Friday, November 18, 2011


The Wildcats took care of business against Rice last weekend and head into a crucial showdown with Minnesota for bowl eligibility at Ryan Field on Saturday. The Wildcat defense contained Rice, the offense rolled as Persa connected with Ebert for a 90 yard score, and Northwestern managed to win a game it was supposed to win without causing spectators any undue heart palpitations.

A Northwestern fan prepares for a game
against a plucky non-conference opponent

The seemingly-revitalized Wildcat defense held Rice scoreless for most of the game. Their resolve will be tested against Minnesota, who gamely stepped into Northwestern's traditional role of upsetting Iowa, and retained possession of their hideous pig-trophy. The Gophers also hung in against Michigan State, but fell apart against a Wisconsin team that decided that the best way to avoid losing on a fluky hail mary was to completely annihilate their opponent. Minnesota QB Marqueis Gray has battled through injuries this season as well as some seemingly inexplicable benchings in favor of his freshman colleague Max Shortell, but looks to be at full strength against Northwestern.

The Wildcats are favored this weekend, but beating Minnesota has rarely been easy, even as their program has veered comically off the rails since the end of the Glen Mason era. The 'Cats suffered a defeat to the Gophers in 2009, and have found victory by the narrowest of margins; they squeaked by last year and in 2007 by a single point, and needed a near walk-off interception return in order to secure victory in 2008. No one on either side is taking anyone for granted.

Minnesota's first-year head coach Jerry
Kill relies on the ancient motivational art
of bellowing to ensure excellence from his


The Chicago Bears have been surprisingly decent. Like last year, the Bears spent the early season on a quest to punish quarterback Jay Cutler by subjecting him to an unending series of sackings. And again like last year, the offensive line has found some semblance of cohesion and Mike Martz has either been convinced or cajoled at the point of a bayonet into calling more rushing plays and short passes in his Greatest Show on Sludge offensive attack. In short, we've seen the Bears return to winning in spite of themselves with good defense, a great running back, and phenomenal special teams.

For most of their existence, the Bears have had the same identity, and it is amazing how, no matter what players or coaches end up on the team, the Bears remain the Bears. My favorite Bears season was probably the 2001 season, where a mediocre Bears team careened into the playoffs thanks to two consecutive Mike Brown overtime interceptions. The most Bears victory of all time, however, probably was this 2004 game against the Tennessee Titans. Chicago quarterback Craig Krenzel passed for 116 yards and two interceptions, and the Bears scored in regulation on an interception return by defensive end Michael Haynes, an R.W. McQuarters punt return, and a field goal. They won in overtime with a safety.

Announcers enjoyed reminding viewers that Krenzel
majored in molecular genetics at Ohio State. In this photo,
a number of Dallas Cowboys science enthusiasts happily
indulge his wish to get a closer look at Cowboys Stadium
grass ecosystem

Last Saturday's game against the Lions was another classic Bears win, as they scored touchdowns on two interception returns, a Devin Hester punt return, and a Forte run set up by a Detroit fumble. The game was also notable for a comical brawl ignited by a Matt Stafford tackle on an interception return, which emptied both benches.

The Lions are lucky that Martz coaches from the
press box and is not allowed to bring his
gladiatorial implements to Soldier Field

Though the Bears are unlikely to win the North unless Aaron Rodgers decides to spite Packer fans by inexplicably retiring mid-season, purchasing a large tract of land in Mississippi, and contentedly drive a lawn mower around its premises for several months, they remain in the mix for a Wild Card berth.


Theo Epstein has emerged from his Wrigleyville lair to proclaim that Dale Sveum will be the Cubs' new manager. He will replace Mike Quade, who lost favor with the organization because he refused to intimidate the opposition with an array of false eyebrows patterned on historical figures.

Quade models the "Eyebrows of Yalta" collection

The exact impact that a manager has on a baseball team is not completely certain. Unlike football head coaches, who spend a week devising their team's overall strategy, or basketball head coaches who expertly use timeouts to slow the last minute of a close game to a crawl and contort comically along the bench for our amusement, baseball managers affect a game mainly through setting lineups, devising pitching changes, foolishly calling for bunts despite concrete evidence that sacrificing outs is more often than not detrimental to a team, and occasionally berating umpires in a manner that compromises the dignity of everyone involved. It seems in the modern game, the manager's job largely involves controlling the clubhouse and eating shit from the media, especially in Chicago, where pundits blast managers for not leading their teams to play better. On a team bereft of major league talent like the Cubs, this means that the media expects the managers to emit baseball improvement rays in order to force his players to hit and field better.

I don't know anything about Sveum. I'm working on making sure I pronounce his name correctly so I can most accurately hurl epithets at my television when he does something order a hit and run with Alfonso Soriano batting or call Jeff Samardzija to pitch, or any of the million other minor decisions a manager will make during the course of the endless season as the Cubs inevitably sputter through a rebuilding year. I mostly know him as the third base coach of the Red Sox who was often criticized for his ambition in sending runners home.

Sveum (l) performs the vital third base coach role of congratulating a player
hitting a home run. Reed Sox fans' venom for the occasional out at the plate
was matched at the time for Cubs fans' consternation with then-third base
coach Wendell Kim. Kim earned two derogatory nicknames: "Wavin' Wendell"
and "Send 'em in Kim"

Sveum joins a long line of Cubs managers dating back to Albert Spalding in in 1876. The position of manager was in flux in the nineteenth and early twentieth century with managers who were either active players or retired players more akin to modern managers. The Cubs' nineteenth and early twentieth-century squads used a mixture of player-managers such as Cap Anson, Frank Chance, Silver Flint, and the dashing Bob Ferguson, who had not only one of the most swashbuckling middle names in baseball history (Vavasour), but also one of its best nicknames ("Death to Flying Things"). In the years between Anson and Chance, Cubs managers did not play, but directed their teams from the bench, content to spit, smoke, and encourage their players' general baseballmanship.

Cubs managers from 1878-1905 (clockwise from top left) Bob
Ferguson, Cap Anson, Silver Flint, Tom Burns, Tom Loftus,
and Frank Selee. The clean-shaven Frank Chance took over in
1905, shattering baseball's mustache ceiling


Northwestern has looked greatly improved on defense the last two weeks and will be looking to prove that their defense is not merely the result of an inadequate Nebraska coaching scheme and playing Rice. Otherwise, they will have to rely on a traditional Northwestern game plan to outscore the opposition. Minnesota fans certainly see this as a winnable game for their reeling squad after a slate of disappointing early losses.

A win here puts the Wildcats into technical bowl eligibility. Unfortunately, with the rest of the Big Ten likely to fill its berths, the 'Cats will need some teams on the precipice of eligibility to fall apart and hope that the bowl fatcats come a-callin' with their wads of cash, their silver topped canes, and their promises to do their stadium up all pretty. Otherwise, the Wildcats will be ineffectually waiting by the phone in the cold before challenging the University of Chicago to some sort of Quiz Bowl in order to satisfy bowl-starved Northwestern students and alumni. Yet all of this prognostication is for naught without a win against the plucky Gophers and perhaps even an upset against Michigan State to ensure a place at some miserable bowl and turn fans' frowns upside down.

1 comment:

Powers said...

Death to Flying Things is the best nickname in human history, and in the top 7 for best collection of words.