Saturday, October 26, 2013

Flew Too Close to the Sun, On Wings of Pastrami

Beware to those who fail to heed former Northwestern head coach/football sage Dennis Green's words about premature ass-crowning.  We came into the season with the most ambitious expectations on the program in years, with dreams of Indianapolis.  We shrugged off injuries to Mark and Colter and Jones and McEvilly and shaky play against a less-than-terrifying non-conference schedule.  We exchanged knowing looks as Michigan and Nebraska looked less than ept.  We were heartened by a heart-breakingly close loss to Big Ten standard-bearer Ohio State-- I will go to my grave believing that Colter got that first down, and I intend to produce a number of shoddily-edited, wild-haired internet videos to convince the world that football spotting was an inside job.
Former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura delves into the labyrinthine conspiracy 
that cost Northwestern a crucial first down against the Ohio State Buckeyes that 
involves cover-ups at the highest levels of college sports.  His theories also explain 
the mysterious disappearance of Captain Freedom

Now, of course, we're considerably deflated.  The Wildcats sputtered on offense against Wisconsin, and its defensive line was treated like the USC Marching Band treated Ricardo Montalban in The Naked Gun.  Then, they were defeated by a mediocre, coachless Minnesota team.  I'm not an expert on football, but I'm pretty sure that it's not a good sign for a potential contender when the opposing team's interim coach has moved down to the sidelines for the first time in a decade and therefore spent the game in what the ESPN sideline reporters convinced me was an anti-social anxiety bubble.  Kudos to the Gophers and their young quarterbacks for overdosing on moxie and pulling out a victory on the road under those circumstances.  I invite them to run me over with their truck.


The last time I can remember that the 'Cats came into the season with such lofty expectations was in 2001.  Northwestern had just come out of nowhere with an unexpected Big Ten Championship season which was sponsored by utter insanity-- it featured the hail mary and 54-51 in back-to-back weeks and then we all watched dreams of Pasadena evaporate on the cruel fields of Kinnick.

Kirk Ferentz celebrates the Hawkyes' defeat of a Rose Bowl-bound Northwestern 

Northwestern came into 2000 returning much of that team, including Zak Kustok and Damian Anderson.  Like this year's team, they started 4-0, and Kustok even began to get some vague Heisman rumblings after Victory Righting Michigan State.  Then, the season fell apart.  The Wildcats lost every single game, except a rainy homecoming contest against the Gophers.  That included a 56-21 drubbing against a terrible Indiana team led by Antwaan Randle-El, who played every single position simultaneously.

In a typical series, Randle-El passes to Randle-El, who runs it in for a touchdown, 
signaled by Randle-El.  This is an archaic series of events.  If this game happened
 today, Randle-El would also review the touchdown in the replay booth, pausing 
for a commercial on the Big Ten Network in which  Antwaan Randle-El would 
inform discerning consumers about the benefits of Rotel  or various diesel-powered 
farm implements

Northwestern's season seems fairly hopeless right now.  The devastating Colter/Mark option has been shelved as Mark recovers from vague injuries guarded like nuclear secrets.  Colter has been in and out of games, and the Northwestern offense has stalled without both of them out there.  The defense has also struggled as the recipe for Wildcat victories has gone from outscoring teams to beating them in punting exhibitions.  The 'Cats offensive playbook has been replaced with the bleak, existential novels of Camus.  The 'Cats are fighting desperately not to repeat that particular historical event.
Another classic Northwestern historical maxim is to never follow Napoleon 
Harris into Russia, Ohio.


Yet, with Big Ten championships and Rose Bowls and other pipe dreams seemingly off the table, it is time to focus on what really matters: retaining control of the Hat.  No one has enjoyed Northwestern's struggles this season more than Tim Beckman, who has been watching game film late at night on his throne made of hats and cackling into his Bugles.  While the Wildcats have sputtered, Illinois looks far better than preseason prognostications.  Granted, most Big Ten watchers assumed that Illinois would be so wretched that they would cease playing football by the end of the season and send their basketball, tennis, intramural floor hockey, dressage, and University Challenge teams to try to win football games.  Instead, the Beck Men are a respectable 3-3, they blew out Cincinnati, and they are Scheelhaasing people with alarming frequency.

In the meantime, the Hat seems more attainable.  Beckman has forbidden his players from wearing non-helmet hats; he has a giant no hat sign in the Illini locker room to prevent premature hat-hubris; a general Beckman Alert has been issued to all Lincoln impersonators in the general Springfield area.  This is a dangerous situation.  I'm declaring this a Hat or Bust season: I no longer care what happens to Northwestern football as long as Tim Beckman does not traipse across Memorial Stadium with a hat trophy.
Beckman gets dangerously confident about his chances in the 
Illinois-Northwestern game this season


Indianapolis, Big Ten Championships, Pasadena are all glittering false oases.  Northwestern football once again finds itself in a comfortable place-- a hard-scrabble battle against the LEGENDS DIVISION for six wins and a berth in some sort of Pizza City Bowl.  It's time to adjust ourselves to that.  Winnable games, like this week in Iowa, seem less winnable.  Every game has Pizza City Implications.

Northwestern has been to five consecutive bowl games.  They have a bowl win streak of one.  Yes, the season may be disappointing thus far.  And yes, Northwestern may still reverse course, pull off an improbable run to the end of the season, and these losses may appear as an embarrassing blip on a triumphant march towards a championship.  But it is more than likely that Northwestern will continue to fight for a bowl berth in a wretched Pizza City location, and we can hope that a healthy Northwestern team will rise up and throttle an opponent from whatever conference has been hastily thrown together in the last eight months or whatever down-on-its luck BCS conference opponent or intramural or dental college team that a group of corrupt, pocket-lining, dinner-jacketed bowl conference representatives can throw at them, because this is Northwestern football, and there is a bowl win streak on the line.


Oh fuck.  Get out of Kinnick alive.


Why do we watch Northwestern football?  What is the endgame?  Maybe it is because we enjoy watching young adults smash into each other.  Maybe it is because we are surrounded by embarrassing and inadequate fist pumpers.  Maybe it is because, with all of the horrifying revelations about the long-term health implications of football, we are looking forward to being looked upon as savage blood-sport enthusiasts by our grandchildren who will treat us like so many Ernest Hemingways or confused Kumite bettors.  It is certainly not because we root for a program that has been traditionally wreathed in glory or is a perennial national championship contender.  

There can only be only one team to come out of the LEGENDS division each season, and by 2015, the Big Ten will have 46 teams and a six round playoff structure.  The odds are, many years Northwestern won't be in Indianapolis.  Even with the Wildcats' incredible and fun resurgence, there will be years when they will scrap and claw for a wretched bowl berth, and there may even be years when they fall short of that.  But I'm not about to let that get in the way of spending three hours during football season yelling at people on television, playing out hypothetical bowl eligibility formulae, and writing and then deleting things about Brian Griese that would otherwise put me on some sort of FBI watch list because he is bad at talking about football.  And, most importantly, there is a hat at stake every year, which I am determined to care about.  

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Northwestern Football Post-Apocalypse

Have you spent the off-season resting?  Have watched the Wildcats without couch seatbelts or bleacher restraints?  Have you enjoyed a relatively non-taxing non-conference schedule spending all of your leisure hours longing about in lawn furniture, reading historical fiction, and faxing hat-threats to Tim Beckman's office?  Well, dust off your gameday defibrillators, friends, because this is the Big Ten schedule and Northwestern football wants to make orphans of your children.

Kudos to Northwestern fans for making the ESPN Gameday atmosphere appropriately apocalyptic.  Fans toted signs alluding to libraries, making ESPN acrostics with sculpted Ns, and paying proper tribute to Slab SquatThrust and an unidentified Tecmo Super Bowl player who I will assume is Willie "Flipper" Anderson.  Even the stands seemed to be more than 50% purple-- this still doesn't look great on television, but there is essentially nothing the school can do to shut out Big Ten fanbases with more alumni in the Chicago area than Northwestern short of coming up with some sort of Voight-Kampff test to identify Ohio State fans as part of the ticket purchasing process.
Buckeye fans are detected by the amount of suppressed outrage they display when 
shown photographs of Brett Basanez

Nevertheless, despite harping on the five minutes and three seconds that separated the 'Cats from a perfect record last season, we saw the same game haunting game.  The lead evaporated, Kain Colter came either inches from that fourth-down conversion or was victimized by an inaccurate spot, and Brutus the Buckeye left Evanston with his stupid, google-eyed, oval head held high.


Despite weathering another close, painful loss, Northwestern played the class of the Big Ten well.  Mark was dangerous in the option game, and both Colter and Siemian found receivers.  Rashad Lawrence caught eight balls for 149 yards.  The Wildcats' maligned pass defense held a Heisman candidate to a pedestrian-for-him 226 yards.  Northwestern acquitted itself well as the Capital of Football.  Unfortunately, the 'Cats had no answers for Ron Dayne impersonator Carlos Hyde, who smashed through the Northwestern defense like a human battering ram.

A stolen page from Urban Meyer's playbook taken when he left his 
baggage train unguarded.  Reports that hte playbook includes 
siege towers and sapping methods banned by the NCAA remain 
unproven unless the Northwestern Athletic Department can 
successfully bribe an Ohio State courtier

But is it enough anymore for Northwestern fans to hang with a national championship contender?  Some already have been distraught that the 'Cats were merely beating non-conference opponents instead of treating opponents to the three-part Conan the Barbarian enemy-crushing system.
Professional Barbarians Hate Him!  Click here to see this ONE CRAZY TRICK that 
has destroyed an enemy's farming infrastructure

The loss stings because for once, there did not seem to be a canyon of football talent separating both teams.  Northwestern outplayed Ohio State for much of the game.  We were all very close to jubilantly rushing the field again as Pat Fitzgerald's fists grew three sizes, and we were very close to doing the most damage to the civic identity of Columbus, Ohio short of flooding their city with aggressive Leif Ericson impersonators.

On the other hand, playing Ohio State close has not done anything to harm Northwestern's reputation.  They are still ranked in the top twenty in both the AP and USA Today polls, and they look as good as their somewhat lackadaisical competition in the LEGENDS division-- it is entirely possible that we can see a rematch in Indianapolis, or more accurately most of us may see a rematch because we're not all going to make it out of the Dreaded Fourth Quarter alive.


Right now, the Road to Indianapolis is blocked by angry badgers.  Wisconsin enjoyed their own bye week after losing to Ohio State, but are another formidable Big Ten team.  I have heard rumors that the Badgers graduated some players, gained others, and have a new coach, but Wisconsin football is an eternal constant.  Every year, the head coach draws from their secret list of the World's Hugest Persons, plants them on an offensive line, and Ron Daynes at defenses until the sun ceases to burn and Earth becomes a lifeless husk scrubbed clean of any evidence of human existence except for some ruts created by a Wisconsin tackle.
Wisconsin has an attorney on the sidelines who legally changes running backs' 
names to Ron Dayne as they enter and exit the huddle for ease of continuity

This game has less fanfare and excitement than last week, but it's no hangover.  The 'Cats will be traveling to Madison, which is in a perennial state of Football Apocalypse every Saturday, with its Camp Randall Thunderdome, its State Street bartertown, and a captive audience of thousands forced to jump on command to appease their evil overlord, Everlast.

Wisconsin also fancies itself a contender for the Big Ten crown, and will be fighting hard to avoid starting conference play in a 1-2 hole.  Northwestern risks losing its preseason buzz by faltering here before even starting LEGENDS division play against Minnesota next week.  They need to recover from last week's media frenzy and heart-breaking let-down and prepare to enter a hostile environment devoid of thousands of fans carrying signs with encouraging messages such as "Everyone Sports Purple Neckties" or "Excelsior!  Sports-Play, Now!"


We're deep into October, which means that the Cubs have safely finished their exhibition of fruitless baseballing and have repaired to their homes so they could engage in deep studies about how to more effectively manufacture outs, serve up meatballs, and festively collide into one another in the outfield.  The Cubs' season went as expected, with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer all but declaring the season a lost cause from the outset.  Still, there were moments of progress: Anthony Rizzo looks like a serviceable first baseman, Carlos Villanueva sported an incredible mustache for a substantial portion of the season, and we all got to be unreasonably excited about Junior Lake for a couple of weeks.  Future Superstar Starlin Castro celebrated his first year of a large contract with an impression of a professional baseball player roughly on par with my impressions of Daniel Dravot, Peachy Carnahan, and the super-plummy Indian Civil Service agent in the "Hats On!" scene from the Man Who Would Be King, by which I mean it required someone to find an antique shop to remove him with an actual vaudeville hook.

The Cubs' strategy was simple: to let young players take their lumps and to trade any veteran who showed even a scrap of ability.  The sell-off included a rejuvenated Scott Feldman to Baltimore, the Carlos Marmol Experience to L.A. (where he has just been called up to the NLCS because I guess Don Mattingly wants to terrify St. Louis batters with the threat of poorly aimed fastballs colliding with their torsos), and Alfonso Soriano, who went to the Yankees and immediately mashed eight home runs every game.  In addition, the Cubs jettisoned speedster Tony Campana, human being Brent Lillibridge, platoon man Scott Hairston, and other players for fan favorites such as Cash Considerations and International Bonus Slot Money.   

The result was a parade of pitchers from various minor league organizations, interchangeable banjo-hitting infielders, and mystery players who seemed to drift ephemerally between Iowa, Chicago, and a ghostly spiritual plane.  The Cubs lost 96 games, though they managed to finish ahead of other hapless punching bags like Houston, Miami, and the White Sox, which replaced their broadcasts with two and a half hours of of Hawk Harrelson G-rated profanities sometime in mid-August.  

Dale Sveum was put in charge of this hapless venture.  He had no chance of succeeding with the club, but nevertheless got the axe after his second season at the helm.  I'm not sure why he was let go-- by August, my ability to stomach the Cubs dwindled and they existed for me as the occasional highlight reel that consistently showed Jeff Samardzija getting shelled and then walking to the dugout like a sad Musketeer.  It seems as though Sveum was expected to lose, but was not losing with enough style or panache for the Cubs front office.
Perhaps they let him ago because they got sucked into the web of Joe Girardi intrigue, hoping to lure Chicago's Big Ten Professional Baseball Manager back home by promising him season tickets to Wildcat football games and cut privileges at the bouncy castle in Wildcat Alley.  Nevertheless, Cubs fans can expect another several season of futility until the balley-hooed prospects are ready to take their place on the major league team and promptly forget how to get on base, drop easy fly balls, and have their pitching arms explode into a confetti of tendons and sinew, taking their place as the proper heirs to Chicago Cubs baseball tradition.


Last week's game was a reminder that Northwestern football is exciting, thrilling, and almost certainly fatal.  The Wildcats played well against a team in the mix for a national championship.  The offense with Mark is back to ludicrous speed, the defense stepped up against a dangerous attack, and the 'Cats did enough to win.  'Cats fans, however, will not be satisfied with a moral victory at Wisconsin.  Northwestern needs a win, and I would take an immoral victory achieved by the Wildcats by finding a Gary Andersen doppelganger and having him instruct his players to punt on first down, attempt four to five dangerous laterals on every play, and leave the game in the middle of the second half because he received news on his headset of trouble at the old mill. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013


arricade your homes and places of business.  The Football Apocalypse is here.  As it is written in the Book of Football Revelations and the Associated Press, there will come riders from the East.  They will bring with them the Signs of the End of Times: Poisonous Nuts, Terrifying Googly-Eyed Mascots, Satantic I-Dotting Rituals where the I stands for the phrase well-known in demonology: "I intend to do evil things upon your person," A Creepy Geriatric Whose Head is Not His Head, Weird Quasi-Biblical Prose that is not going to make it to the end of this paragraph before Getting Tedious, and other augers of an Intention to Ruin Your Evening.
Gameday is Nigh!

Northwestern football is many things, but I think we can all agree that it is historically a blight upon the noble narrative of college-aged men who wish to smash into each other in a vaguely organized fashion.  Lots of momentous events have occurred in one hundred plus years since Northwestern football players started futilely attempting to score touchdowns.  Most importantly, many of them used to have mustaches and now, very few of them do.

In the 1930s, the term "Great Depression" was coined by a person who had attended more than a dozen Wildcat football games.  Images of Northwestern's offense have been known to turn the stomach of even the most hardened sports beat reporters, even those from Cleveland.  In the late 1970s, Northwestern lost 2,000 consecutive football games to Big Ten foes, non-conference opponents, a resurgent Chicago Dental College that had been nursing a Count of Monte Cristo Revenge plot for nearly 70 years, and carnival rubes who had never played football before but managed to score effortlessly on Wildcat defenders and earn themselves a stuffed gorilla.
Kennedy's moon mission speech initially asked "why does Northwestern play football at all?" after 
his line about Rice playing Texas, but it was scrubbed because Northwestern winning football games 
seemed far less feasible than landing on the moon with only analogue tape machines and short-sleeved 
shirts, but also because the nation was not prepared to hear a Kennedy attempt to say the word "Northwestern"

The world changed in 1995, when Darnell Autrey and Pat Fitzgerald led an 85-man blasphemy against the Touchdown Jesus, the Wildcats went to the Rose Bowl, and they won an almost-unfathomable Big Ten championship.  Other Big Ten football fans may mock Northwestern supporters for investing the year 1995 as such a turning point for thinking about the team, but think about this: in 1995, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory came out, and after that, Steven Seagal's career entered a death spiral that led to the Glimmer Man, Exit Wounds, and a million interchangeable films where he waddles listlessly around Bulgaria. Clearly, 1995 is not just an important point in Northwestern football, but one that marks a significant shift in all of Western civilization.
Actual, latter-day Seagal movies.  First off, kudos to Seagal for appearing in a film 
where the word "belly" features prominently in the title.  Secondly, please enjoy 
this curated list of actual Seagal movies as the titles get progressively more generic: 
Out For a Kill, Mercenary for Justice, Shadow Man, Attack Force, Flight of Fury, 
Urban Justice, Against the Dark, Driven to Kill, Pistol Whipped, and Maximum 
Conviction, which I assume is about a man who, driven by his convictions, begins  
a massive letter-writing campaign to reform City Hall before  successfully running 
for office as a  reform candidate and then karate chopping 600 armed Bulgarians

Even after this resurgence, Northwestern has shifted to imploding in increasingly heart-wrenching ways in big games and especially bowl games.  Somewhere, Big Ten Legend Eric Crouch is polishing his Alamo Bowl MVP trophy.  Jeremy Maclin is still scampering across the Alamodome turf.  And someone has hired that UCLA guy who returned two consecutive onside kicks for touchdowns to head a Department of Northwestern Football Antagonism.

But here we are in 2013.  The 'Cats have exorcised their bowl demons.  They have exuberantly ripped apart a plush monkey doll and paraded its head around at a press conference like the world's least impressive Jim Corbett impersonators.  They are 4-0 again and facing an undefeated Buckeye team at home.  ESPN is in Evanston.  ABC national television is in Evanston.  Approximately 95,000 Ohio State fans are in Evanston to take over the stadium and shame Northwestern on said national television.  The capital of the Greater Football-Land Metropolitan Area is Evanston, Illinois, and this time it is not because they are playing a game in a one-endzone geek show against the Last Days of the Zook Empire.  Stock up on bleach.


All of the carnival hoopla surrounding this game can only mask the fact that Northwestern has to play Ohio State.  Two weeks ago, Ohio State demolished Florida A&M by a score of 222-0.  At the same time, the Wildcats sputtered against an unacceptably frisky Maine team, only pulling away in the second half.  One of the problems of increased expectations for Northwestern is a concern about how it beats teams.  While Wildcat fans would traditionally take any win against any opponent, even if it came weeks later on a technicality due to some bureaucratic error that mislabeled the score, now fans are concerned that they are not pummeling FCS opponents enough. 

Meanwhile, Ohio State has maintained its position at the top of the Big Ten pecking order.  They defeated Wisconsin handily without having to resort to any clock-confusing wizardry.  Superstar quarterback Braxton Miller missed two games and his replacement, Kenny Guiton, threw dozens of touchdowns against nonconference opponents without a second thought. Miller is expected to be the quarterback against Northwestern because Urban Meyer has not realized the winning football strategy of using as many quarterbacks as humanly possible all of the time.

Historically, Northwestern has faltered against Ohio State.  They've beaten them once since 1971, when Brett Basanez and Noah Herron led a stirring overtime comeback.  This game has led to the importance of the number 33 in Wildcat numerology: Herron, wearing #33, scored the games decisive 33rd point with his 33rd carry, and I also saw a drunken bar patron menace close to 33 people with a bar stool after the game was over.
Noah Herron temporarily ends the Buckeyes' reign of terror against Northwestern football

The 'Cats open this game as home underdogs.  In a spot of good news, Venric Mark will play for the first time since a brief cameo in the opener.  The addition of a dynamic playmaker will only help the offense, which struggled against Maine. Nevertheless, Northwestern faces hurdles.  The pass defense will be tested.  They will need to take advantage of turnovers.  And they should possibly look into some type of subterfuge such as convincing the Buckeye coaching staff that the Wrigley Rules are still in effect from Gameday and they are barred from any use of the south endzone for any reason including touchdowns, touchdown dances, safeties, touchbacks, team-building exercises, and general Big Ten expansion talks.


In the meantime, you have from now until Saturday evening to prepare yourself for the momentous, exhilarating, terrifying prospect of a football apocalypse.  The United States government has shut down in preparation.  There are no longer any laws in the United States.  You can go to Columbus with a crew of several thousand and crane equipment, steal Buckeye Stadium, remove it to a vacant lot, and leave threatening messages on Brutus Buckeye's voicemail account because there is no one left to stop you.  The Big Ten can add as many teams as it likes without consequence and no one can prevent Jim Delany from walking around with a cape.  The game will have no referees except for the angry fake Mayan guys from Legends of the Hidden Temple who will pop out of the locker room and attempt to startle players in false start situations.

Stock up on canned goods, water, and Wildcat Hats.  Gameday is coming.  And, on Sunday, when the dust has cleared from Ryan Field, when nothing remains of the braying fans, when expired sausage products disintegrate in the parking lot, Northwestern will have won or lost a football game, and this means something.