Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bowl Game Part V

It's nearly 2013, which means that Northwestern fans have an opportunity to recover from their New Years' revels, roll out of bed, scrape the vomit from their hair and clothing and extremities, and watch the Wildcats take on Mississippi State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl.

This year's postseason had less intrigue than other mid-tier bowl selections.  This is a shame, because I really enjoy baselessly speculating about the machinations of bowl executives planning the football team's fate in a walnut-lined state room where national bowl representatives and corporate sponsors meet to wheel, deal, and bet on brutal animal-baiting tournaments away from the prying eyes of polite society. 

Bowl officials take a break after a grueling morning filibuster from the Beef 
O'Brady's people before a leisurely afternoon picking the Belk Bowl matchups 
and then hunting the ultimate prey: man

Every year, someone will mock the proliferation of crappy bowl games, bemoaning their necessity, mocking their increasingly ridiculous corporate affiliations, and deriding them as all but meaningless in the standings.  These are ridiculous accusations.  Bowl games are more college football and allow you to turn on your television at 4:30 on a weekday and be pleasantly surprised by a game that usually includes one potential Future Big Ten team.  Corporate names will serve as a useful footnote in history books that want to explain how a goofy-looking puppet served as the business plan of several late-90s internet enterprises that were rich enough to purchase naming rights to a crappy bowl game.  And no fan base in the history of crappy, also-ran bowl games wants to win the Gator Bowl this year as much as fans of Northwestern.

The 2012 football season has seen the Big Ten devolve into a joke, its best team undone by the promise of free tattoos,  its reverse Manifest Destiny expansion eastwards into an ever-bigger Ten, its school-grabbing setting off another wave of conference realignment.  None of this matters to Northwestern, losers of nine bowl games since 1949.  While this season has been a pleasant surprise, a bowl win could topple the last barrier standing between Northwestern's awful football history and current football decentness.

NOW WE HAVE A TOP HAT HO HO HO

The last game of the 2012 season was more than an intrastate struggle between a surging Northwestern team and an Illini team down on its luck.  It was a reckoning.  The Illini had been in possession of the Hat for two unbearable years.  Northwestern fans suffering from a nervous disorder commonly referred to as "hat fever" screamed about hats in their sleep, removed all hats from orange-wearing persons in their vicinity, and even constructed crude hats out of paper in order to cope.

Those affected with hat fever may take solace in scholarly Lincoln research or by 
covering their walls in homemade Lincoln paraphernalia, such as the Lincoln 
constructed by University President Morton Schapiro

In the first half, the Illini startled the Wildcats by moving the ball with ease.  It seemed as though Tim Beckman's anti-Northwestern saber-rattling had lit a fire under them, and that is not a mixed metaphor because I am implying that the saber could be rattled against a stone, creating a spark that could ignite some kindling beneath the Illinois players, which is a very common motivational tactic at the highest levels of competitive football.  Northwestern fans braced for another harrowing game coming down to the final seconds.

That did not happen.  The game got out of hand in the second half.  Illini drives stalled and extended Northwestern possessions with penalties, including two on Coach Beckman himself for sideline interference.  The video of one of the penalties involved the official chasing the play along the sideline, running over Beckman, and, without a moment's hesitation, throwing a flag down on his prone body to add insult to injury.  That may not even be the strangest Beckman sideline moment this season; he was reprimanded by the NCAA earlier for surreptitiously dippin'.  I don't blame Beckman for that.  College football coaching is a stressful job, and coaches should be free able to use all of the smokes, chaw, snuff, and opium products they desire during the course of a football game besides their traditional recourse to ass-slapping and screaming at someone without the slightest modicum of human dignity.

No one should be allowed to get this angry without having immediate access to 
chewable barbiturates or a horde of hearty fellows sworn to medieval vengeance 
upon an unsavory duke

The 50-14 rout was one of the most lopsided wins in Northwestern history against a Big Ten foe.  By the end, Fitzgerald seemed more concerned that all of the seniors got a chance to play, even if that meant putting Bo Cisek in at running back to achieve some measure of Ditkaness.  The big win was enough to put Northwestern back into the polls at #20.  More importantly, it meant that The Hat has returned to its home in Evanston, where it will hopefully remain as Beckman fumes and comes up with more ways to comically denigrate Northwestern football.

Here's something to denigrate: somebody give me the name of the person 
responsible for making a hat trophy attached to a base, denying all of us in 
attendance the opportunity to see various Northwestern players parading around 
Ryan Field while wearing the trophy as a hat while haranguing anyone in the 
Illinois football organization named Douglas

OFFICIAL BYCTOM BOWL PREVIEW

Mississippi State, like Northwestern, started the season on a tear.  They began 7-0 before the realities of life in the SEC West led them into a brutal three game stretch against Alabama, LSU, and the Johnny Football Men.  They managed only one more win the rest of the season, against a reeling Arkansas team in its death throes of the John L. Smith era.  Nevertheless, the Bulldogs, like every Northwestern opponent in the history of Northwestern football, see the Gator Bowl as a winnable game and a way to end their season on a high note.

The Bulldogs boast two of the top cornerbacks in the country in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay.  Between the involvement of Taxslayer.com and Darius Slay, this will be the slayingest bowl game in the country, especially if Slayer can play the halftime show that consists of them acting out the dozens of crappy movies and TV episodes entitled "Slay Ride."

Slayer members have the choice to act out a T.J. Hooker episode described 
on IMBD as: "Stacy realizes a couple who foiled a drug raid are a team of 
robbers" or a Kojak episode with a plot summary that contains the sentence 
"Discovering that a young Army wife had fallen from a roof at an earlier 
convention (which they had attended) leads Kojak to her call girl sister."

Fortunately for Northwestern, the Wildcats no longer throw the ball, so Slay and Banks will be spending most of their time trying to tackle Mark or Colter.  The Bulldogs do have a terrifying wide receiver in Chad Bumphis, and, while the 'Cats have shown some improvement in pass defense, they are still vulnerable to the big play.  Mississippi State is less terrifying on the ground, where it averages about 140 yards per game, good for 88th in the country.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that Northwestern's best chance for a victory will involve stymieing Bumphis and successfully keeping it on the ground and away from their rapacious defensive backs.  But because this is Northwestern, I predict that the best way to win this game is to go out to a significant first half lead, collapse entirely in the second half, and allow the Bulldogs to get within 45 seconds of winning the game but hope that the final hail mary falls three centimeters short of Bumphis's grasp in the endzone as unconscious Wildcat fans plummet down the stairwells at EverBank field because their nervous systems can no longer bear the strain except for the fat-cat alumni who have had fainting couches installed in their private skyboxes.

AND I AIN'T GOT A DURN THING AGAINST PA

Northwestern may not be playing a bowl game in the state of Texas, but that does not make the early twentieth century reign of the Fergusons any less fascinating, as described in Randolph Campbell's Gone to Texas and James L. Haley's Passionate Nation.  In 1914, an obscure banker named James E.Ferguson came, essentially, out of nowhere during the Democratic gubernatorial primary.   Like many Southern states, Texas was governed by one party.  The fractious Democratic Primary in most elections determined the winner of the election, and was therefore more spirited and hard-fought than the general election. 

The major issue in 1914 was prohibition, and Ferguson's opponent, Thomas Ball, was an ardent prohibitionist.  Ball, however, belonged to a country club that served drink, and, while he claimed he did not imbibe, his membership created a clear "I did not inhale" situation in 1914 Texas terms.  Ferguson ignored prohibition and declared that he would treat any legislation for or against prohibition the same folksy way: "I will strike it where the chicken got the axe," he proclaimed, although the historical record is less clear about whether or not he hooked his thumbs into his suspenders.

Ferguson was a populist candidate, and "Farmer Jim" ran on a platform promising rent relief to tenant farmers.  He was an expert at hurling invective at his opposition, mustering every Southern blowhard trick in the book to go after Ball.  When President Woodrow Wilson endorsed Ball, Ferguson portrayed it as Yankee meddling, invoking the "sacred principles for which the gallant Confederate soldiers fought and bled on so many Southern battlefields," which is the rhetorical equivalent of dressing as a giant thumb and hooking yourself to a 30-foot wall-mounted suspender.  He won the nomination and the general election.
 
Texas Governor James E. "Farmer Jim" "Pa" Ferguson 
grafted his hands onto state monies as effectively as 
he cultivated home-spun nicknames

Ferguson's first term had some successes.  He passed a bill to lower and fix tenant rents for farmers (although it was eventually ruled unconstitutional), formed a state highway commission, and passed a bill for compulsory education.  Soon, he began interfering with school administration, high-handedly ousting the president of Prairie View Normal and Industrial College.  Edward Blackshear had drawn the ire of Ferguson as a supporter of Ball and as an African American academic whose rise to prominence contrasted with Ferguson's virulent white supremacy.  Ferguson then turned to the University of Texas.  He threw his weight around, attempted to remove the president, demanded the firing of several faculty members whom he believed had crossed him, and signed an official proclamation demanding the trustees present him with their lunch money at the capitol every afternoon. 

The fight with the university made him powerful enemies, who quickly latched onto allegations of corruption.  Ferguson moved more than a hundred thousand dollars worth of state funds into his own private accounts and mysterious loans of dubious origin floated into his coffers.  He was indicted, impeached, and convicted of fraud and embezzlement and barred from state office.  But a simple conviction of fraud would not keep Ferguson out of politics.

In 1924, Miriam A. Ferguson appeared on the ballot.  James Ferguson had opposed women's suffrage; now his wife ran for governor with the thinly-veiled understanding that newly-dubbed "Ma" Ferguson came as a package with "Pa."  Running under the slogan "Me for Ma, and I ain't got a durn thing against Pa," the Fergusons swept back into power on a platform opposing the rising influence of the Ku Klux Klan.  Miriam Ferguson became the first woman elected as a state governor, but "Pa" clearly pulled the strings.  The impeachment and conviction had not slowed down Fergusons' gleeful corruption; they began selling pardons to anyone willing to pay the vastly inflated price of Ferguson livestock and meted out state contracts to those willing to pay for expensive advertising space in their newspaper. 

The Fergusons on the campaign trail striking a blow for equal rights 
for women in terms of graft and state-wide corruption

A reformer swept out the Fergusons in the next term, but they reappeared during the Depression.  Ma Ferguson returned to Austin in 1932, just in time for them to control the distribution of New Deal federal relief funds.  The Fergusons throughout remained dedicated to their principles of lining their pockets, attacking people with pointed folksiness, and, disparaging academics as "mutton headed."

LET US FINALLY WIN A BOWL GAME FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING

The Wildcats have had a surprisingly successful season mixed with gut-wrenching disappointment and ulcer-forming excitement.  These are also ways to describe Northwestern's bowl appearances, as they have continued to come up just short for several frustrating years.  This year, the 'Cats seem primed for another close game against an evenly-matched squad.  They will almost certainly try to kill you, me, and our friends and loved ones because that is how Northwestern plays football this year except against Illinois and FCS teams.  There's nothing more to be written that has not already been written or personified in plush monkey toy form about the unfortunate bowl victory drought of more than 60 years.  Many fans may not care whether or not their team wins their crappy bowl game.  I intend to celebrate the only way I know how: by renting a gigantic alligator costume with a GATOR BOWL CHAMPION sash and crown and proclaim myself King of the Alligators on the steps of City Hall.    

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Stovepipe Showdown

It took all season, but Northwestern finally encountered a team more practiced in the art of the fourth-quarter fade.  Michigan State and Northwestern played a fraught battle, with both teams desperately keeping the jaws of victory at bay until finally the Spartans gave into their self-destructive tendencies and allowed Northwestern to hang on for their eighth win of the season.
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The Wildcats won the Heston Bowl to determine which fanbase would 
end up walking out of the stadium cackling with demented incredulity

Ibrahim Campbell had a phenomenal game, as he was seemingly around every big play on defense.  Freshman Superback Dan Vitale rumbled around, over, and through hapless defenders.  Michigan State had the opportunity to tie, but came up short.  I can't imagine that most State fans even flinched.  Their team has lost every possible break, been victimized by every questionable call (including a generous pass interference that helped the 'Cats seal the game), and watched week in and week out as the lead has slipped from their grasp.  Now, they have to go to Minnesota to try to qualify for some bowl that no one wants to go to.   To call the Spartans snake-bitten at this point is a gross understatement; their football team has been bitten, swallowed, and partially digested by the type of snake that stalks Ice Cube or battles a fake-looking computer generated octopus for what we can assume is some reason.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats turn to a far graver matter than tying their best record of Pat Fitzgerald's tenure and improving their bowl position.  The Illini are coming bearing the Hat and now is the time to demand its return to rightful place on all of our metaphorical heads.

HAT WEEK IS UPON US

When Tim Beckman took the job at Illinois, he made a point to stoke the flames of college football's least intense rivalry.  "You'll never see me wearing purple," Beckman said, throttling a plush Willie the Wildcat doll.  He claimed that he would only refer to Northwestern as "that school up north," baffling his players who gathered and brainstormed dozens of Big Ten, MAC, FCS, and Canadian schools before remembering that Northwestern existed.  With the exception of the time that Northwestern lost more than thirty conesecutive games and cemented its place as the worst major-conference program in the history of college football and then the fans tore down the goalposts in mock celebration, Tim Beckman's War on Northwestern is the funniest thing that has ever happened to Northwestern football.

I have no idea how to react to Beckman.  Apparently no one told him how the Big Ten works.  Teams generally deign to play Northwestern and assume an automatic win.  Most fans  condescendingly cheer for the Wildcats in good years like you would for a toddler that has managed to successfully remain quiet for upwards of 15 minutes.  Northwestern has been more good than bad for the past dozen years, but no team other than the conference's most wretched programs expects to lose to them.  Every October road game is Homecoming, as Northwestern is inevitably trotted out like a Carl Denham ape show for win-starved alumni. 

Denham expected to make millions with his best-selling Broadway revue
entitled "Take a Look at This Gigantic Ape, People"

Do any Illini fans actually care about beating Northwestern more than Michigan or Ohio State or Wisconsin?  Do any Illini fans sit around talking about their program's big wins over Northwestern?  Will any Illini fan take any solace in a win on Saturday to salvage their miserable season because it was against the Wildcats and not Indiana or Purdue or Minnesota?  Would any deranged Illini fan attempt to destroy The Rock with rock poison and then call into a Big Ten radio show to confess to his deeds because he is so inflamed with hatred for Northwestern and also using football as an outlet to explore the darkest realms of his psyche?

GIVE US OUR HAT BACK, BECK MAN

Despite the Illini's rather disastrous attempts at playing Big Ten football, Pat Fitzgerald is not taking the game lightly.  Do you think that Fitz mentioned throwing records out for the rivalry game?  “You can throw the records out,” Fitzgerald said to the surprise of no one. “You can throw everything out when you get into rivalry games."  He then unleashed a fleet of dump trucks that carted off every desk, chair, Bednarik trophy, paperclip, and inspirational fist-pumping manual from the Athletic Office and began attempting to locate the nearest cliff.

This space reserved for hat

For those of you not up on your American history, the hat trophy comes from an obscure American hat enthusiast named Abraham Lincoln, whose life is finally being brought to the attention of the American people through a major motion picture.  Lincoln, who won the presidency based on his length, wingspan, and executive upside, battled a brief period of unpopularity in the South.  The Hat is the third iteration of the Northwestern-Illinois rivalry trophy, and the first that has to do with presidential rather than stereotypical Native American iconography.  It is a good thing that Lincoln came from Illinois and not some shitty president.  Imagine if the two programs battled for Chester A. Arthur's muttonchops, William Henry Harrison's overcoat, or Franklin Pierce's bo staff.

Pierce defeated Winfield Scott in the 1852 presidential election, somehow pulling together a 
campaign that was able to beat a man nicknamed "Old Fuss and Feathers."  Pierce's campaign 
team put together the winning slogan "We pierced you in 1848, we shall Pierce you in 1852"
because nineteenth-century voters In 1856, Congress abolished the Giant Bird Race as a cornerstone 
of national election campaigns.  

Beckman faces a tough test in his rookie Hat Week.  Pat Fitzgerald has had several years to hone his inspirational Lincoln quotes and to pace the locker room in full nineteenth-century regalia to fire up the 'Cats.  Beckman may find Ron Zook's fake beard in a utility closet.  I am, of course, assuming that both football coaches conduct their pre-game rituals while dressed as Abraham Lincoln, because otherwise what is the point?  I normally don't condone fan movements to fire a coach, but if Beckman is not taunting the Wildcat sideline by wearing a novelty stovepipe hat for the duration of the game, he deserves to have someone register firehatlesstimebeckman.com, because that is unforgivable.

Meanwhile, in Evanston, this game is about more than just a hat: it is about revenge.  The Illini ran over the Wildcats in Wrigley Field.  Then, last year, vowel-hoarding quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and receiver A.J. Jenkins lit up the Northwestern secondary en route to a gut-wrenching comeback win.  After beating Indiana, they then lost every single game on their schedule except for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.  The Hat has not been in Evanston for two long years, years that Pat Fitzgerald has spent plotting an elaborate scheme of revenge so complex and diabolical that it defies description-- it involves look-alikes, the heir to the throne of Monaco, a carriage swap on the banks of the Elba, and an elaborate cipher that can be solved only by manipulating a suit of armor at the Art Institute to mimic a fist-pump, but largely it involves scoring at least one more point than the fighting Illini in Saturday's football game.

CLOSING THE SEASON

I began the season with modest expectations.  Instead, the Wildcats are 8-3, poised to go to a bowl game, and arguably something like nine combined minutes from an undefeated season and a berth in the Big Ten Championship game.  Though the losses have been the result of disappointing come-backs, the Wildcats have been good enough to win every game on their schedule.  This season has seen the return of the running game led by Venric Mark and Kain Colter, and defensive standouts Chi Chi Ariguzo, Ibrahim Campbell, Tyler Scott, and David Nwabusie. 

There is still one thing missing, though, and that is The Hat.  Each win has been gratifying this season, but none has come with a ridiculous trophy and bragging rights in a comically tepid rivalry.  Nothing is more gratifying than an Illini coach who seems determined to imbue this rivalry with an actual amount of football hate and so BYCTOM salutes you, Tim Beckman, for burning your purple clothes with the zeal of Professor Plum hastily destroying the evidence, for denigrating Northwestern by replacing its name with a ludicrous directional euphemism, for hanging a "No Northwestern" sign in the Illini locker room, for desperately trying to make something out of this game other than a precious hat mounted to a base.  And in the spirit of this renewed rivalry, I hope the Wildcats run the Illini out of the stadium and down I-57, with no win, no hat, and embittered to demand vengeance for next year and for all eternity.

Friday, November 16, 2012

There are No Fists Pumping in Mudvanston

Good gravy, it happened again.  Northwestern fans had already steeled ourselves for the inevitable fourth-quarter comeback; those are old hat by now, and we face them with the steely resolve of a circus freak show man preparing to receive an cannonball to the solar plexus or the late Crocodile Hunter riling up a poisonous reptile and letting it lunge its fangs near his unprotected khaki crotch.
Another day at the office for Frank "Cannonball" Richards.  According to his 
Wikipedia page, "Richards began by letting people (including heavyweight 
champion Jack Dempsey) punch him in the gut. He then progressed to letting 
people jump on his belly, being struck by a two-by-four, being struck by a 
sledgehammer, and finally being shot by a 104-lb. (47 kg) cannonball from a 
spring-loaded 12 ft. (4 m) cannon," and then presumably finished the day by 
watching Northwestern try to hold a lead in the fourth quarter.

All Northwestern had to do to walk out of the Enormous House with a rare victory was to hold on for less than 20 seconds and prevent the ball from floating 30 yards in the air, getting batted by the defender, and having Roy Roundtree somehow pluck it out of the air with one hand while falling to the turf.  College football is an engine of cruelty.

THE RAMIFICATIONS OF A LOSS

Another close loss means for agony for Northwestern fans, who have witnessed the third frustrating collapse of the season.  The sour ending overshadowed a stellar offensive performance against a tough defense.  The offensive line opened holes for Mark, Colter zipped around befuddled Michigan defenders who actually expected him to occasionally pass, and Siemian came in led an impressive drive at the end of the half.  Even Demetrius Dugar, who had a tough game, managed to redeem himself with a crucial late-game interception.

What does the loss mean?  The Wildcats were unlikely to compete for the divisional crown; that dream died as Penn State and Nebraska receivers skipped merrily along through the Northwestern secondary in the dreaded fourth quarter.  It affects what bowl they go to, although one Pizza City is as good as another in my book, and the 'Cats will still be at the mercy of rapacious and unaccountable bowl representatives who tend to favor teams with more than four dozen alumni.  The most tragic circumstance of the defeat was missing the opportunity to ruin the afternoon for a large number of Michigan fans, which is one of the most noble goals for Big Ten Teams to aspire to.

The lack of stakes salves the sting a bit.  A Northwestern fan for the past dozen years has already seen the Wildcats lose a shot at the Rose Bowl in a barren Iowan hellscape, miss a bowl game after inciting the rage of Timmy Chang by throwing him at a sideline bench, miss the NCAA basketball tournament in the most heart-rending way possible, and literally every single thing that has happened to Northwestern in a bowl game since the dawning of the new millennium.  This includes two overtime losses, allowing Bowling Green to come back, and surrendering a 22-0 first-quarter lead which also included giving up two onside kick returns to the same fucking guy because the whole blowing a 22 point lead thing wasn't enough and it would have been too much for the game to end with 25 laterals or a hastily-added clause to the NCAA rulebook that prevents Northwestern from playing offense or a blimp attack or some sort of disembodied hand rising up from the turf at Sun Bowl Stadium and sacking Brett Basanez then doing some sort of elaborate sack dance with its claws or fingers.
 
The disembodied sacking hand may be similar to the 
one adorning Jim Varney's head in this cinema classic.  
The fact that the DVD cover has a picture of Varney 
dressed as Ernest as the main selling point is probably 
the most entertaining thing about this movie

On the other hand, cheer up, Gloom Beams!  The Northwestern University Wildcat Football team is 7-3, is definitely going to a bowl game, and still has a shot at nine wins.  We still get to watch Colter and Mark run faster than other people while Pat Fitzgerald punches the legions of invisible antagonists that torment him on the sidelines.  Maybe we won't get Brian Griese this week.  Let us talk ourselves off the ledge before getting onto another one as the 'Cats can potentially cling to another shrinking lead against the only team in the Big Ten more committed to destroying the lives of its benighted fanbase.

SPARTY?  YES!

When I saw Northwestern clinging grimly to a lead with 18 seconds left, my mind immediately flashed back to the 2001 Northwestern-Michigan State game, one of the most insane endings to a college football game I've ever seen.  For the sake of those unfamiliar with Northwestern football lore and people google image searching for pictures of Jim Varney in both Ernest and non-Ernest iterations, this is what happened: Northwestern scored a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute to go up four.  With 29 seconds on the clock, Northwestern kicked off, determined to hold off  any last-minute shenanigans from the Spartan offense.  They didn't get the chance.  Herb Haygood housed the kickoff, then went into the stands and punched every Northwestern fan in the gut.  But State got a celebration penalty and the 'Cats blocked the extra point to keep the lead to two.  And with sixteen seconds left, the Wildcats put the ball in the hands of folk legend Zak Kustok.

Kustok, a nine-foot colossus who had come to Northwestern on a chariot pulled by bears, called for the ball.  He took off to the right, setting off minor tremors, then cocked his arm and launched the ball to John Schwiegert, who somehow managed to hold on despite the heat from the friction of a Kustok heave traveling through Earth's atmosphere.  They set up a David Wasielewski field goal, and he nailed it for a 25-24 win. 

The most improbable thing about that game is that the major people involved 
were named Herb Haygood, Zak Kustok, John Schwiegert, and David Wasielewski, 
an unparalleled confluence of Midwestern football names

Michigan State hosts Northwestern in an attempt to salvage the wreckage of its season.  Pundits had picked the Spartans as a Big Ten title contender; they are currently struggling to become bowl eligible.  Like Northwestern, Michigan State seems to have received a grant from the American Heart Institute to try to induce cardiac arrest in anyone who witnesses its grim works.  With the exception of a shellacking at the hands of the Fighting Irish, who are (cringe) undefeated BCS title contenders, the Spartans have lost every game in agonizing fashion by less than 5 points. These include a one-point loss to Ohio State, an overtime loss to the hapless Hawkeyes, and another collapse gifted to probable division champions Nebraska.

Somebody has to win this game.  Northwestern is eager to move past last week's loss and put away a Big Ten opponent.  Michigan State desperately needs a victory to qualify for a humiliating consolation bowl berth in Pizza City, Potato Town, or the Bowl Filled with Bitter Tears.  I predict that the fourth quarter will consist of a series of Alphonse and Gaston-style attempts to give the game to the other team, which will end when the ball is fumbled for 25 consecutive minutes from endzone to endzone with no one able to fall on it during the dying minutes of the 12th overtime period and the fans inside form rival tribes and begin organizing raids on the enemy-controlled popcorn and elephant-ear infrastructure.
 
A simulation of the ending of the Northwestern-Michigan State game

THE IRON DUKE

In 1952, the 18th Duke of Alburquerque achieved his dream of racing in Britain's Grand National Steeplechase.  His horse threw him and he broke a vertebrae.  Undaunted, he saddled up again in 1963, and again fell from his horse.  The Duke endured.  He did not seem to let what was either a criminally inadequate measure of horsemanship or possibly an uncanny ability to communicate hateful insults to horses that caused them to violently toss him from their back from stopping him.  His compatriots called him the "Iron Duke" for his propensity to endure equine injury, which is better than the other Spanish Iron Duke, who earned his nickname by acting like a ruthless Habsburg ogre in the Low Countries during the sixteenth century.  In 1976, the British steeplechase people finally barred him from competition because a bunch of horses trampled him, broke many of his bones, and rendered him comatose.    

The Duke of Alburquerque was an impressive Spanish pedigree.  Numerous Dukes had served as Viceroys of New Spain in the seventeenth century.


This was all a thinly-described excuse to post this picture 
of the Eighth Duke of Alburquerque because that mustache 
is not physically possible.  It may also interest you to 
learn that someone tried to assassinate him with a sword 
because that kind of facial hair increases the risk of 
assassination by swashbuckling by 80%

 WHY DO THEY HAVE TO PLAY IN THAT STUPID GLOVE STATE AGAIN

The Wildcats have to travel to Michigan again for another tough road game.  The Spartans may have drifted from their title hopes, but they still have a dangerous defense and Le'Veon Bell.  They also have nothing to lose.  Northwestern could be their most impressive win since the opener against Boise State.  Northwestern wants to bank another win before the critical showdown to restore The Hat to its rightful scalp.  Both teams are attempting to emulate the Iron Duke by mounting their horses, throwing caution to the wind, and causing their fans grievous internal injuries as they attempt to weather another 60 minutes of Big Ten LEGENDS Division action.  I couldn't possibly be more excited and also I am vomiting internal organs.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Big Ten Update: The Division Names Are Still Risible

Northwestern has gotten to 7-2 on the year with a convincing victory over Iowa.  The win was never in doubt, or at least it was in slightly less doubt than usual, as the Hawkeyes ran out of time to overcome the Wildcats.  The 'Cats are still in contention for the divisional title, although Nebraska is driving the LEGENDS DIVISION bus.

This week, the Wildcats must go to the Big House to face a Michigan team equally determined to grab a berth to Indianapolis.  Northwestern has a chance to prove that it can finish a big game and live up to its #24 ranking, climb up that arbitrary bowl rank ladder, and, most importantly, ruin a Michigan home game. There are stakes!

They may take our ranking, they may take our path to the Big Ten 
Championship Game, but they will never take our CERTAIN BERTH IN A 
MID-TIER BOWL GAAAAAAAMMMMMME

With bowl-eligibility secured, with the Big Ten reduced to a pitiable rump conference, with the opportunity to win more games than any team in the Walker-Fitz era, it seems vaguely possible to reach for greater goals.  Northwestern has not only won enough games to make it to Pizza City, this may be the year to smash its gates, sap through its outer defenses, depose the government, seize the Pizza City treasury, and raise the Fitz Fist banner over the central Pizza City Plaza this is all an elaborate metaphor for winning a shitty bowl game by the way.

THE FOOT CLAN

Northwestern beat Iowa with another dominant performance on the ground.  Colter led the way with 166 yards on the ground and Mark followed with 162.  With three games to go, Mark has already rushed for 1,000 yards this season; he's the first Wildcat to do that since Tyrell Sutton.  Once again, the Northwestern passing attack remained a delightful tribute to the the interwar period, with 80 total yards.  The coaches showed that they are willing to let Colter air it out when defenses move in against the run.  One of his attempts was overthrown and intercepted, but the other landed perfectly for a 47-yard bomb to Christian Jones.  Colter and Mark should attract enough attention to get single coverage on Northwestern's vaunted group of receivers, and it's heartening to see some strikes downfield.  Otherwise, Fitz may see industrial action from the receivers, who will protest the option and begin burning blocking sleds.

Northwestern receivers have begun to subtly call for more passes.

The defense once again held firm even as Iowa dominated the time of possession.  They were aided in the fourth quarter when the Iowa coaches implemented a 25-minute offense where the Hawkeyes steadily meandered down the field with a variety of short passes, runs, and gentlemanly refusals to stop the clock.  Greg Davis seems to have borrowed the late-game plan of attack from Field Marshal Douglas Haig.

The win has made it five of the last seven for Northwestern in this burgeoning rivalry series with Iowa, but this one was not as frustrating for Iowa fans.  Iowa is having a down year, and losses to Iowa State and Central Michigan have taken the air from the Hawkeye sails and the proverbial ligaments from the Iowa running backs.  Iowa fans are only apoplectic when Northwestern unexpectedly ruins their season with an improbable last-minute victory and they get to leave Evanston like so many vanquished Mings the Merciless.  On the rare occasion when Northwestern has the better team on paper, Iowa fans relish the opportunity to turn the tables and leave a Northwestern season in shambles, like the disastrous 2000 game, which prevented a trip to Pasadena.

The Northwestern-Iowa rivalry only seems to have teeth when one of the teams has something at stake, like a trophy shaped like a hat.  The Illinois-Northwestern game is an inconsequential nothing, but I cannot stand to see the hat in Champaign-Urbana, and I hope Tim Beckman's office appreciates the numerous telegrams I send every day telling him that he is in for a cold, hatless winter.
 
Pat Fitzgerald seizes Bettendorf, Iowa, one of the Quad cities, as his prize for 
the annual Iowa-Northwestern football contest.  He then sacked Davenport, 
declaring "BYCTOM has one too many jokes about Pat Fitzgerald sacking 
cities this week"

MICHIGAN PEOPLE

Northwestern enters the game against Michigan in the midst of a quarterback mystery.  Denard Robinson is on the mend from an injured hand and his status is up in the air.  The quarterback depth behind backup Devin Gardener is uncertain.  Brady Hoke has not ruled out the possibility of entering the game at quarterback himself, while pretending to be a middle-aged walk-on named Harrison van Arbor IV and wearing a ridiculous leather helmet getup that would be anachronistic even for a man in his 50s.  Kain Colter may also suit up for the Wolverines as part of his widening positional purview; he'd be taking on the little-known "permanent quarterback" position from the NCAA handbook that allows for one guy to be quarterback all of the time, allows the replacement of endzone pylons with windbreakers, and permits games in the snow to degenerate into massive neighborhood snowball fights until one guy takes it way too seriously and hurts someone.

Michigan will be another strong test for Northwestern.  They have a tough defense and McCall will have to find a way to move the ball in the air.  Denard Robinson, if he plays, is an absolute nightmare for a defense, and Gardner had a lot of success against Minnesota.  On the other hand, Northwestern has not been soundly defeated yet.  The Wildcats led into the fourth quarter in both losses before yielding the lead in slow motion to horrified purple-clad onlookers.

WHY INDIANAPOLIS/WHY NOT INDIANAPOLIS?

The game is a must-win for both teams to have any chance at the Big Ten Championship and face some refugee from the LEADERS DIVISION.  This is because the two best LEADERS teams are ineligible for post-season play.  The Indiana Hoosiers, who have overtaken Northwestern as the standard-bearers of Big Ten cellar-dwelling wretchedness, have an outside shot at Indianapolis.  Big Ten fans are upset that the suspension of  two big programs will deny a more worthy team a shot at the championship.  Fitz has suggested that a selection committee should select a more worthy opponent for the LEGENDS champion if the LEADERS cannot supply a team with a winning record.

I think that Big Ten fans should embrace the absurdity.  This is what happens when you sign up for divisions: there is always the possibility that two powerhouse teams will be suspended from bowl play because of a horrifying administrative cover-up of unthinkable crimes and/or college students selling their pants, and then some crappy team gets to play in the championship game.  Also, nothing about the Big Ten Championship game can be more ridiculous than the fact that the two divisions are named "LEGENDS" and "LEADERS" because that forces any story about the Big Ten to sound like it is being written about a team-building exercise at a Mussolini corporate retreat.
 
Mussolini team building games involve brainstorming targets for invasion, 
free-associating cries for vengeance, marching on Rome, and scowling

The Big Ten is not very good at football this year.  The bowl ban circumstances are aberrant.  Let us all hope that Indiana can shock the midwest and sneak into the Big Ten Championship and bring Hoosiermania to Indianapolis.

A SEXUAL CONGRESS

In 1814, European forces had managed to tuck Napoleon away safely on Elba and tried to restore Europe to some sort of order.  Europe's most distinguished diplomats, kings, spies, and intriguers met in Vienna to determine the fate of Poland, Saxony, and even the continued existence of the slave trade.  They also met to drink, waltz, and carry on affairs.
 
The "Dancing Congress."  On the far left is Talleyrand, the French minister who 
had collaborated with Napoleon and then turned on him.  He became an expert 
at acquiring derisive nicknames: Baron Hardenburg referred to him as "Mr. Club 
Foot" and Napoleon called him "shit in silk stockings." 

David King's Vienna 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna, understands that it is not enough to explain the vexing problems of statecraft, but also necessary to pause and describe the absurdly lavish festivals that accompanied the Congress.  And with the delegations, came the hangers-on: "rogues, charlatans, courtesans, actors, and gamblers" as well as puppeteers, mechanical reproductions of Napoleonic battles, and a dubious shark act. 
 
Adam Zamoyski argues in his also-excellent Rites of Peace that the presence of so much royalty in 
Vienna fatally humanized the ridiculous aristocrats.  "The King of Würtemberg," Zamyoski explains, 
"had such a gross appearance, with his red snout and the cascading folds of his stomach, that one 
employee of the imperial household thought he had seen a pig drive by in one of the court carriages."  
Obviously, the court painter had done Friedrich a favor in the above painting; I've included a 
simulation of his likely appearance on the right
 
One of the main attractions involved the Carousel, a sort of nineteenth century Medieval Times where eminent nobles dressed as knights put on a mock tournament for the glittering nobility.  The highlights included a joust, as King relates: 
This was not like the tournaments of the Middle Ages, when soldiers could and indeed did die on the field, like the unfortunate tournament in 1240 that ended with some eighty knights dead.  The Carousel at the Congress, by contrast, was intended to be a highly stylized simulation.  The knights were to ride in a gallop and try to unseat their opponent, but the judges had urged that they show the utmost civility.  The event did, in fact, go well.  The only incident was when Prince Liechtenstein was unhorsed and carried off the field unconscious.
 There was also fancy horse-dancing.

King also notes that the Congress of Vienna was a hotbed of sexual intrigue.  He focuses on the intense rivalry between Klemens von Metternich and Tsar Alexander for the attentions of various women in Vienna in what can be characterized as a decathlon of fanciness.  Metternich distracted himself during crucial negotiations by penning depressive letters to the Duchess of Sagan; Alexander yelled a lot.

A BIG HOUSE

A Northwestern win can keep alive the dream of a 10-win season for the Wildcats and even the glimmer of hope for a chance at a berth in the Big Ten Championship game.  It will also give the young 'Cats a chance to prove they can close out a strong conference foe without a painful late-game collapse.  Northwestern has emerged as a formidable force during this topsy-turvy Big Ten season that will surely end with the return of Jim Tressel from Elba, making one last stand on the fields of Indianapolis.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Northwestern Football Is Exhilarating, Terrifying, and Bowl-Eligible

Northwestern is vincible.  We all knew that the Wildcats would face trouble once they got into the Big Ten schedule, and they lost both games against difficult opponents.  At the same time, they took care of business on the road in Minnesota and became bowl-eligible for the fifth consecutive season.  Northwestern had only qualified for six bowl games in the entire history of the program before Fitz took over, although bowl requirements were much stricter in the 1950s and 60s; you didn't have the Winston Cigarettes T-Zone Bowl, or the Coppertone Asscheeck Bowl, or the Score a Touchdown/Give 'em Trouble/Lick 'em Like You'll/Lick That Stubble/Burma-Shave Bowl.


Unlike today's bowls named for ridiculous corporations, earlier bowls were 
named after solid staple crops and advertised to people with the exciting prospect 
of a gigantic naked infant lounging menacingly in the stadium.  Note in both 
programs, the stadiums are full of people who seem to be perfectly content 
with their football game being converted into a crib for a baby the size of the 
Chrysler building with no control over its own bladder and no sense of remorse

Northwestern has played more or less the same game for several weeks.  The 'Cats go into halftime with the lead, then the coaching staff unveils its Sword of Damocles packages on offense and defense as we watch the lead evaporate.  During the fourth quarter, the best word to describe Northwestern's playing style is "besieged."  It's tremendously exiting.

Someone who actually knows something about numbers will probably see in one 
second that this graph doesn't really show anything, but I would counter that a falling 
blue line and rising red line correlate directly with the number of household objects 
that I am destroying with my forehead as I watch Northwestern games because that is 
the proper way to watch football.  That's why I bring a briefcase full of scrap wood 
with me when I watch a game at a bar, so I can quietly excuse myself after a big play 
and smash it into smithereens with my forehead in a parking lot

COME BACK!

Northwestern has allowed comebacks in all but two of its games this season-- the South Dakota steamrollering, and the actual Northwestern comeback against Vanderbilt.  The Commodores were so confused by the ordeal that they have refused to play Northwestern in football, canceling future dates with a letter to the athletic department instead of the traditional method of football scheduling, which involves sending a courier with a wax-sealed parchment or, at the very least, a falcon.  Fitz faxed the Vanderbilt Athletic Department 145 pages of ASCII pictures of a fist that, when bound together, create an animated fist-pump flip book.

The Wildcats managed to hold on until the Penn State game, when the offense disappeared in the second half.  This gave the Penn State offense the opportunity to unleash Matt McGloin, the flame-headed hobgoblin of Northwestern football.  McGloin and human battering ram Mike Zordich found new life against an exhausted Northwestern defense in the second half, took over the game, and rallied the Nittany Lions to victory.

Last week, Northwestern was unable to hold the lead against Nebraska, as Taylor Martinez led the Cornhuskers to two unanswered touchdowns.  Martinez has had two of his best games doing whatever it is he does that resembles passing against the Northwestern defense; the Wildcat coaching staff will be training DBs before next year's game by firing footballs at them from Napoleonic War cannons.
 
Allumez la mèche et trouvez le trou dans la zone de couverture

The comeback also happened while Northwestern was wearing its fancy new Big Game Black Alternates, which marks another loss in dandy duds.  These new uniforms featured a stenciled Wildcat on the helmet instead of the traditional sculpted N, although by the end of the game, the logo seemed to be yowling in frustration as the Huskers marched towards the with the aid of the inconsiderate forces of inevitability.

Northwestern's running game remains impressive.  Venric Mark is an electric back who terrorizes opposing special teams coordinators, and the option game with Colter is dangerous near the goal line.  The passing game, however, is still developing.  Northwestern averages just over 172 yards per game, good for dead last in the conference.  That's less than Wisconsin, a team with a playbook that consists of two plays labeled "give the ball to Ron Dayne," with the words "Ron Dayne" scratched out and replaced by whoever is the current running back.
 
The Badgers are trying to find an Aaron Gibson equivalent for their Replacement 
Daynes to run behind, but NCAA regulations currently prohibit tying two tackles 
together and letting them share the same pair of pants

Kolter has drifted back into his role from last year, working as an option quarterback and slot receiver.  Siemian is sent in on obvious passing downs.  Fitz plans on slowly rotating running backs, receivers, and backup linemen into the quarterback spot; one day the entire Wildcat offense will come off the sideline all yelling "I'M QUARTERBACK," which will confuse the defense.

THROW OUT THE RECORD BOOKS, SORT OF

Northwestern has a burgeoning quasi-rivalry with the Hawkeyes: we don't like them, and they are vaguely indifferent.  The Hawkeyes suffered some tough losses in their non-conference schedule, but are in the mix for the LEGENDS DIVISION.  Like Northwestern, they've struggled in the passing game as they learn Greg Davis's system.  It is Davis's sorry fate in life to be universally despised by fans of whatever team he happens to coach for-- crowds gather to chase him from town like a Reverse Pied Piper.  Their offense has been boosted by unheralded walk-on Mark Weisman, who has managed to stagger out of the Hawkeyes' gruesome human rights disaster at running back to the backfield, like the football version of William Brydon at Jalalabad. 
 
Weisman reports to practice after avoiding a diseased piece of dining hall turkey,
an out-of-control cement mixer, a crate of marbles spilled precariously around 

the quad, a pack of wild dogs, and a crazed pre-med student desperate to collect 
as many knee ligaments as he can before the authorities find him

Both teams see this as a crucial and winnable game.  The game will be played at Ryan Field, and I expect a supportive crowd of 30,000 Nebraska fans who will be staying in Evanston as fans in residence after winning a grant from the Northwestern Department of Football Culture.  Like all Northwestern games, this will probably come down to the last minute because I picked the wrong football season to stop sniffing glue.

FUCK IT DUDE, LET'S GO BOWLING

This season was supposed to be a rebuilding year.  Instead, we've seen the emergence of exciting young players on defense, such as Chi Chi Ariguzo and NickVan Hoose, and Venric Mark is as dynamic a playmaker as the Wildcats have ever had.  Northwestern has qualified for a bowl game, and the Big Ten's new status as a national joke has kept them in the LEGENDS DIVISION title hunt, where a championship will allow them to take their place in the pantheon of LEGENDS with the Legends of the Fall, Hercules's Legendary Journeys, and the Legends of the Hidden Temple.  It is important to keep that in mind as the 'Cats dangle precariously from another fourth quarter cliff.   And Northwestern is in position for an eight or even a nine win season, in position to go to a marginally less crappy bowl, and in position to wrench The Hat off of Tim Beckman's head and parade it in victory down Sheridan Road.  Northwestern and Iowa may not have a fancy rivalry trophy, but they do have the opportunity to ruin each other's season, and that may be the sweetest trophy of them all.

Actually, it is not, it is still the hat, give us our damn hat back.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Northwestern Fans, Let Us Become Unreasonably Overconfident

Northwestern will not lose another football game ever again.  They will keep rolling through the competition all the way to Indianapolis, to Pasadena, to the very gates of the ancient capital Moscou. 

Keep going east, men, what could possibly go wrong?

The Wildcats are 5-0 and ranked #24 in the AP Poll with only one win standing between them and a wretched bowl game.  Of course, Northwestern fans are dreaming bigger with the dire state of the Big Ten.  What looked to be a rebuilding year could be a triumph for Pat Fitzgerald and his invincible legions of perfect footballmen.

Meanwhile, the Northwestern trustees have approved a quarter-billion dollar football facility upgrade that will ensure that the team gets all of the triangular weights, vibrating belt machines, and tug of war ropes that they need to keep their competitive edge against other programs.
The facilities should have everything a modern college football program needs to succeed at the 
highest level

RUSH AND ATTACK

Northwestern's offense took off against South Dakota, and exploded for a school-record 704 yards against Indiana.  Kain Colter, Venric Mark, and Mike Trumpy have formed a three-headed rushing monster that has become unstoppable against inept defenses that specialize in mystified flailing (chin up, Hoosiers.  We'll meet one day in the Big Ten Championship game through a combination of bowl bans, a flu that hits every city but Evanston and Bloomington, or a national obsession with Australian Rules football that leaves the two squads as the only rump club teams in the conference).

The 'Cats raced out to a 27-0 lead against Indiana until the third quarter struck and the team decided to momentarily terrify Northwestern fans.

The third quarter triggers a horrifying transformation for Northwestern's defense, 
much like how Lon Chaney transformed from the mild mannered Dr. Jeckyll to 
a guy who just put some Boston on the jukebox and c'mon it's Boston what 
are you you going to do, just sit there huddled in the corner let's go get out 
there, c'mon, I love this one, let's go, alright fine, but the next four plays are 
all going to be Speedwagon

Colter rushed for 161 yards, grabbed another 131 yards receiving, scored four touchdowns, and returned to the multifaceted skill position role he played with Dan Persa last year.  Meanwhile, Siemian connected for more than 300 yards in the air, and Venric Mark continued to do Venric Mark things.  The ability to play Colter and Siemian at the same time should open up some interesting trick plays, including one where Colter disguises himself as an official and fakes an illegal shift flag on himself before running amongst confused defenders for an easy score.

A VALLEY

Things get tougher for Northwestern as they have to do the unthinkable and leave the welcoming confines of Ryan Field for the first time in a month.  Penn State is certainly a program in disarray as the dust from the criminal investigation and NCAA sanctions settles and the wind sweeps away the makeshift Joe Paterno Ozymandii from the tailgate parking lots.  The Nittany Lions are improving after a not entirely shocking slow start against Ohio and Virginia.  They've handily beaten Navy and Temple, and they clobbered an Illinois team that looks bad enough to surrender The Hat to the rightful collective heads of the Northwestern faithful.  Though Northwestern is undefeated and ranked, they will go into Happy Valley as underdogs.

Penn State has been a perpetual obstacle for Northwestern who have beaten the Lions in only three of fifteen tries.  The last Northwestern win came in 2004 and half of 2010.

Dan Persa runs for a touchdown during his glorious return to 
Pennsylvania, where he led the 'Cats to a 21-0 first half lead in 
his home state and then I turned off the game and just assume 
everything went swimmingly from there

Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin has successfully passed for more than 400 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions in his two games against Northwestern.  Running back and Dickensian villain Silas Redd, who effortlessly ran through the Wildcat defense last year, has transferred to USC, though he still returns to State College to berate the indigent workers at his iron foundries and get his tophats and pince-nez fitted.

Workers asking for a Christmas goose can expect threats of dismissal, stiff arms, 
and chop blocks

The Northwestern offense will face its stiffest test yet.  Penn State's defense  is currently fourteenth in the country in points allowed (a little over 13) and has given up just 127.8 rushing yards per game (Northwestern is ranked 14th in rushing yards allowed with a stingy 90), and I imagine that Colter and Mark will have a tougher time getting to the edge.  On defense, Northwestern will have to contain Allen Robinson, who already has 32 catches for 439 yards and 5 TDs.  I expect Bill O'Brien to test the Wildcat passing defense early with long passes, play-action, and a diabolical series of riddles delivered to the Northwestern sideline in wax-sealed parchments that will distract the DBs by making them search the Penn State bench for the secret to their defense while being unaware, for example, that the signals are stored on backup quarterback Steve Bench.

THANK GOODNESS THE BASEBALL SEASON IS OVER

The success of Northwestern has fortunately overshadowed a dark baseball time for Chicago.  The White Sox surprised everyone by challenging Detroit for the AL Central title, but sputtered in their final few weeks.  The Cubs, on the other hand, were out of it on April 2.  They barnstormed to 101 losses as they train-hopped from city to city bringing opposing fans joy with their ineptitude on the mound, in the field, and in the batters' box.  The pitching struggles could be partially explained by the inexperienced bullpen and loss of three top starting pitchers to trades and injury; no term better explains the Cubs in the second half than "staff ace Jeff Samardzija."  They also finished close to the bottom in runs scored and tied the Astros for dead last in OPB with a paltry .302.  The only chance Cubs fans will have to see the ivy turn brown on TV for the next several years will involve a deranged White Sox fan poisoning it and then calling in a radio show before signing off with "Let's go, go-go damn Sox."

The Cubs' futility was expected this season as Epstein and Hoyer are committing to a scorched-earth rebuilding program.  They seem to have found a first baseman in Anthony Rizzo.  Starlin Castro may inspire heated debates in mustard-soaked Cub fan antechambers, but he has become an elite league leader in making outs.  Other prospects may take awhile to arrive.  Neither Josh Vitters nor Brett Jackson seemed ready in their limited debuts; Jackson struck out in nearly 40% of his at-bats and was last seen with a shopping bag full of Jobu dolls.

The 2012 campaign has taken a toll on Theo Epstein, who plans to spend the 
winter meetings ranting about those damn trains and gumming things


I expect the Cubs to make the playoffs when Bud Selig or any Future Bud Selig equivalents decide to do the right thing and allow all teams to make the playoffs, although the first round will be one game where teams rotate pitching, batting, and fielding and are eliminated on an inning-by-inning basis and then they have to flee from robotic tigers or a professional scythe-wielding bounty hunter named The Rt. Hon. Justice of the Scythe in order to escape because we all know that future sports immediately turn into horrifying post-apocalyptic death sports with elaborate betting systems for some reason.

Until then, we can be nothing but patient as the Cubs stave off triple digit losing seasons, failed prospects, nincompoopical base running, and all of the other hallmarks of hopeless baseball.  In other words, it's basically reverting to pretty much every year of the Cubs, so you might as well stock up on overpriced bleacher tickets and t-shirts about drinking beer and try to inadvertently injure someone in a drunken high-five gone awry as Cubs fans have for generations. 

THE UNDEFEATABLISTS

Northwestern has gotten to 5-0 with a string of narrow and occasionally harrowing victories over opponents who do not exactly bring to mind Notre Dame's Four Horsemen.  The Penn State came may well be a sobering preview of a difficult end of the season.  While no Big Ten team has looked like world beaters, it also means that they will be unlikely to take the Wildcats lightly as they will also be scrapping for every conference win they can get in order to get a chance to be publicly humiliated in the Rose Bowl.  A win at Penn State, however, does a lot to show that Northwestern's record is not a scheduling fluke.  I expect the Wildcats to go up 65-0 in the first half, then allow seven consecutive Penn State touchdowns before tackling Robinson three inches from the goal line as time expires and then Pat Fitzgerald explodes on the field leaving a pile of oakleys, crew cuts, and headphones.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Northwestern Wildcats are an Unstoppable Juggernaut of Harrowing Victory

I don't want to alarm anyone here, but Northwestern is 3-0 and the only school in the country to defeat three opponents from BCS conferences.  And the only cost was years of our lives.  The quick start, bolstered by a stout run defense and impressive running game, has Northwestern in great position for another berth in a prestigious bowl that will be located somewhere in Texas.  Even if the Wildcats fail to cash in another three wins or make it to a bowl outside of Texas, I'm guessing a consortium of Texas businessmen will swoop up and somehow force the team back into the Lonestar State and then call each other bastards and sons of bitches and erect tiny oil derricks behind them  like so many petroleum Hansels.

Grainy surveillance photos reveal powerful Texans behind a sinister plot to move Northwestern to
a reconstructed Southwest Conference by 2015

The Wildcats survived another close call against Boston College for their third win as they treated both endzones as like the Wrigley Field Forbidden Endzone and kept a respectful distance of several yards.  Much like that Illinois game, Mike Trumpy was the only Northwestern offensive player to laugh in the face of danger and break the goal line.  Trumpy, who had an excellent comeback game with 99 yards on the ground, trained in the offseason by swapping footballs with sandbags of equivalent weight, dodging blowdarts, and laughing at a perforated Alfred Molina.

 HANGING ON FOR VICTORY

The 'Cats ended up with nearly 300 rushing yards and 267 more in the air from a variety of quarterbacks, but only managed 22 points.  The Eagles took advantage of some NU turnovers and timely passes from quarterback Chase Rettig to keep it close.  Also, the BC coach has a pretty spectacular mustache and I am sure that inspired his team.  With only minutes to go, the 'Cats held onto a two point lead, but it proved to be enough as the defense gave another inspiring performance.  They held the Eagles to only 25 rushing yards, which has to be some sort of school record.  I bet even Chicago Dental College managed more than 25 rushing yards, although to be fair the forward pass had not yet been invented and at that point they were probably firing fullbacks out of cannons at the line of scrimmage until they got a first down or the players decided that they had put on a manly enough display of being shot out of things and decided to repair to their smoking lounges to savor a brandy and reattach their limbs.

Jeff Budzien was the most impressive Wildcat.  Football kickers are like washing machine repairmen or exterminators in that you do not want to see them because your team can't score touchdowns or your house is flooded and/or large throngs of aggressive millipedes on a civilizing mission. When they do show up, though, you would like them to be thorough and professional, and Budzien got the job done with five field goals on Saturday. And I got the job done with a hokey sportswriter-grade simile right there, here's an unnecessary reference to teeth.

You don't want to find yourself in a situation where you would need to call the 
A-Team because that invariably means you've gotten yourself into trouble with 
a group of a group of vengeful yokels, but if you must fend off a swarm of 
marauding hillbillies by assembling the contents of a barn into a machine 
capable of firing produce at speeds violent enough to throw a man from a tractor 
without causing him severe injury, you're probably glad you selected this 
particular group of soldiers of fortune in the Los Angeles underground

The scoring frustrations masked an impressive outing from the Wildcats.  Venric Mark has emerged as the most exciting diminutive Northwestern tailback since Tyrell Sutton.  Chi Chi Ariguzo has quickly become a game-changing defensive presence.  But there is still plenty to work on.  The front seven, which have looked dominant against the run, still have trouble pressuring the quarterback, and the 'Cats remain vulnerable to long passes.  Also the Northwestern players need to practice proper chest-bumping form.  Frankly, it's shocking to see an errant chest-bump from a Pat Fitzgerald-coached team.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Northwestern will host South Dakota on Saturday.  The Coyotes are an FCS squad, and Wildcat fans expect victory.  Veteran 'Cat watchers, however, know not to assume anything with this squad.  I would not be surprised for Northwestern to be up by one with three minutes remaining after allowing a 99 yard touchdown bomb and then all of a sudden the arena goes dark and an Orson Welles impersonator starts warning about an alien invasion while the Wildcat noise goes off in the background and the scoreboard keeps flashing pictures of Air Willie devouring helpless Wildcat Alley patrons and all of the seats turn into vibrating Mant seats then everyone has a good-natured laugh over the scare and Northwestern scores eight unanswered touchdowns and Lake Michigan turns into a sweet fizzy substance resembling lemonade.

Northwestern fans react to another thrilling Wildcat Victory

ROTTEN BOROUGHS

British elections before the 1832 Reform Bill had managed to streamline campaigning to avoid long, costly elections in many areas.  That is because several local constituencies, the so-called "rotten boroughs" only had a handful of voters, so the key campaign strategy usually involved buying the seats directly from the landholder at reasonable wholesale prices.  That system ran smoothly for centuries, especially in the days when British men resembled nothing less than an interchangeable assembly of collar ruffles and mustaches.  Occasionally, there were hiccups in the system.  The two seats in the borough of Gatton were controlled by Sir Mark Wood who canvassed the electorate consisting largely of himself and returned himself to Parliament along with his brother-in-law (James Dashwood.  Wood and Dashwood sounds like a horrible synth pop duo that scored a top 50 hit in 1984 and then died attempting to escape a small hut made entirely from cocaine).  They successfully fended off a challenge for a seat in 1803 by disallowing their rivals only vote.

Another by-election may have caused Wood some trouble.  According to an unreliable source, Wood attempted to elect his son to the second seat.  The only eligible voters were Wood, Wood's son, and their butler, Jennings.  I'll let Henry Sooks Smith set the scene:
The son was away and Jennings and his master quarrelled upon which Jennings refused to second the son and proposed himself. To get a seconder for the son, Sir Mark had to second Jennings, and it was ultimately arranged, and the vote of Sir Mark alone given. This was the only contest within memory.
I'm really disappointed that there was not a fourth voter (perhaps a foot-man or another wastrel son lying around) to see a full campaign pitting man against butler.  I'm assuming that Wood, the clever political operator, would have spent a small sum on pamphlets attacking Jennings's character, knowledge, and above all butling skills. 

Jennings says he polished the silver tea service before rushing 
off to fetch me some gout leeches.  But upon inspection, it only 
seemed like he put on one or one and a half coats.  Is this the
 man you want representing the five people in this household 
in the Parliament of the United Kingdom and also chasing 
away that dreadful vicar when he pops by?  Is this a man you 
want voting on the supply bill and also locating my hunting 
chaps?  Jennings.  Wrong for Britain.  Wrong for this house.  
I also think he has been in the sherry again.


OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES

Northwestern's out of conference success against BCS conference teams has earned some attention, and the Wildcats have pushed to the fringes of the AP Poll.  With another victory on Saturday, they will be in a strong position to begin Big Ten play against Indiana.  Beating South Dakota with limited moments of terror would be a feather in the cap for the program.  Northwestern fans know that victory is never assured.  As we have seen so far in the season, there are no rotten boroughs in college football and no victories that can be guaranteed by making a deal with a quarrelsome butler.  This young team is eager to show improvement against the pass and prove it can maintain a lead.  With the rest of the Big Ten unexpectedly reeling from tough out of conference losses, this could be a year to make some noise in the LEGENDS conference, especially if that noise is to change the conference title to something less embarrassing.

Friday, September 14, 2012

One Million Years BC

It has been two weeks and no one has beaten the Wildcats at football.  Not only did they defeat the favored Commodores in home opener, they also stood tall while the rest of the Big Ten generally flailed around like a drunken Dostoyevsky protagonist ruining a high-society party.  Football!

Understanding the Big Ten's rough weekend really can't be 
completed without a guide to what disappointed coaches look 
like when compared to specific Zaporozhian Cossacks.

Venric Mark had another excellent game to solidify himself as the feature tailback, but it was Northwestern's much-maligned defense that stole the show.  The same squad that looked discombobulated against Syracuse had a magnificent day holding Vanderbilt to 13 points and kept the 'Cats in the game as the offense continued to falter.  Chi Chi Ariguzo had another excellent day and netted himself Big Ten Defensive player of the Week honors.  Jeff Budzien nailed all three of his field goal attempts.  SEC teams were put on notice about coming to Ryan Field, especially if they are academically-minded SEC schools with a reputation for football futility only surpassed by Northwestern itself that have now turned themselves around and are also scrapping around for crappy bowl bids.

QUARTERBACKSMANSHIP

For the second week in a row, Trevor Siemian engineered the key drive with Kain Colter on the bench.  The quarterback situation, however, remains somewhat murky, with Fitzgerald describing his changes like he is going to the bullpen in a bizarre version of baseball where you can keep bringing guys back in again which you can't do in real baseball because of Tony LaRussa.

"Warm up all of the pitchers," LaRussa bellowed into the phone before sending 
a utility outfielder to pitch, a relief pitcher out to short, and calling for a 
left-handed mascot

Usually, a quarterback backlog bodes ill for football teams.  By now there should be chat of a quarterback controversy, or, as I am disappointed to have not seen in a headline yet, a "Quarterback KAIN-TREVORsy."  Instead, Fitz seems to be content to use both quarterbacks.

"We’re going to do what we’re going to do, and that means we’re going to play multiple quarterbacks, and we’re all right with it,” Fitzgerald said in this Chicago Sun-Times story.

Fitzgerald then added that he is experimenting with confusing the opposition further by having several Pat Fitzgerald lookalikes roaming around the stadium so that the opposing bench has no idea which is the real Fitz like the time that Michael Jackson did that at the Superbowl and then the real one sprang up out of a trap door and stared motionless at the crowd for a solid minute while wearing his nineteenth century military dictator regalia.  Then he yelled "Go 'Cats," cackled, thew a smoke grenade, and vanished through a secret panel in the floor.

BOSTON COLLEGE

Boston College comes to town after last year's wild opener.  The Eagles are coming off a 34-3 victory over FCS Maine and their athletic webpage assures me that someone named Spiffy Evans played a key role.  BC Quarterback Chase Rettig should continue to test the young Wildcat secondary.  I'm terrified of Ifeanyi Momah, who torched Northwestern for a career-high 157 receiving yards last year, even if he no longer is on the Eagles (thanks to JHodges in the comments for the correction). The prospect of Spiffy Evans is also extremely dangerous because he has a spectacular nickname and they usually don't give those out to guys who just kind of hang out on the bench.  Otherwise, I'd assume he'd have a less awesome nickname like "Benchy" Evans or "Rider Pine" or "The Bench-Man of Alcatraz" which admittedly would not make sense unless he played in San Francisco but I'm assuming someone with the nickname "Bench-Man" would not have a ton of choices about where he pursued his college football career so that is moot.

The heartening win over Vanderbilt has raised confidence in Northwestern fans who are expecting a win this week and a possible 4-0 start to the season.  Boston College has lost the services of mythical creature Luke Kuechely, also known as "The Sack-Man of Alcatraz,"  and are projected to have a difficult season in the ACC.

Nevertheless, veteran Wildcat fans know not to expect victory until the whistle has been blown.  The Eagles present Northwestern with third consecutive challenger from a BCS conference, and they are eager to avenge last year's loss.  Northwestern is a young team that has shown a penchant for collapse and comeback as per school tradition, and the BC game will do a lot to tell us what we can expect from them this season.

PHANTOM ISLANDS

One persistent problem facing early modern navigators involved the search for islands that did not exist.  As map-makers or explorers fanned across the globe, they occasionally misidentified landmasses, and these nonexistent lands occasionally wound up on maps.  One of the most famous fake islands was Frisland, a north Atlantic island that appeared on the sixteenth century Zeno maps.

Frisland was apparently a reference to Iceland  as "Freezeland," which would be 
an excellent base of operations for Mr. Freeze.  Man, it is hard to explain to 
young people that our Batman movies used to be mainly about rubber nipples 
and puns about how cold it is

Frisland came from a map chronicling an alleged voyage by Antonio and Niccoló Zeno in the late fourteenth century.  The account included a voyage of several years around the North Atlantic accompanied by Prince Zichmni, who led a number brave attacks against several non-existent islands. Their descendant (also named Niccoló Zeno) wrote a book and drew a map in 1558 based on an account of the earlier brothers' voyage that claimed had been destroyed.  Either the earlier brothers or the later Niccoló had made up or misconstrued the voyage.  The Zeno maps remained in circulation for more than 100 years, giving an interesting example of the production and dissemination of contemporary knowledge and although I would hope that the obesession with perpetuating the myth of Frisland is a time-honored Zeno family tradition and there is a lone Zeno descendant somewhere attempting to scrape up a team of Frislanders to qualify for the World Cup.
 
A map of Frisland from 1623 with detailed place names.  Note the southern 
island of Monaco, no doubt a glamorous hotspot of nonexistent gambling, 
where patrons could bet on dragon-baiting, perpetual motion, and watch an 
early modern James Bond lose his fancy ruffles to a number of 
cat-toting megalomaniacs who threatened governments with gigantic muskets 
  
Pepys Island near the Falklands also did not exist, but was named after the British politician Samuel Pepys.  Pepys played a key role in the seventeenth century modernization of the Royal Navy and also kept a detailed diary that has become a crucial source for people interested in seventeenth century British politics and what Samuel Pepys enjoyed eating.  Someone has put his diary online, and a brief glance through has let me know under no uncertain terms that Samuel Pepys could absolutely devour a turkey if he wanted to whether roasted or in warm or cold pie forms.  The first three months of the diary carefully detail his turkey consumption where he described the birds as alternately brave, gifts from Mr. Shepley, or imported from Denmark.  The rest of the diary is full of well-nigh indecipherable nonsense such as:
I drink my morning at Harper's with Mr. Sheply and a seaman, and so to my office, where Captain Holland came to see me, and appointed a meeting in the afternoon. Then wrote letters to Hinchinbroke and sealed them at Will's, and after that went home, and thence to the Half Moon, where I found the Captain and Mr. Billingsly and Newman, a barber, where we were very merry, and had the young man that plays so well on the Welsh harp.

Samuel Pepys was an important figure in seventeenth century England, but 
nowhere but BYCTOM will let you know that he ate turkey no less than five 
times in 1660 and wrote about it; also he drank with a guy he referred to as 
"Mons. L'Impertinent"

There are a number of unidentified islands (including the fantastic "Isle of Demons") that came to be identified during a meeting of exploration, imagination, and (in some cases) stronger than average doses of grog.  At some point, all had been stomped out under the brutal boot of accurate cartography which sadly insisted here be accurate depictions of landmasses.

STARTING STRONG

A victory against Boston College augers well for the Wildcats and puts them in a strong position for a bowl game.  There are no givens in college football, especially with the fluctuating performance of the 'Cats so far, but a defensive effort like the one we saw against Vanderbilt should propel them to victory.  A favorable early schedule may allow Northwestern to start Big Ten play undefeated, but we must be cautious.  A 3-0 Wildcat team may be as ephemeral as a non-existent island named after an English turkey-devourer with a penchant for cannonballs and lute practice.