If you, like me, measure the relative success of Northwestern seasons by a berth in a much-ridiculed and ignored bowl game, then the season is likely over. If you enjoy college football as a living museum art piece dedicated to exploring every possible way to lose, then you may have this Northwestern football season framed and hanging on your wall in violation of everything you think you know about the physical laws of the universe.
Two weeks ago, the Wildcats were coming off two unexpected Big Ten wins and a competitive half against Nebraska. They also had a close loss against Big Ten West powerhouse Minnesota that they could have won except it had been a couple of weeks so fans needed to be subjected to a Northwestern Ending. It seemed like Wildcat football would center on defense and Justin Jackson barreling into people. And then Northwestern went into Iowa City. I've prepared an elaborate video filled with high-level football strategy talk to summarize every element of the Iowa game.
Gott dame it
After the Iowa stomping, Northwestern still clung to hopes of a bowl game with three games against a reeling Michigan team, Purdue, and the Tim Beckman's Hat Apocalypse as well as a tough road matchup with Notre Dame. The 'Cats entered last week with everything left to play for: a crappy bowl game, a perfect Hat record against Illinois in the Greatest Rivalry in the History of College Football, and the remote possibility of knocking Notre Dame out of the playoff hunt and ruining their season. Even though Northwestern had an up-and-down season, those three goals are pretty much the zenith of the Northwestern football experience.
LOOK ON OUR FOOTBALL, NON BIG-TEN PEOPLE, AND DESPAIR
Years from now, when millions of Americans that eagerly follow collegiate water polo or ultimate frisbee or competitive eating, someone will reflect on what happened to kill college football. They'll point to the usual suspects: concerns about the long-term health consequences of the sport, the unsustainable avarice of the NCAA and its member universities, a rash of football-related tree poisonings, but most likely they'll point to November 8th, 2014 when Northwestern and Michigan reached the apotheosis of Big Ten-related football ineptitude. Both teams threw out their play books and replaced them with animated gifs of stuntmen in fire suits flailing around. For most of the game, both teams treated the endzone like Moses treated the Promised Land.
The Apotheosis of Big Ten football (click for full size)
So when Northwestern improbably marched down the field and somehow managed to crack through the invisible forcefield surrounding the Ryan Field endzones, it is not surprising that Pat Fitzgerald decided that the moment was ripe for a Pat Fitzgerald Gutsy Moment. It's not like going into overtime had worked that well against Michigan last year. Unfortunately, the coaches decided to send Trevor Siemian on an ill-advised one-man Charge of the Light Brigade into the entire Michigan defense and then Siemian fell down.
Two more yards, two more yards,
Two more yards onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the one quarterback.
“Forward, the Siemian!
Charge for the deuce!” Fitz said.
Into the valley of Death
He sort of fell on his butt.
Miserable Michigan faced aghast Northwestern in the So It's Come To This Bowl. Northwestern still hasn't come down from the highs of winning a Gator Bowl and getting enough hype to host ESPN College Gameday. Since then, the 'Cats have turned into a well-funded art installation dedicated to losing football games in increasingly bizarre and unfathomable situations-- the Siemian slip is not even the most ridiculous way that Northwestern has lost to Michigan in the past two seasons.
Michigan, meanwhile, is having less of a bad season than an existential crisis. Michigan is not just Big Ten bad, where a team beats up on other lumbering Big Ten teams enough to get ritually sacrificed in lopsided bowl game, it is regular football team bad. And that is spectacular.
College football's spectacle depends on inequality: on titanic clashes between powerhouse teams and on the field-rushing jubilation from when one one of those mortal teams manages to beat them. And while previous success tends to replenish teams into perpetual juggernauts, the landscape underneath them shifts tectonically; teams start losing recruits, teams hire bad coaches, teams join the Big Ten. The descent of a traditional powerhouse program into another mediocre team scrapping their way into the galleryfurniture.com bowl like the rest of us is one of the most enjoyable aspects of college football.
Brady Hoke, along with recently-departed Athletic Director Dave Brandon has drawn the ire
of the Michigan faithful. Currently, a google's image search for Hoke has an entire category
of pictures under the heading "Fred Flintstone."
Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth of Michigan Men, it's unlikely the program will remain in its dormant state forever. I'd be surprised if Michigan didn't return to the Big Ten title picture sooner rather than later, although it remains to be seen if a good Big Ten team will have any relevance to the national championship picture as the conference plods itself into Rotel oblivion. In the meantime, Michigan fans can enjoy baselessly speculating about NFL head coaches, install the standard creepy flight-tracking software, and start reinforcing the railroad pump cart they'll use to run Brady Hoke out of town as he claps forlornly.
THE DAMNED DOME
Nineteen years ago, an unheralded Northwestern team marched into Notre Dame stadium and walked out with a football program. There's no doubt that the 1995 victory was the most significant in Northwestern's modern history. Northwestern and Notre Dame have not played football since. During the interval, Northwestern won three Big Ten Championships and one bowl game. Notre Dame plummeted into football mediocrity before storming back into a BCS championship game under Brian Kelly. Modems stopped screeching at people. A president was impeached but not convicted. Humanity landed a probe on a comet. The Big Ten expanded to 14 teams. Notre Dame kind of joined the ACC much like how the Irish Free State was kind of in the Commonwealth during the Éamon de Valera era.
Éamon de Valera's feuds with the British government over
land annuity payments and references to the King in the
Oath of Office led to a devastating mutual boycott. This
Punch cartoon lampoons his attempts to move the Irish
Free State closer to a republic while remaining in the
Commonwealth. In reality, both de Valera and British
government officials spent the 1930s complaining about each
other undermining the Commonwealth while de Valera refused
to leave and the British government refused to kick the Irish Free
State out. In the end, both parties maintained an uneasy
membership by using the well-worn "no one knows what the
hell the Commonwealth is or does" defense
In 1995, Northwestern came into South Bend in a Trojan Horse containing a Big Ten champion. No one expected anything from the 'Cats. According to Teddy Greenstein's oral history of the game (unfortunately locked behind the Tribune's paywall), Gary Barnett does not think Irish coach Lou Holz watched any film of NU quarterback Steve Schnur. Barnett also suggests that Holz did not even know who he was. This year, Northwestern's team resembles a trojan horse with no one inside, except maybe Pat Fitzgerald who has been living in it for nearly twenty years pumping his fists.
It's a shame that Arizona State already robbed the Wildcats of the most important motivation for a win: to knock Notre Dame out of the playoff picture, destroy its season, and festively square dance across the season's ashes. Congratulations to the Sun Devils for living the dream. Instead, Northwestern will be scrapping for its bowl life as a Notre Dame win will knock them out of the postseason for a second consecutive year.
If they are to have any shot at an upset, Northwestern needs to find a way to score points. The Wildcats score fewer points per game than almost any other team in the country. Last week, Fitzgerald and Mick McCall experimented with a two-quarterback system by using Matt Alviti to run the option. I'm all for that, believing strongly in the old Northwestern chestnut "if you have one quarterback, then you have not enough quarterbacks" and a return to the is the running quarterback going to pass oh wait you think he's going to pass but really he's going to run just kidding here's a third quarterback who's playing wide receiver and now the offensive coordinator is wearing a cape plays from the Kain Colter era. That strategy was not particularly effective (Alviti rushed 3 times for -2 yards), so we'll see if the coaching staff can think of any other wrinkles to move the ball other than giving it to Justin Jackson or strong rhetoric to convince the Irish that they have achieved first downs.
Should Northwestern falter, they'll be down to one season goal, but it's the most important one of all: The Hat. With two seasons filled with avant-garde losses and likely two seasons spent in a bowlless wilderness, only reasonable goal for Northwestern fans is hat-based monomania. I hope Northwestern can keep its nineteen-year unbeaten streak going against Notre Dame and somehow claw its way to the Detroit Lions Pizza City Bowl. But Northwestern cannot under any circumstances lose possession of The Hat. It is the only thing keeping us going through this season.
It's Hat Season. The Beck Man is coming. He's coming to your town. He's coming for a Hat.
Also, the basketball team has a guy on it named "Vic Law," which is an incredible basketball name.