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.
AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
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
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
TAKE ME DOWN TO THE PIZZA CITY
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.
A HIGHLY SCIENTIFIC BREAKDOWN OF THE MATCHUP WITH IOWA, CONSIDERING VARIABLES SUCH AS OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE SCHEMES, STATISTICS, COACHING PHILOSOPHIES, AND HISTORY
Oh fuck. Get out of Kinnick alive.
DON'T DESPAIR, IT'S STILL FOOTBALL SEASON
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.