Monday, August 18, 2014

Good Gravy, Northwestern Football is Almost Here

We've had nearly nine months to forget about last season, a season of promise and preseason rankings, a season of winning amongst allegations of fake injury skullduggery, a season of making fun of P.J. Fleck's absurd rowboat sloganeering, and a season that ended in ignominy amongst hail mary passes, last-second field goals, overtimes, failed fourth-down conversions, and, well, at least we have The Hat.  We spent the offeseason watching Northwestern become the focal point of the NCAA's ridiculous Custer-like defense of student-athlete amateurism.  It is time to put that aside, drink beer, contort our hands into claw gestures, and bray for touchdowns as our Wildcats smash into other football teams for our amusement.  Northwestern makes its debut in the Big Ten West in search of a bowl berth, the final blow against the Tim Beckman Hate Machine, and oh my goodness, we play Notre Dame again this year, let's create a dumb rivalry trophy and then use it to dismantle that stadium brick by brick.
Northwestern and Notre Dame last played 19 years and this Pat Fitzgerald 
mustache ago

The Wildcats will this season to their comfortable position of low expectations, they return key defenders, and, most importantly, they will never play in the LEGENDS DIVISION again or at least until the next Big Ten expansion that will create the LIONHEART, LOCH NESS, or LINKEDIN.COM divisions.


Yet, before the season started, the Wildcats have already hit some setbacks.  Star running back Venric Mark, one of the most exciting players in Northwestern history, has departed the team under mysterious circumstances.  Mark missed most of last season with an injury (a "lower body" injury in NU's festively vague injury-reporting protocol that lists injuries as upper or lower-body; the medical staff would be baffled figuring out how to report Buzzsaw's untimely end at the hands of the fugitive Ben Richards).  Reports surfaced that he had been suspended from the team for the first two games for a violation of team policies.  Last week, the school announced unexpectedly that he was transferring.  There's nothing more to say about any of that other than reiterating how much I enjoyed watching Venric Mark zoom around Ryan Field as defensive players futilely tried to tackle him using a variety of defective products from the Acme catalog.
Tim Beckman presents a solid tactical plan to stop the 
Colter/Mark option play

That same day, we learned that speedy wideout Christian Jones is lost for the season with a knee injury.  These developments will strain an offense already adjusting to a presumably more pass-happy offense under the sole direction of Trevor Siemian.  Northwestern fans have seen plenty of him the past few years as a co-starter who saw significant playing time.  Now, the senior will get his shot as the full-time signal caller without two dynamic playmakers and with the pressure of knowing that, at any minute, some pun-happy newspaper editor is going to figure out that his last name is a homophone for simian and let loose with a barrage of substandard ape-related wordplay until he or she is subdued by the proper literary authorities.  

Northwestern has had an uncharacteristically interesting offseason.  Normally, Wildcat fans can look forward to ramping up to opening day by reading Pat Fitzgerald's candid admissions that they will indeed be playing (American) football this season and are training with branch of the military that will teach them how to lift logs in tandem and safely detonate landmines for football purposes.  This year, though, the union case made Northwestern football into national news, thus taking away a key tactical advantage against Big Ten coaches who often forget the 'Cats are in the conference and now need to figure out how to get a bus to Evanston in less than 72 hours.  
Whatever the hell this thing is doesn't need to worry about finding out how to ride 
to Evanston for the forseeable future

Then again, maybe Northwestern's dismal season and loss of key offensive players has rendered the offseason attention moot.  The Grantland Big Ten preview by the excellent Holly Anderson, for example, offered few bits of insight for Wildcat fans such as the existence of the team or its intention to play football games this fall in both home and away venues.

As we've learned from years when the 'Cats have boasted preseason ranks and then crashed or have been picked to finish in the basement and then won Big Ten Championships, there's no point in prognosticating.  The defense, returning Ibraheim Campbell, Nick VanHoose, and Chi Chi Ariguzo along with some exciting newcomers, could potentially carry the team to a better record than we expect.  The Big Ten West does not terrify anyone.  But the 'Cats will have to face a vengeance-obsessed Sonny Dykes, try to maintain their perfect record against Northern Illinois, and travel to South Bend in November during a brutal stretch of conference games in order to make it back to their rightful place in Pizza City.  I would not have it any other way.


For those of us who are idle and silly enough to waste our time following sports, we have been greatly rewarded by the creation of year-long soap operas around our favorite leagues.  The NBA is the best at this, featuring a summer of stunning revelations, open letters written in comic sans and normal fonts, exile and deliverance from Minnesota, and breathless updates on golf cart men.

The NBA trade and free agent market is rendered even more exciting by a collective-bargaining agreement that is essentially impossible to follow unless you are a person who owns a green accounting visor and one of those jewel-magnifying monocles for strictly recreational purposes.  Player movement is governed by a salary cap riven with exceptions such as the midlevel exception, the room exception, the bird rights exception, the table ladder and chair exception for players able to successfully pin either Karl Malone or Diamond Dallas Page in a professional wrestling match, an exception for players willing to get a tattoo of former commissioner David Stern in an area visibly exposed by a modern basketball jersey, an exception for teams with non-extinct animal mascots, and an exception for general managers able to last an entire night in the NBA's spooky mansion.

The NFL has gone a step further and made contracts, as far as I can tell, completely and utterly meaningless, like they've been placed on the front page of the official organ of the fictional evil Wisconsin communist regime.

This interview with a Temporary Mosinee Communist sheds light on the festive fictional communist coup.  While the Mosinee experiment is a notorious Red Scare episode, few historians are aware of Moscow's repsonse, where citizens in a small rural Soviet town pretended to launch an American takeover and spent the day accusing each other of being communists.


The wind is shifting, Wildcat fans.  Old men can feel it in their bones.  Pat Fitzgerald's fists pump infinitesimally harder in practice.  Soon, the leaves will fall from the trees.  Dozens of people will pour into Ryan Field.  The Chicago Cubs will stop embarrassing themselves in public.  Football is mere days away, and I couldn't be more excited.  There's no hype this season.  No preseason ranking.  No expectations.  No verbs in these sentence fragments.  It will soon be football season, it will soon be Big Ten football, and it will soon be time to share in college football's greatest prize: a berth in a bowl game named for a soon-to-be-defunct product or service.  Wildcat football is coming to save us all.

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