Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bowl Eligible

Northwestern defeated Minnesota in a tense LEGENDS DIVISION showdown with Minnesota, smashing the six win barrier, and securing a golden ticket that can potentially lead to a phenomenally crappy bowl game in the desolate outer reaches of the bowl landscape.

Far-flung Bowl officials were on hand to scout Northwestern in
their 28-13 victory over the Golden Gophers

But six wins is not enough to guarantee a bowl berth, especially in the topsy-turvy mediocrity of the Big Ten this season. At six wins, the 'Cats can be left out in the cold. In 2004, the Wildcats' 6-6 record was not enough for them to get to a bowl game after faltering against Timmy Chang's Hawaiian Juggernaut. This year, it seems the football team can still squeak their way to the type of bowl game mocked by people inexplicably angered by the presence of more college football, but nothing is certain.

Northwestern got to their sixth win thanks to a seemingly improving defense. Minnesota effectively moved the ball, but had trouble scoring-- one threat was neutralized by a Brian Peters interception despite the fact that his broken left hand is swaddled in a club cast reminiscent of the tail end of an anklyosaurus.

The stopping power of an ankylosaurus is accurately modeled
in this scholarly comic from something called


The discovery of dinosaur bones in the nineteenth century led to a predictable amount of scientific intrigue, back-biting, and accusation that occurs in the volatile confluence of a nascent scientific discipline, rough exploration, and Cretaceous grave-robbing. The enmity between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh has been well chronicled (most entertainingly in Bill Bryson's wonderful A Short History of Nearly Everything) as a reliable source of comical dinosaur rivalry, as their competition to extract and identify dinosaur species fueled an incredible advancement of both dinosaur knowledge and academic pettiness.

The relationship between Cope and Marsh contained spectacular examples of skullduggery in the name of science. Marsh outclassed his rival at dinosaur-based espionage. At an early collaboration in New Jersey in the 1860s, Marsh apparently stabbed Cope in the back by bribing site workers to send fossils only to him. A Cope expedition in the 1870s included two men in Marsh's employ; one of them apparently claimed that he planned to lead Cope away from fossil sites in a classic act of dinosaur perfidy. Marsh, however, suffered a reversal of fortune when one of his men sent some fossils to Cope.

Dino-rivals Cope (l) and Marsh. Marsh is the bearded man in the top center of
the photo at right, shown with his phalanx of armed assistants no doubt
wielding rifles should they meet a rival fossil-collecting gang or should they
dig deep enough to uncover less deceased dinosaurs

The two sniped at each other in newspapers and scholarly journals, disagreeing over taxonomy and other scientific concerns. Throughout the 1870s, they struggled to keep major fossil finds from each other, going as far as using hush money, accepting tips from pseudonymous fossil hunters, and keeping tabs on each others' fossil collecting henchmen. This secrecy was encouraged by their increasing reluctance to travel to fossil sites themselves, instead funding teams of mercenary diggers and "dinosaur rustlers" that attempted to steal fossils from rival camps. I like to imagine that they also sent telegrams to each other gloating over their ruthless thefts, threatening each other, and using the word "bones" as often as possible such as "When you awaken tomorrow, you will find that it is I who controls the greatest sum of bones," or "I shall never forgive this treacherous act of bone-thieving and you should hope that you do not live to see how I avenge my bones," or ""I won't sue you, for the law is too slow. I will break your bones. A bone for a bone, that is how I account for my bones."

An 1896 Marsh illustration of a Stegosaurus that in the best of
possible worlds would have been mailed to Cope with the phrase
"Feast your eyes upon these glorious bones" scrawled triumphantly

Marsh held the upper hand throughout the 1870s and 1880s. He ascended to the presidency of the National Academy of Sciences in 1883 and secured a position with the U.S. geological survey. Cope struck back when he began attacking Marsh and John Wesley Powell, the head of the Survey. The rivalry continued to their death, when Cope ordered his skull preserved and measured against Marsh's in order to prove that he literally had the largest brain. Marsh did not accept this phrenological challenge. Their legacy lives on, however, in my new publication called The Smallest Stakes: A Journal of Comical Academic Arguments featuring articles such as "I'm laughing at your use of the term 'trope': a catalog of my colleagues' bumbling ontology, 1991-present," and "I am bringing my burliest graduate students to our next conference."


Not only has Northwestern attained bowl eligibility, but the brave Wildcat basketball team has managed to win a pre-season basketball tourney of dubious prestige. Northwestern avenged an NIT loss against Tulsa, beat LSU, and downed Seton Hall in the championship game to win the Charleston Classic.

The Wildcats, resplendent in their new uniforms, jubilantly
hoist the hardware

The tournament win augers well for a veteran team. They will struggle to fill the shoes of Northwestern basketball legend Juice Thompson. John Shurna will attempt to lead the 'Cats to the promised land with a familiar cast of characters such as tournament MVP Drew Crawford, Alex Marcotullio, JerShon Cobb, and the unstoppable lumbering of Luka Mirkovic. Northwestern also returns last years successful formula of a high-scoring variant of the Princeton Offense and the disruptive 1-3-1 zone defense. The team is 4-0 after the tournament and a win over inexplicable perennial season-opener Texas Pan-American with whom the Wildcats must have some sort of intense bone feud.


The Chicago Bears collected another convincing win against San Diego last week. But they also lost Jay Cutler for the season, just as he began engineering an effective passing game fueled by his cannon arm and elusive mobility honed by running for his life. The offense will instead turn to relatively unknown backup Caleb Hanie. The Bears came close to reuniting with Chicago fan favorite Kyle Orton, who seemed poised to ride into town and help the squad Bears their way to victory with his array of acceptable mediocre professional passing after being unceremoniously dumped by a Denver Broncos team enthralled by their 1940s quarterback play.

"ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?" Kyle Orton wins the crowd
with another 6 yard out

Instead, Orton was snapped up by the Kansas City Chiefs through the arcane waiver process that reportedly saw the Dallas Cowboys attempt to claim him specifically to prevent him from helping potential NFC playoff rivals in a move that Jerry Jones learned from the treacherous Cardinal Richelieu. As a final indignity, the Bears signed one of the McCown brothers. Though they can still make the playoffs by thrashing a weak AFC west slate, the odds of seeing Cutler triumphantly return for a Bears playoff game and sulk the squad to victory seem as remote as they did after their early season losses.


Meanwhile, Northwestern's football squad faces off Saturday against a Michigan State team with essentially nothing to play for. This is an unexpected result given the apparent reluctance for any team to win the Big Ten this year, suggesting that the divisions should have been named Chaos and Entropy (in all seriousness, that would still be less dumb than Legends and Leaders). Instead, the new Big Ten Championship game has unexpectedly taken the drama out of the last week of the season. The Spartans have already clinched a spot in the game and are unlikely to position themselves for a BCS spot unless they win the inaugural Big Ten Championship game. State, therefore, has little to gain by beating Northwestern. Mark Dantonio claims the Spartans will go all out to win, though it would be surprising to see him risking injury to some of his more important or most battered players.

For Northwestern, a victory guarantees an elusive bowl spot and moves them up the rank to a more prestigious game in the vague hierarchy of crappy bowls. They'll also be playing an emotional last home game for the seniors and attempt to wipe away the disastrous five game losing streak with a five triumphant victories, a point that Fitz will not publicly make, although I suspect he feeds his monotonous "one game at a time" nonsense to the press while secretly filling his players' heads with odes to their greatness and portraits of himself leading them to glory across the Alps while perched on an elephant that is stomping rival Big Ten mascots like so much Alp detritus.


Northwestern's program has entered another spectacular year with a bowl eligible football team and a Charleston Champion basketball squad. For some other programs, these accomplishments are risible but given the historical performance of both teams, these are titanic victories. Northwestern can make this a historical year by winning a bowl game and (dare I dream it) making the NCAA tournament on the back of Shurna's deadly chest heave. There is nothing to stop them, accept for jealous rivals who attack them in academic journals of sporting success and try to get their hands on their precious bones.

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