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├╝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 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.

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