Thursday, September 4, 2014

Let's All Freak Out About Football

At one point in the second quarter, Northwestern had shown signs of life as Cameron Dickerson scampered into the endzone. A despondent Ryan Field woke up. The band struck up a chorus of Go U, the Cal lead narrowed to a manageable ten, and the listless Wildcats seemed poised for a comeback. Cal got the ball back, and on the first play from scrimmage, Jared Goff found Trevor Davis with a few miles on the last defender, leaving every single player behind him as irrelevant as the fictional Batman football teams swallowed by a chasm. Ryan Field deflated. The pockets of Cal fans erupted. Northwestern fans turned into sentient tarp. This is Wildcat Football. 
There are some teams for whom a nine-win season is an unmitigated disaster that demands the sacrifice of a head coach and a bevy of deranged alumni staring unblinkingly at creepy flight-tracking websites. There are programs in the throes of misery that get scraped off the field every week. And then there is Northwestern, a team that wins upsets, perseveres with moral victories, and suffers horrifying losses, usually all within the fourth quarter of a single game.  
adjective \-ˈwes-tərn\ 
in, toward, or from the northwest
of or relating to the northwest

to lose a football game in a spectacular manner in the fourth quarter or overtime by hail mary, quick field goal, interception, treachery by the inopportune defection of the offensive line, fundamental rule change to the game of football that applies only to Northwestern at that moment in time such as the abolition of the forward pass, or playing profoundly badly.

Northwestern did manage a comeback in the second half, tightening the defense, moving the ball, and using a super cool double pass play. The 'Cats had several opportunities to tie the game before some ill-timed drops and a backbreaking interception ended the game.

We're unsure what this game augurs for the Wildcats' season. In the first half, they looked unprepared and unmatched by the remnants of a 1-11 team before rallying in the second. Part of it involved preparation. InsideNu discovered that Northwestern defenders had incorrect play-calling wristbands, which Pat Fitzgerald dismissed as a "typo." This goes deeper than simple uniform confusion. What Fitzgerald does not want you to know is that the wristbands were switched with elaborate early modern battle maps that left the NU defense less than prepared to stop the Cal offense but in excellent position to siege Constantinople if it was the fifteenth century.

Wildcat defenders are confused when they are unable to locate their siege towers 

and sapping equipment

While we can be heartened that Northwestern played far better in the second half, the loss has significant implications for the team's bowl hopes. Assuming they can pull together and defeat Northern and Western Illinois (scheduled by an apparently self-referential athletic department), Northwestern will need to wring four wins out of conference play and Notre Dame in order to qualify for the postseason. Better prognosticators than me will have to figure out where those are coming from (aside from a surefire Hat Defense), but it is going to be a rough and exciting Road to Pizza City this year.

Crunching the numbers on Northwestern's Bowl Position

The first week of the season, especially when the game is not against Chicago Dental College or the Institute of Football Losing Science, is unpredictable. Maybe Sonny Dykes has righted the ship and Cal will be far better than last year. Maybe Northwestern's lapse was a product of Mark's departure and Christian Jones's injury. Maybe Tim Beckman's Legion of Evil Abraham Lincoln Impersonators successfully switched the wristbands before melting away, unseen, into a landscape of license plates and pennies. Regardless of the reason, the 'Cats will have to improve to win in the Big Ten, to make it to a bowl game, and to finally drive us all to the brink of insanity at the end of each game.


The demoralized 'Cats will return on Saturday against Northern Illinois to rescue their season. This is fitting. Northwestern defeated the Huskies in 1982 to end their ignominious record-breaking streak of defeats. They have, in fact, never lost to Northern, and at 6-0-1, they have dominated them more thoroughly than any other opponent that is not a high school, YMCA, dental college, or other group of Spanish-American War-era football enthusiasts.

Northwestern owns a 0-0-1 record against Kentucky's 
Transylvania University, which was founded in 1780.  
Transylvania University's law faculty at one time included 
future Secretary of State Henry Clay, shown in the standard early 
photographic pose where subjects were asked to look like they 
wanted to murder every man, woman, and child who has ever 
lived and will live in future times. There are no other jokes to 
be made about Transylvania University

Northern is coming off of a 55-3 thrashing of Presbyterian College. They lost their All-American Heisman candidate quarterback Jordan Lynch who graduated and was last seen wandering from NFL city to NFL city offering to football. Nevertheless, the Huskies are more than a one-player team, and have been the scourge of the MAC West for the last four years. They were certainly the best college football team in Illinois last season. The stakes for Northwestern are serious. A loss would effectively end their hopes at bowl contention (barring a miracle Big Ten run), obliterate their unbeaten record against Northern, and lead to the Huskies putting up a series of garish billboards along the expressway declaring themselves Chicago's MAC Team, and then entering a float denigrating Northwestern into the annual Sycamore Pumpkin Festival. This is Northwestern's Waterloo.


The Chicago Cubs are alive. Not in the sense of having any hope of making the playoffs or achieving any concrete thing in baseball. But they have recently swept the AL East-leading Orioles (using a variety of former Orioles in the pitching staff) and the erstwhile NL Central-leading Brewers and have done so with an arsenal of exciting young prospects that would in theory lead the Cubs to glory in a universe where the Chicago Cubs were not the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs have gone from the basement to the sub-basement. They can realistically overtake the free-falling, injury-cursed Reds to finish in a position above last for the first time in a few years, and I could not be more excited.

The most impressive addition has been Jorge Soler, a Cuban free agent who has hit everything since coming up last week. The more intriguing prospect, though, is Javier Baez. Baez already has 7 dingers in his first 30 games. He also has struck out 51 times in 129 plate appearances and his hitting .179 with a .217 on-base percentage. This is because Javier Baez swings hard. He wants to hit a baseball so hard it will simultaneously hit all of the baseballs made from the same hide. If it was possible, he would take a running start into his swing from the dugout. His swing starts from the origin of the universe and, on the rare instances when he makes clean contact, he hits the ball it into the next era of geological time. 

The Pacific Coast League demanded that pitchers throw balls to Baez with the Pioneer plaque

In addition to Baez and Soler, the Cubs have had excellent seasons from Anthony Rizzo and even Starlin Castro, whom I've spent the past several seasons maligning. Reinforcements including Addison Reed, Kris Bryant, and the sublimely-named Albert Almora are cooling their heels in the minors. It is a tremendous time to be a Cubs fan because it is way more fun to imagine Hypothetical Future Good Cubs than to deal with the inevitable September collapses, October collapses, and even possible November apocalypses that are the best-case scenario for this forlorn, hopeless team.


College football is here again. It is an unalloyed spectacle of the absurd, of crowds braying for barely-controlled violence that is vaguely connected to educational institutions, of goofy mascots and bands dressed like Edwardian bus drivers playing 1970s jazz rock, of people falling upon hunks of meat in parking lots and college students letting the streets run sort of yellowish with vomit, all of which is covered by sports networks with the gravity of an international arms summit. It's a mutant cousin of the NFL, which oversees a similar menagerie with the gravity of the end of the world.

AIKMAN: Joe, I've just learned that the Pacific Northwest has just vanished under 

a mushroom cloud.
Aikman: Joe, San Franciso and Vancouver have gone, and no one has heard 

anything from a major city outside North America.
AIKMAN: Joe all we can do is try to defense ourselves and our loved ones
BUCK: There's no excuse for that in the National Football League


Yet, watching young people collide for our amusement while stuffing ourselves with nachos is just as ridiculous as any form of mass entertainment spectacle we've come up with in the last century. London's Hippodrome in the Edwardian period, for example, hosted elaborate variety shows, some of which required hundreds of gallons of water for aquatic extravaganzas. These included divers, polar bears, and ramps for elephants to slide down and fall gracefully into the water while spectators looked on. As football stadium experiences become more elaborate to hold the crowd's attention during an ever-expanding roster of television commercials, perhaps we too can turn them into elaborate variety shows with breaks for synchronized swimming, animal ventriloquism, and people getting embarrassingly removed from the premises with robotically controlled vaudeville hooks.

A reproduction of the hippodrome, attended crowds in their top-hatted finery, 

no doubt shouted things like "I say, sir, that is tip-top elephant sliding."


One game into the season, and Northwestern remains a team shrouded in mystery. It is still possible that the best is yet to come for the Wildcats as they shake off the rust. Pat Fitzgerald's perfect streak of openers is shattered, but we can continue the streak of invincibility against Northern Illinois University. And, in case you don't get official e-mails from Northwestern football and doubt the team's ability to mean-mug their way through adversity, let this prove you wrong:

I've stared at it for hours, and there is nothing that can be included in this image 

that is funnier than the phrase "Official E-mail of Chicago's Big Ten Team."

If there's one thing we can be sure of one game into the season, it's that Northwestern will continue to play the most exciting games in college football until there's no one left sink to their knees in full Heston in the fourth quarter. Northwestern may yet Reverse Northwestern itself to glory, its football team basking in an unending parade of fortuitous bounces, incomprehensible opponent gaffes, and a 35-lateral trick play that makes up for the entirety of last season.

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