an Illini quarterback would have to stuff his cheeks, throw on a number eight jersey, and huck the ball up into triple coverage enough times to prevent Smith from seeing a Brian Urlacher hair billboard and suffering a complete psychological collapse.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

This week, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany announced that the Big Ten will move a selected slate of games to Friday evenings. The move is controversial; Fridays remain associated with high school football, as demonstrated by the television show where catalog models stare at each other, lips quivering, declaring “I ‘preciate that.”

The Big Ten will move to Friday nights as an imitation of the NFL’s strategy of putting football games on at bizarre, unnatural times and then being shocked that no one is watching a Rutgers/Purdue game that they would know was on only if Jim Delany pulled up the Big Ten’s official hot rod to their door and personally implored them to watch it. Northwestern will play in all of these games.

The August Michigan Wolverines will not play on Friday nights because they would never stand for that; you would have a mitchum-scented mob seizing Ann Arbor printing presses to flood the city with strongly-worded open letters and pamphlets entitled “It’s Simply Not Done.” No, Friday night is for the Wildcats and the unwanted East Coast Big Ten arrivistes and will be played only for desperate, grasping attempts to qualify for the Ornamental Truck Testicle Bowl played at the immediate conclusion of the participants’ final game to get it over with as quickly as possible.

The solution, then, is to lean into the change and declare the Northwestern Nightmen the official team of Friday football.  The Wildcats, traveling to away games in a purple hearse with blackout windows to keep out the 11:00 AM sun, bursting forth from coffins during pregame introductions by Chicago  horror movie personality Svengoolie, all to an endless soundtrack of Dio and haunting monster mashes, will hijack the trucks that contain the stadium lights that the school will now need for all of its games and involve it in arcane Night Rituals.  Delany can announce this to Pat Fitzgerald personally, assuming he can locate him in the attic of the disused gothic church where he now lives.

The Vincent Priceman prepare for Friday Night Football

THE MOST IMPORTANT GAME OF THE YEAR 

The Northwestern-Purdue game is always a favorite to preview because it’s close to the platonic ideal of a shitty, 11:00 Big Ten game broadcast onto television reluctantly like a terrible sitcom on air only because of the CBC’s Canadian content laws. This game has no meaning, will attract no attention outside of these small fanbases, and by 2:30 pm it might as well not have existed. You could send a fake box score from West Lafayette to any national media outlet in the country and they would print it without scrutiny, even if it said that the Northwestern Wildebeests were led by Claybon Thrognoggin and scored most of their points via incantation. This game rules.

Exciting football action from last year's game  

This year, Purdue actually has intrigue. Darrell Hazell was fired for leading his Boilermarkers into an abyss of football futility, and now the Purdue athletic department looks for its next coach by waiting for a clack to echo through the night, for a track that appears through town that no one knew was there, and for a solitary steam engine to pull up with its new savior who arrives with a spread offense and a blond mustache so resplendent that it cascades down from his mouth and turns into an all-weather Purdue parka.

Purdue should just hire Kyle Orton and let him live on a houseboat on the 
Wabash River

For most people, even the most degenerate college football fans, this game, as it exists at all, takes place as two numbers at the very bottom of a scroll through a college football scores app.  Maybe Minnesota and Illinois fans take a glance and recalibrate their own chances against Northwestern. But this game will take place.  With uniforms and everything.  As we talk, coaching staffs are gathered in their elaborate cargo shorts conclaves and watching film on the flesh and blood humans who are about to play football at Ross Ade stadium.  And I'll be watching to see if Justin Jackson can rebound and continue his climb up Northwestern's all-time rushing list, if Austin Carr can continue to blight defensive backs, and if the Wildcats' secondary can contain Big Ten yardage leader and Purdue Institute of Scrappy Quarterbacking graduate David Blough.  

For Northwestern, a win in the first Big Ten game in which they are favored will set them up to potentially qualify for a bowl with another win or potentially by taking advantage of unchecked bowl proliferation to sneak in as a 5-7 team, which is something so Northwestern that I can't believe it has not already happened.  For Purdue, a win alleviates somewhat the general atmosphere of football malaise hanging around the program, which has not seen more than three wins in a season during the Hazell era.  These are the stakes for a Northwestern-Purdue game, which is less played than inflicted upon people to the point that the teams should play for a trophy called the Big Ten Network Contractual Obligation Oh Wait It's The Big Ten, This Is Now William Henry Harrison's Snuff Box.

The outcomes of sporting events remain profoundly trivial.  But even in our insane world where sporting operations suck in unfathomable gobs of money and attention, where taxpayers subsidize massive arenas for billionaire owners and universities have somehow become bolted onto sports leagues that protect the athletes' links to the schools by enforcing ludicrously elaborate text message codes and assign grim-faced investigators to allegations of selling game-worn pants and where the Cubs can win a baseball game and send people sprawled teary-eyed into the arms of their relatives and to consecrate graveyards with officially-licensed World Series merchandise, it is hard to explain why anyone should care about the upcoming Northwestern-Purdue game.  It has no bearing on The Title Picture or the Playoff Rankings or the Big Ten West or take place at a Stadium With People In It.  It is extraneous football.  And I'll be watching every minute. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Week 10: Streaks

Northwestern headed into Ohio State with an overwhelming losing streak in Columbus.  The last time the Wildcats won in Columbus was 1971, when Woody Hayes was at the height of his terrifying powers, able to infiltrate his players' subconscious and force them to do hamburger drills in their dreams.  Since then, Ohio State has remained on a more or less continuous rampage through the Big Ten while Northwestern's football team spent the late 70s and 80s aerating their and their opponents' fields by getting repeatedly pile-driven through them.

Northwestern's success in 1971 came from the 
unorthodox tactic of punting enormous, blimp-sized 
footballs at opponents and then tackling them in the 
ensuing confusion

The Wildcats came into the game as heavy underdogs, but this is not the same team that got the Fatal Doink from Illinois State.  Clayton Thorson seems to grow by leaps and bounds each week.  Justin Jackson remains one of the Big Ten's best backs, and what we get to see each week from Austin Carr is nothing short of astonishing.  They gave the Buckeyes all they could handle and managed to pull level.  Unfortunately, they could not topple Ohio State.  A holding penalty took away an opportunity to tie the game and Fitz settled for a field goal.  I did not watch the game live, so instead I followed the end of the game on the ESPN GameCenter website where I then watched little arrows representing JT Barrett gallivant across my phone over Northwestern's digital defenders while the clock ran down to nothing on every clumsy refresh.  It was an impressive effort, but it was not enough.  The streak was not broken.

A loss is a loss to Ohio State by four or by forty; that’s what it goes by in the books no matter how close the Wildcats came to unleashing a dejected Horseshoe full of Buckeyes unable to fathom what has just happened and a million unhinged message board demands to fire at least one coordinator and send photographic breakdowns of uncalled holding penalties on the next Pioneer satellite so that aliens would have clear understanding of how illegal it is for the guy to have his hand right up in that jersey jesus christ throw the goddamn flag.

FORTRESS WILDCAT

The Wisconsin Badgers have not won in Evanston since 1999.  They have not.  They have they have won Big Ten Championships, they have sent waves of running backs and beefy tackles over the prone bodies of Big Ten opponents and they have garlanded themselves in roses and every single time this this century that they have come to Ryan Field they have lost the football game and this is the funniest and strangest streak in all of college sports.


The streak is misleading because Northwestern and Wisconsin have only played four games in Evanston since 1999.  Still, pretty much every year they've played the Badgers have come in ranked higher than Northwestern and with a retinue of red-clad fans streaming in from the city and down I-94 to take over the stadium and with AP rankings and they still manage to lose close games and it is way more fun to crow about sparsely-played win streaks such as a two-game streak over Notre Dame that dates back to 1995 or a dominant streak over the University of Chicago that dates to 1926 although that was the last time they played and since then Chicago disbanded their football program and left the Big Ten and then revived it as a DIII program. You never know if there is an aged Maroon football player so incensed at Northwestern's Chicago's Big Ten Team billboards that he launches a coup against the Chicago administration and secretly brings the team back to Big Ten contention with an army of cloned Maroon greats like Andy "Polyphemus" Wyatt.

"Polyphemus" Wyatt Mk. VII, his mustache now even 
larger and more resplendent, burrows up from the 
earth outside Ryan Field with an army of leather-helmeted 
clones and a crew of painters stationed at key billboard 
locations on the Tri-State Tollway

Wisconsin comes in ranked eight in the country and desperate for revenge after last year's insane game where the Wildcats benefited from delightfully ludicrous officiating.  Paul Chryst, I am sure, would like to win decisively enough where a referee that accidentally ingests psilocybin mushrooms and then fancies himself Crimson Ump, the Taker of Touchdowns will have minimal effect.

Northwestern is somehow a far better team than they were at the beginning of the season. Though Wisconsin is favored, they will still have to figure out how to deal with Thorson and Austin Carr. Still, Wisconsin is an excellent team with designs still on the Western Division. The home win streak, as delightfully bizarre as it is, can't hold out forever, especially now that they play in Evanston every other year.  But, the Wildcats certainly have the team to upset Wisconsin again, and one more win is more than enough to declare some sort of contrived bullshit curse over the whole enterprise.

THE CUBS WON THE DANGED WORLD SERIES

It is fitting that last night’s game took place under the watch of Joe Buck, baseball’s Grim Reaper, determined to remind everyone about the cavalcade of people these flailing teams had seen to the grave during their long championship droughts. A robed Joe Buck presided over Fox’s organ music, over graphics about milk prices and historical events, over an army of grasping, rotted skeletons as his face melted into a flaming skull, his unearthly cackling interrupted only by a quick primer on Jon Lester’s inability to throw to first.
Fox loads another jittering newsreel from Olden Times as Joe Buck cackles 
maniacally over B-roll of coffins, crypts, and cemeteries 

The Cubs had spent the entire playoffs manhandled by Cleveland’s pitching, particularly Corey Kluber, Cody Allen, and Andrew Miller, the loose-limbed lefty who had been so unhittable in the playoffs that the announcers had begun to allude to him like he was some dread scourge from over the hills even though he looks like a scruffy human muppet. Miller and Allen lurked in every game like the monsters from medieval maps, and every team knew that as soon as the Indians had the lead, their bullpen arms would come in and slowly squeeze the outs out of them in the most demoralizing way possible.

The Map of Cubs Playoff Baseball Pitching Creatures includes Kluber, Miller, Allen, Bumgarner, 
Matt Moore, Rich Hall, and Theoretically Clayton Kershaw 

In Game Seven, the Cubs finally got to them: they hammered Kluber, and when the Dread Scourge Andrew Miller came in, the Cubs’ grizzled Mendoza Line catcher who had been violently head-bonked by an errant Lester cutter in the top half of the inning launched a dinger to straight away center. There's something about playoff baseball that does not only involve hitting, pitching, and bullying a nebbishy fan into going into witness protection; if it does not, as we as rational people know, involve communion with some sort of unholy forces, the pressure packed games do everything they can to simulate that feeling. And with these two miserable, exhausted catastrophist fanbases, the forces swirling over Progressive Field appeared to be the baseball equivalent of the green mist from the DeMille Ten Commandments. 

The Cubs, who had seized control of the game from the Cleveland Arm Hydra, seemed about to cruise to victory. Then, things took a turnJoe Posnanski once referred to Tony La Russa as "the Mozart of overmanagers," but Maddon's bullpen theatrics rated at least a Salieri.  He quickly pulled Kyle Hendricks for Lester and then put an overworked Aroldis Chapman on the mound.  Chapman,  shaky and gumby-armed, gave up a dramatic two-run homer to that base-stealing slap hitter Rajai Davis that flew over the fence in left field and then split into subatomic baseball particles to lodge themselves in the panic center of Cubs fans' guts. This was it. The Pandora's Box of Cub Playoff Failures had opened and there were goats and cats and Alex S. Gonzalezes rampaging all over the field preparing to drag the greatest Cubs team we are likely to ever see down out of Progressive Field and into Fox Baseball Tragedy B Roll for future playoff appearances. 

And then it was Cleveland's turn to knot their stomachs and clutch at their Omar Vizquel autobiography, The Institgation of Vigilante Beanballism, and watch the Cubs snag two more runs in the inning. But it was World Series Hero Rajai Davis coming up with another RBI to halve the lead, and the giant rat mascot from the 1908 World Series burrowed up from center field, spitting poison on the thousands of Cubs fans in the stands. Finally, Mike Montgomery induced a ground ball, the Contrived Curse of Someone Named Rocky Covalito We're Really Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel Here roared and the Cubs won the goddamned World Series in an amazing game designed to kill remaining fans of the Cubs and Indians that had not already died of natural causes during their championship droughts.

I can't believe it either 

The result of this ludicrous baseball ordeal is that the Cubs finally won a World Series. Whatever miserable mumbo-jumboism fueled the hysterical Cubs pessimism is gone, the dread accompanying every playoff appearance no longer exists, and the morbid misery accompanying every strikeout and double play grounder and awful only the Cubs could do this error has been banished for at least the next 25 years. Now they are merely a wealthy, well-run team set up to contend for the near future and almost certainly become widely loathed in the process. Thank goodness.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Week 9: CAUGHT IT CLUB-HANDED

After two weeks, Northwestern looked doomed to a miserable season of weekly clobberings by even the Big Ten's most abysmal teams.  Now,  they're 4-2 and sitting in second place in the Big Ten West, their offense has looked at times unstoppable, and they are in a sound position to make a bowl game; none of this seemed possible when an Illinois State field goal bonked off the goalpost, that Northwestern would knock off the admittedly reeling participants in last year's Lucrative Conference Championship Game in simultaneous weeks and spend 30 minutes rampaging against Indiana in a maniacal offensive spree.

The first half of the game, Northwestern mangled the Hoosiers.  Clayton Thorson threw over them unchecked.  Austin Carr, who leads the Big Ten in every meaningful receiving category, scooted around the defense.  The offensive line flattened the defense for Justin Jackson to run over them, and the Wildcats raced out to a 24-3 halftime lead.

After halftime, though, Indiana's defense reappeared.  They shut out Northwestern and the Wildcats spent the entire time desperately clinging to a shrinking lead.  Hoosier linemen who spent the first half driven into the turf now walled off Jackson's running lines; defensive backs flummoxed by the receivers now found themselves in better positions.

As Indiana narrowed the gap, the Wildcats defense managed to stop them on numerous fourth downs and with turnovers.  Montre Hardage ripped a ball from a Hoosier receiver.  Kyle Queiro, with one hand encased in a protective club, leaped up and made a one-handed interception that might be the single greatest individual defensive play I've ever seen from a Northwestern player with a club hand, claw hand, or hook hand that he uses to spear interceptions and appear suddenly in the back seat of cars.


Who knows what shifted in halftime to make Northwestern's offense go from an unstoppable touchdown machine to a broken-down touchdown machine heaving exhaust and barfing oil at its own 35-yard-line in the second half.  But Northwestern will need its best offensive performance to keep the pressure on the looming ogre of the Big Ten this weekend.

BUCKEYE RECKONING

Northwestern has bullied its last three Big Ten opponents, but now they have to go face big, bad Ohio State in the Horseshoe.  The last time these two teams met was during a primetime ESPN Gameday showdown in Evanston, as the ranked Wildcats faced off against the Buckeyes in a Football Apocalypse.  That did not end well.  Northwestern stayed in the game, but lost even though Kain Colter got that first down and I have been passing out hastily-xeroxed literature about it at Ryan Field weekly ever since to spread awareness of the vast refereeing conspiracy that meets by flickering torchlight, an ancient order that has been denying crucial first downs to generations of Colters.  After that game, the Wildcats spiraled into a ludicrous string of misfortunes that all blend together in a montage of ill-timed interceptions, overtimes, hail marys, and footballs adversely bouncing into a sea of opponent arms as the Wildcats plummeted from undefeated and ranked into a melancholy bowl-bereft winter.

Now, Ohio State is coming off its first loss of the season, a shocking upset at the hands of Penn State. There are two ways this can affect the Buckeyes.  It is possible that Penn State, and a Wisconsin team that had taken them to overtime the week before, have shown some weaknesses in what appeared to be an unstoppable juggernaut on the way to the playoff.  On the other hand, the loss may have refocused the team and whipped them into a football frenzy, with the entire organization from the Athletic Director to the coaching staff to the towel-wrangling student managers unwilling to contemplate anything other than defeating Northwestern and slipping into Jon Gruden's Disease where they are unable to express anything without slipping into a bizarre football argot.

GRUDEN: THAT'S WHY WHAT YOU'VE GOT TO DO RIGHT THERE IS GO SCATTER TWO 
                        BUNCH RIGHT ZIP FIRE TWO JET TEXAS RIGHT OF FLAT X-Q IN THIS 
                        PARTICULAR SITUATION UNLESS OF COURSE YOU CAN AUDIBLE TO THE 
                        HOT GUY RIGHT THERE AND SEND HIM ZEPHYR GORGON 14 SEVEN MARK 
                        THREE Z IF YOU SEE THEM IN ZONE COVERAGE.
GROCERY CLERK: Sir, the question was is this your signature

Northwestern has not beaten Ohio State since 2004.  They have not beaten Ohio State in Columbus since 1971 because their plan has disappeared. 

Last known image of the man entrusted with Northwestern's 
plans to win football games in Columbus

The Buckeyes will be heavy favorites in this game.  Northwestern still remains inconsistent and still relies on young defensive backs learning on the fly.  Ohio State still remains a national championship contender while Northwestern fans will be delighted with a berth in the A1 Refurbished Ball Bearing Bowl, and the Buckeyes' roster is filled with Mr. Footballs and All-Americans and future NFL stars. But this is college football where the inevitable occasionally yields to the jubilantly improbable.


ALPHA SEASON

The Bulls season is on the horizon after a complete rebuild of the team.  Gar Forman and John Paxson built the team using the vaunted Guys You've Heard Of blueprint to bring in a hobbling Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, whose basketball career has devolved into something like the TV show Kung Fu except he wanders the Earth seeking assists and moves on after he's alienated everyone on the team.  It should be remarkably entertaining because it has been designed for disaster perfectly, like the first part of the monster movie.

A million basketblogging Goldblums simultaneously uh um huh hey
the Three Alphas problem and next thing you know, Hoiberg is running for 
his life through a United Center kitchen and complaining about minutes 
and touches

Rondo nicknamed himself, Wade, and Bulls star Jimmy Butler the Three Alphas, and I can't think of a better nickname for the inevitable way this team will collapse upon itself.  It's poetic.  It's a Greek Tragedy.  There hasn't been a better nickname-as-mechanism for destruction since some jabroni swingman would call himself the Jordan Stopper and then get violently dunked upon and tongue-wagged and probably forced to endure some other heretofore unknown form of insane Jordan vengeance like him hiring a team of evil psychologists to disguise themselves as sports therapists and convince the erstwhile Jordan Stopper to unearth some memory of a childhood fear like of clowns or bats or clown-bats and then break into his house as a clown-bat and then use that moment of terror to hustle him at some exotic, illegal except in international waters gambling game.

Jordan Stopper Gerald Wilkins was last seen 
cleaned out on a cruise ship in a complex card game 
called Purser's Rummy

The team's strong-willed personalities combined with a coach who seems like he calls people a "grumpy gus" are not the only problems with the Bulls.  Their style of play remains completely and utterly mystifying.  While the NBA's successful teams trend towards utilizing space and shooting, the Bulls have three ball-dominant guards who like to slash to the basket or, in the case of Rondo, refuse to shoot without a resolution from the UN Security Council.  The Bulls plan to play retrograde anti-basketball, where their best hope to stop the other team will be to so aesthetically offend them that they walk off the court in a fit of disbelief, like the likely exaggerated stories of people storming out of the Théâtre des Champs-ÉlysĂ©es at the premier of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.  The Bulls doubled down on this philosophy by trading Tony Snell for Michael Carter-Williams, a long-limbed brick artist.  The Bulls' best shooter will be Doug McDermott, who defends as if he has just been dropped in a Running Man situation and has no idea that Professor Sub Zero is coming after him with a sharpened hockey stick.


(I wrote this all before the Bulls rode an insanely hot-shooting Wade 
against the Boston Celtics and Wade uncorked the meanest non-Garnett 
mug anyone in the NBA has seen and now I'm all in on the Three Alphas)

The Bulls' top players are talented enough to make the playoffs in the abysmal Eastern Conference.  Even if they remain relatively cohesive, even if they aren't sniping at each other through bloggers aligned with each Alphas' camp, even if Fred Hoiberg hasn't been driven back to Iowa into the welcoming arms of seed magnate boosters, even if Rondo hasn't become so toxic that he is being introduced at the United Center in one of those Hannibal Lecter masks, the future of the Bulls is uncertain.  They have a few promising young players, several not particularly promising young players and Butler under contract for the next four years.  The Bulls are not set up to win anything in the near future, but the Three Alphas era should give us some memorably hideous basketball and intrigue from the reliably dysfunctional front office to entertain us through the entire miserable winter.

UPSET SEASON

It's a weekend of upsets as Northwestern attempts to change the season from delightful surprise to shocking West contender.  There's been a lot of work by sports analysts to take the guesswork out of sports as analytics has moved from the basement to million-dollar front offices.  But unpredictability remains the bedrock of sports-- I'm sure every stat in the universe has Northwestern getting drawn and quartered by the Buckeyes, but who knows? Maybe they can pull off a ridiculous upset.  It's not the only improbable Chicago sports scenario.  Maybe the Three Alphas can get past their bizarre, retrograde basketball stylings and fight through the front office meddling to become a factor in the East.  And maybe the Cubs can somehow pull off an upset against the larger forces of the universe and win a World Series how am I typing this sentence.