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


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 m├Ęche 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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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. 


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.