Thursday, November 20, 2014
Notre-Dame: This is Northwestern Football
Turn up the Coolio, put up your Jud Buechler posters, and hang with Mr. Cooper. Northwestern has gone back into South Bend and improbably beaten the Notre Dame Fighting Irish nineteen years after their last trip to Notre Dame Stadium convinced America that Northwestern football existed. And they did so with a game only marginally more ridiculous than Northwestern's losses in the past two seasons, a game that unfolded like a diabolical Rube Goldberg machine designed to ruin Notre Dame football. Look, I know anyone who has gone far enough down the Northwestern football rabbit hole to actually be reading this blog has probably watched the game and read all the articles and produced a 1920s silent film reel about it, but I can't think of anything more pleasurable than reviewing the stupefying chain of events that led to Northwestern victory.
Excerpt from silent film The Hiphooraysman.
The gif comes from @NUHighlights's spectacular collection of Fitzgifs, including one where
Fitz temporarily vanishes from the Coaches' Review graphic box because he is reacting like a muppet
1. A botched hold on an extra points allows Nick VanHoose to return the ball some 98 yards for a two-point conversion. You are not allowed to do this in the National Football League because only the kicking team can score National Football Points on a point-after attempt as mandated by the NFL's Committee of Guys With Folded Arms Slowly Shaking Their Heads.
2. A football bounces off an iconic Notre Dame Golden Helmet into the waiting arms of Anthony Walker for a rare Domeception.
3. The 2014 Northwestern Wildcats score multiple touchdowns in the same game.
3.Up 40-29, Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly decides to go for two, even though a PAT would force the Wildcats to score two touchdowns instead of a touchdown, two-point conversion, and field goal because it's called playing the percentages and it's what smart managers do to win ballgames.
"More points! More points!" screams Kelly, demanding the Irish go for two in the
manner of a reprobate Roman Emperor
4. Northwestern scores a touchdown and converts for its 37th point.
5.With 96 seconds remaining in the game and Northwestern out of timeouts the Fighting Irish have the ball. Virtually any football action here such as running, passing, falling down, performing an elaborately choreographed Busby Berkeley dance number, snapping the ball and yelling I DECLARE A FOOTBALL, would have virtually ended the game. Instead, the running back fumbled the ball right back to Trevor Siemian and the Wildcat offense.
6. Northwestern drives down the damn field.
7. Kicker Jack Mitchell (MITCHELL!), who did not hit a field goal longer than 29 yards all season, straight up stone colds a 41-yarder to send it to OT. Then, after a Notre Dame miss in overtime, he blasts a 45-yarder to just end Notre Dame.
After enduring a two-year supply of fourth-quarter meltdowns, Fourth and Shorts, Ron Kelloggings, kicker-slidings, overtime debacles, Husky tauntings, two point conversion slips, and the entire case history of Universe v. Northwestern Football, it culminated in a game where everything short of the Red Sea parted for the Wildcats. And they did it to Notre Dame in South Bend on the Notre Dame Television Station in front of thousands of Notre Dame fans and in front of you and me and America.
THIS IS NORTHWESTERN FOOTBALL
Northwestern football has been kind of bumming fans out lately. No one expects the Wildcats to be a football juggernaut-- in fact Northwestern football had been defined by its decades-long stretch as a reverse-juggernaut that was better than any other team in this nation at getting trampled upon. But the improbable way the Wildcats have lost football games has given fans the same kind of dour combination of disbelief and resignation that John McClane has in the first 25 minutes of any Die Hard movie when he learns he's at the center of another plot concocted by an as-yet undiscovered Gruber Brother.
The advent of the playoff system (and its inevitable future expansion) and the Embrace Debate culture that permeates college football's nonsensical championship raises questions about the relevance of the rest of the teams. What do you root for when your team is irrelevant to the playoff picture? Why does the Big Ten bother to play football?
"Because it's there." George Mallory and this guy
Wildcat football is not likely to figure in the playoff most years. They are not likely to contend for conference championships, although it's far from impossible in the Big Ten West: Division of Dreams. But Northwestern, like 100 other teams in the FBS can have successful seasons. There's the eternal quest for six wins and a golden ticket to one of dozens of Pizza City Bowls. There's the Hat, the symbol of victory in America's Greatest College Football Rivalry. And there is the possibility to just absolutely brutalize some other team's hopes and dreams.
This is the essence of Northwestern football. If you cannot be a football powerhouse forever stressing about strength of schedule, transitive properties, shadowy playoff committees, and all of the other nonsense that goes into disguising the essentially arbitrary process that determines the national championship, you might as well be a team that infuriates other teams by beating them.
Northwestern will beat a ranked team. That team's fans will respond with apoplectic calls to fire their coach, their athletic director, their mascot, their band director, their chair in zoology. They will write angry things on the internet about how the situation is unacceptable, despite the fact that the word unacceptable should only be by used be people like international observers monitoring elections in that fictional country ruled by Dr. Doom. They will fail to acknowledge the existence of Northwestern except as a force to expose their team's flaws, like the Wildcats are an unexplained blight or pestilence. No one ever gives credit to the sun for being really clutch at melting Icarus's wings.
College football has organized and commodified a process of demolishing expectations and crushing hope. We know that all too well-- both seasons since 2000 that Northwestern entered with a preseason rankings ended as four- and five-win debacles. I don't know how fans of powerhouse teams do that every year. It does not seem fun to consider nine-win seasons and bowl victories as catastrophes or get genuinely upset when the team does not win by enough points. It's great when Northwestern can rack up victories and contend for Big Ten Championships. I sincerely believe the 'Cats will make it back to Pasadena at some point even as I've made peace with the fact that I will die without seeing the Cubs play in a World Series and all of their young talent is an elaborate cosmic taunt. But, in those leaner years, Northwestern will remain an agent of chaos, spreading football discord and trampling upon the hopes of other fans, and chaos wins in college football more than anything.
HAVING SAID THAT, LET'S HAVE UNREASONABLE BOWL EXPECTATIONS
The Notre Dame victory did more than satisfyingly infuriate Notre Dame people. It also kept bowl hopes alive for Northwestern. Should the Wildcats win out against Purdue and Illinois, they are going to Detroit or Dallas or the back room of a chicken slaughtering facility. Neither team opponent is a world-beater, and Northwestern may well be favored in both.
The Wildcats are coming off their best offensive performance of the season. The 40 points they scored in regulation is the exact number of points they scored in their last three games. Trevor Siemian threw for 284 yards, but could have had more if receivers could have come down with some few well-thrown bombs that bounced off their hands. He also ran for 32 yards and a touchdown, although he probably could have moonwalked into the endzone. Justin Jackson has already rushed for 910 yards despite not beginning the season as a starter. Jackson's not overwhelmingly big or blindingly fast-- instead, he has an innate sense that allows him to find cracks in the line and an apparent disdain for opposing tacklers that are forced to leave messages for him about tackling because he is too busy running the ball.
A late tackle attempt
The biggest story of the Notre Dame game was Jack Mitchell. HEY DID YOU KNOW JACK MITCHELL IS A BASEBALL PLAYER? IT IS TRUE, HE LITERALLY PLAYS TWO SPORTS. THAT'S MORE THAN ONE SPORT, DOUG. I don't know what it is about multi-sport athletes that makes announcers lose their fucking minds with dumb, unfunny references to batting averages and walk-offs and wRC+, but we all lived through the Greg Paulus Imbroglio and as happy as I am for Mitchell and the rest of the 'Cats, I would not wish that on any fan base, even Notre Dame.
I don't know anything about Purdue football. They have three wins this season and the worst record in the Big Ten (powerhouse Northwestern boasts four wins). Darrell Hazell, who took over from Danny Hope last year, inherited a program that had fallen far from its heights as a reliable generator of NFL quarterbacks including Drew Brees, The Pride of Buffalo Kyle Orton, and Curtis Painter. The Boilermakers' quarterback is a person named Austin Appleby. It's been a grim year in West Lafeyette and probably all other Lafeyettes.
Hazell may be forced to take extreme action to rally his
Purdue is the worst team in the Big Ten this season. But there's no point in assuming anything with this Northwestern team. Purdue will see the 'Cats as a potential win, the Wildcats are coming off an emotional victory over yet another ranked opponent, and I bet Austin Appleby is really scrappy. Perhaps the Notre Dame victory has managed to reverse the demonic curse that has befallen Northwestern since the Ohio State game last year. Perhaps Northwestern players will build on the win. Perhaps nothing has changed at all and this game will end with Purdue temporarily winning a court injunction to suspend the out of bounds rules on the final play and will lateral the ball around the stadium and parking lots and on hastily constructed Mad Max dune buggies that will allow them to lose the Northwestern defense somewhere around the Tippecanoe battle site and then wind their way back down to score a secret touchdown in the dead of night.
But the even larger implications surround the Apocalyptic Northwestern-Illinois Showdown looming in Evanston on November 29. I'm turning my back on the Greatest Rivalry in the History of American Quasi-Amateur Sports this weekend to root full bore for the Beck Men to beat Penn State. Both NU and Illinois have four wins. If Northwestern manages to win against Purdue and the Illini beat Penn State, the teams will be playing for more than a Hat. The last, shittiest, Big Ten bowl berth will be at stake.
The Battle for the Sixth Win would be the greatest Illinois-Northwestern game of all time. The two teams have only played once with bowl status on the line as far as I can tell: in 2008, the Wildcats knocked Ron Zook's Illini out of bowl eligibility. This could be potentially the first knockdown bowl berth death bowl ever played, and the fact that it would be for a forgotten place in some far-flung nonsense bowl makes it the greatest possible game between these two hallowed squads. Plus, the winner gets the damn Hat and the undisputed crown as the second-best football team in the state of Illinois.
Notre Dame football looms over Chicago like the ominous shadow of a rubber monster suit over a scale model of Tokyo. It is inescapable. Despite sitting nearly 100 miles away and in another state, Chicago's a Notre Dame town only because of some weird quirks like the Fighting Irish dominating college football for the vast majority of its existence. Meanwhile, only a few miles up the road, Northwestern toils in front of braying Nebraska fans, tarps, and no one, even in winning seasons. The last win was the beginning of a great Northwestern team announcing its presence; this was a greater upset as the sputtering 'Cats regained their mojo.
Two wins for bowl, one win for Hat, and zero wins left for chaos to reign.