It is here.
Which team will qualify for a virtually non-existent bowl game in Detroit or somewhere spiritually aligned with the concept of a Detroit bowl game ? Which team can persevere in the face of intense media scrutiny? Which team has what it takes to be the second-best team in the state? Which team has a better back-up quarterback? Whose cuisine will reign supreme? Who wants The Hat, the universally-recognized symbol of the greatest rivalry in the history of college football?
It's Hat Saturday. Haturday. Win or go home. The most important game between Northwestern and Illinois in the history of the rivalry and it's to punch a golden ticket to a Siberian bowl wasteland or be forever cast into the dustbin of forgotten teams that don't play in bowls even though the difference between playing in a crappy bowl game or not playing in one is for all intents and purposes meaningless. This game is no less than the climax of the Tim Beckman era, and a win or die showdown for watered-down, grade-inflation bowl eligibility; it is the platonic ideal of a Land of Lincoln game. This game could be a glorious continuation of Tim Beckman-related Hat Invincibility or it could go down as one of the most ignominious defeats in Northwestern history which includes losses via multiple onside kick returns, allowing the greatest comeback in the history of college football, losing to an FCS opponent at home, losing 34 consecutive games as students threw the goal posts in Lake Michigan in mock triumph, and failing to defeat Brady Hoke.
DO BECK MEN DREAM OF ELECTRIC HATS
Tim Beckman is one of the best things to happen to Northwestern football. Illinois and Northwestern shared Big Ten Cellar-Dweller Solidarity, occasionally rising to the top of the conference and serving as a welcome breath of fresh air against the ceaseless and boring domination by the Ohio States and Michigans. Illinois's football past is only slightly less bleak than Northwestern's. I can't sum up the Illinois football experience better than the lede from this article: "Illinois senior football players were asked to name their favorite
memory during their time in the program for the team's website. For most
of the 18, the best memory was the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl."
The rivalry game, first for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk and then vastly superior Hat, was a good way to end the season and usually seen as winnable. Then Tim Beckman came to down, guns blazing, staring down piano players.
Beckman made no secret of what he wanted: state pride and its currency: Hats. His introductory press conference was rife with references to destroying purple objects, referring to Northwestern as "that school up north," putting up that anti-Northwestern sign in the locker room, and probably getting angry at Kansas State and sending hate mail to the purple teletubby for what the producers of the that show would see as novel and unexpected reasons. If you for whatever reason have read more than one entry of this blog, you've noticed that I think the War on Northwestern is an unending wellspring of hilarity.
Try to think of something funnier than this
But, in some ways, Tim Beckman has won. Beckman, and the conversion of the trophy into a coveted Hat, has made the Illinois game a must-win. It's more than just a win against an in-state rival (Beckman, who makes pronouncements with the understated, soft-spoken cadence of a desperate Depression-era carnival barker, declared this the "state championship," apparently oblivious to the existence of Northern Illinois). The cosmic laws of the universe simply cannot allow a person who uses all of the ridiculous flopsweat-addled manufactured rivalry tricks on what is historically the worst program in the history of college football to prevail in that game. Instead, Beckman functions best as a frustrated foil; Beck Man the Saturday morning cartoon villain whose plots are forever frustrated by his own incompetence.
If Tim Beckman had turned the Illini into a football juggernaut, his goofy Northwestern-baiting would be embraced as part of his motivational tactics. But his Illini have not exactly set the world on fire. Beckman has won a total of four Big Ten games since taking over in 2012. His tenure has been marked by weird incidents on and off the field, including a public censure by the NCAA for chewing tobacco on the sideline, acquiring sideline interference penalties including the one linked above where he's simultaneously flagged and run over by a referee, and criticism for attempting to poach Penn State players seconds after sanctions came down. I don't blame him for any of those things; there's no room for dignity in coaching college football and Beckman should be able to use whatever sideline substances he wants whether it's chaw or the chemicals that are constantly pumped into Ed Orgeron on gameday to prevent him from removing his shirt. But it would also be fair to say that his position at Illinois is under siege, and he may well be coaching for his job on Saturday.
GET ON UP FOR THE HAT GAME YOU CHUMPS
What else can we say? It's the Hat Game. Northwestern is carrying a modest two-game win streak including a decisive 38-14 victory over a train accident Purdue team that was never really in doubt. But the Wildcats suffered a massive blow on offense when Trevor Siemian injured his knee. That means that the already-struggling Northwestern offense will turn to big-armed backup Zack Oliver. Oliver looked good to close out the game. It would not be surprising to see the 'Cats use their other quarterback in Alviti Packages because they sound like the Macguffin at the center of a heist movie.
Slide the briefcase across the floor. Stay there. I need to make a call. If I don't call
by precisely 2:30, we'll destroy the Alviti Packages. You're not getting anything
until my boss confirms he has the Colter Options
The Illini may also use their backup at quarterback. Beckman replaced a rusty Wes Lunt with Riley O'Toole in their win against Penn State. Northwestern fans may remember O'Toole from his cameo in the 2012 game, when he relieved Nathan Scheelaase in a Northwestern romp. Lunt may also play. Maybe the teams will switch quarterbacks at halftime just to mix things up.
The game will match one of the country's least productive offenses (playing with up to two quarterbacks, neither of which has ever started a game) against one of the worst defenses. Northwestern plays defense better than anything the Illini do and are at home, albeit badly outnumbered by Illinois fans. The 'Cats have beaten Wisconsin and Notre Dame while the Illini have felled mighty Minnesota.
Don't write off the Illini. This game is for The Hat. It is for a bowl. It is for Tim Beckman's job, for continued irritation at the whole Chicago's Big Ten team thing, for a tiny crack of dawn in the darkness that has shrouded the Illinois football program since the Fall of the Zook Empire, and I expect the Illini to come out like maniacs to let that Hat radiate happiness around Champaign in the dismal winter months to come in The Greatest Rivalry in All of College Football.
COME OUT THIS SATURDAY. It is the Hat Game. It is going to be pleasant outside. Are you prepared to sit idly by and ignore what will certainly be the hattest hat game of the century with a trip to Detroit at stake when you and your loved ones can be part of a braying purple throng ready to sweep Beck Man and the Illini down I-57, hatless and bowl-less, in the last opportunity to do so at Ryan Field this season, and with the only socially acceptable venue for yelling at college students who are running into each other for our amusement? Don't let the Illini enact a Glorious Revolution and turn Ryan Field into a House of Orange.
Beckman's hatred for Northwestern is so intense, I
can see him taking over another team and
attempting to maneuver them into the Big Ten and
use their resources to try to crush the Wildcats, like
William III attempted to do against the Sun King,
HATURDAYS OF THUNDER
This is the greatest Hat Game in history. A bowl is on the line in a win or go home thunderdome. We might not have Tim Beckman to kick around anymore. No one wants to see Beckman ever hold a Hat in triumph; the thought is sickening, appalling, disgusting. At the same time, I want to see more on the line in this game. Beckman's ridiculous, tone-deaf, absurd rivalry campaign has made this game relevant again and not even entirely ironically. I hope he sticks around for many more Hats to come and for this game to be not about Detroit or whatever shitty bowl game the bowl gods conjure up but one day about Indianapolis or Pasadena.
Even in a sport where wins and losses can swing the tenor of an entire season, this has been one of the most bizarre Northwestern seasons I can remember. It featured at least three or four moments when all seemed lost. It featured a heinous blowout at the hands of the hated Hawkeyes and a football game against Michigan so terrible that it was not played so much as perpetrated. It continued the inexplicable and frustrating Northwesternings from last season, but also contained one of my favorite Northwestern games ever played when every single break Northwestern missed over the past two years came to their way in the service of ruining Notre Dame's day. And it culminated in a knock-down drag-out fight to the death for a Hat, a crappy bowl game, and all that is worth rooting for in college football.