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.


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?


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, 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.


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.


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.


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


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%


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 

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.


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"


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.


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.


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├╝rtemberg," 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 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.