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.
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.