Thursday, December 31, 2015

OUTBACK BOWL PREVIEW

The ball will drop on 2015 and the curtain will  rise on a bowl sponsored by a dubiously Australian chain restaurant in stadium with a pirate ship.  The Outback Bowl pits a surprise 10-2 Northwestern team gunning for a record eleventh win, continuation of a storied bowl winning streak, and the coveted Crystal Boomerang.

Much like the #WEARABLEHAT campaign, this blog site endorses the 
#DETACHABLEBOOMERANG because you should be able to menace a group of Kangaroos, 
which Wikipedia tells me can be called a mob, a troop, or a court

The most disappointing thing about the Outback Bowl is not its exclusion from the mysterious New Year's Six grouping or its noon kickoff time in the Eastern time zone; it is the lack of absurd and bogus Australian trappings.  The Outback people should have the game announced by a perplexed Australian Rules Football broadcaster who spends the entire time making fun of the teams for wearing helmets and padding and unable, under the rules of football, to jump on each others' heads.  The chain gang should should be replaced by a pair of taxidermied kangaroo hands like in this classic Australian television program.

Skippy's tiny paws signal fourth and inches

BOWLS AND VENGEANCE

The 2016 Outback Bowl marks a return from a two-year bowl wilderness.  The Wildcats had managed to make five in a row, climaxing in the 2013 drought-snapping Gator Bowl that marked their first postseason win since 1949 and the savage demolition of a monkey stuffed animal, its head paraded to a press conference like it was a scene from Christopher Nolan's Curious George.  Now, the Wildcats not only return to bowl play but get a chance to exorcise the ghosts of Raymond James Stadium.

Five years ago, Northwestern played in its first Outback Bowl against Auburn. The opening kickoff shattered the space-time continuum and the rest of the game was played in an alternate dimension, one identical to our own world with the exception that football games become maelstroms of insanity.  Quarterback Mike Kafka was simultaneously the best and worst player in the game, in a performance that cannot be described with a literary reference.  He threw five interceptions but also scored five touchdowns.  His 47 completions (on 78 attempts! This would be remarkable, but remember this football game took place in an alternate dimension), 532 passing yards and also his five picks all set Outback Bowl records.  The 'Cats came back from 14 down twice in the second half and took to the game to overtime.  During overtime, Auburn hit a field goal.  As Northwestern attempted to tie it, kicker Stefan Demos was injured. Undaunted, the Wildcats lined up for another attempt as Fitz signaled in the the play, the World's Most Obvious Fake Field Goal.  It failed, Northwestern lost, and the hole in space-time sealed; no evidence of the game exists except for Kafka's Outback Bowl records and the existence of the 2010 direct-to-video Bulgarian Steven Seagal movie Born to Raise Hell.

According to an anonymous IMDB contributor
"Fueled with vengeance, he leads us on an action 
packed thrill ride while avenging his friend's death." 
If Northwestern and Auburn had played a normal 
football game in our dimension, Steven Seagal 
would have starred in a Bulgarian action movie called 
"Headbutt Mercenary" where a vengeance-fueled 
Seagal avenges his partner's death, vengefully

The 2010 Outback Bowl is somehow not the most insane way that Northwestern has lost a bowl game in the twenty-first century.

If the last Outback Bowl is not enough for you, then the Northwestern Wildcats have a bone to pick with the University of Tennessee.  They last met in the 1997 Citrus Bowl.  The '96 Cats repeated as Big Ten champions and returned Fitzgerald, Darnell Autrey, Steve Schnur, and many of the 1995 Rose Bowl mainstays.  The Volunteers had Peyton Manning, who went on to a glittering NFL career highlighted by several prominent commercials and getting to be on the same team as Trevor Siemian.  Manning strafed the vaunted Northwestern defense using his arm and the secret third eye hidden in his gigantic forehead, and Tennessee prevailed 48-28.  This is the only game these two teams have ever played so the stakes have never been higher; Knoxville-area Northwestern alumni are prepared to launch a "do you remember when you beat us eighteen years ago? No? Well, you did, and now we are even" parade at a moment's notice.

VOLUNTARISM

Tennessee football is a program on the rise.  They finished 8-4, with two losses to playoff powerhouses Oklahoma and Alabama.  They share with Northwestern a disdain for deceitful and unsporting passing offenses, ranking 98th in total passing yards to Northwestern's Roosevelt-era 122nd.

Northwestern's complex offense broken down

I have not watched a single second of Tennessee football this season and have no idea what to expect.  They have an excellent running back in Jalen Hurd, a quarterback who doesn't turn it over, and a good defense that will need to contain Justin Jackson from The Ball Carrying Northwestern into better punting position.  Though they are ranked below Northwestern, odds-makers favor them heavily over the Wildcats.  Northwestern has managed to bludgeon its opponents with its defense all season and eke out close wins.  The question is whether Anthony Walker, Dean Lowry, and the rest of the tackling horde can hold off the Vols even without injured star cornerback Nick VanHoose.  While the numbers people, the gambling community, and the general Knoxville area believes that Tennessee will win in a romp, there are several factors that can contribute to an Outback Bowl upset, according to the latest science.

The latest science

Clayton Thorson: Northwestern's freshman quarterback has not put up gaudy passing statistics this year, but he does have one thing that can tilt the game in Northwestern's favor-- the ability to take off on ungainly gallumphing runs that freeze opponents in disbelief at their majesty.  Here's how Northwestern media guides describe Thorson's runs:
The Thorson was sprinting down the High Street. He was running so fast his black cloak was streaming out behind him like the wings of a bird. Each stride he took was as long as a tennis court. Out of the village he ran, and soon they were racing across the moonlit fields. The hedges dividing the fields were no problem to the Thorson. He simply strode over them. A Purdue defense appeared in his path. He crossed it in one flying stride.
Big Kick Jack Mitchell

The Annexation of Tampa: Northwestern has declared itself Tampa's Big Ten Team, thus securing home field advantage, according to the age-old NCAA rule "Whatever Team first declares itself the Official Big Ten Team of that City, Village, Dwelling, or Post-Apocalyptic Thunderdome-adjecent Settlement becomes the Home Team for the Football Contest by proclaiming it on a Bus.  All otherwise-unaffiliated Residents of said City must comply with the Home Team Advantage for the duration of the Bowl-Game under penalty of Chop Block. This is the Law, we can really enforce this."

Northwestern unilaterally declaring itself the official Big Ten Team of a variety of indifferent 
cities is the greatest marketing gimmick of all time that would only be better if it were done 
by a cape-wearing administrator and his or her retinue of trumpeters and parchment-holders

An Unorthodox Travel Route to Tampa: Traveling west, across the continent, crossing the Pacific, taking the Trans-Siberian railway from Vladivostok to Moscow and continuing across Europe and finally sailing across the Atlantic, rounding Florida to the Gulf of Mexico and into Tampa Bay, the Northwestern Wildcats mitigate the ruination of their body clocks.

General Northwestern Bowl Insanity: Northwestern does not play football in bowl games.  Instead, the team agonizes through a series of trials, calamities, and triumphs that I am currently selling as a Young Adult book trilogy called The Onsiders: A Sun Bowl Novel.  The 2010 Outback Bowl is just one small example the chaos-laden world that a Northwestern bowl game thrusts fans into.  By the end of the game, it is entirely possible that the game has, against all predictions, turned into a shootout, that the pirate ship has become fully operational and in the throes of a mutiny, that Pat Fitzgerald is pumping his fists at another Fitzgerald that is wearing an eye patch, or that Northwestern may even somehow win eleven games.

I SAID G'DAY

The Outback Bowl is the culmination of one the greatest seasons in the history of Northwestern football.  The Wildcats can, with a win, win two consecutive bowl games for the first time, win eleven games for the first time, win the Outback bowl for the first time, beat Tennessee for the first time, and win a bowl game without severing the head of a plush monkey doll for the first time since 1949.  This has been a season of outrageous fortune, reversing two years of seeming to be on the end of every bad break and bounce possible to continually seize close wins.  Perhaps it is possible that the 'Cats can pull out one more in 2016, hoisting that crystal boomerang to the sky, and putting it in its rightful place next to the Hat. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

WELCOME HOME, HAT


 at!  The Hat has returned to its rightful place in Evanston after the Northwestern Wildcats managed to pry it from the heads of the Illini.  Last year, a miserable debacle, the Hat game to end all Hat games with an appropriately miserable bowl berth on the line, the Illini won.  Northwestern turned the ball over four consecutive times and Northwestern's Hat-Nemesis Tim Beck Man stood in Ryan Field cackling as his three-year reign of madness in Champaign finally culminated in him hoisting the Land of Lincoln trophy to a horrified purple throng.  "Look upon this Hat," he bellowed defiantly.  "This justifies my ludicrous three year anti-Northwestern campaign.  This is normal! This is normal!"

In the year since, things have changed.  Tim Beckman became Shit Canman.  Bill Cubit, toiling as interim, took over the Illinois program in perpetuity, the Cubit name guaranteed to ring across Illini football for two entire years.  Northwestern rode a spectacular defense, a running game led by Justin Jackson-TheBallCarrier, and the sane and rational decisions of referees to a 10-2 record, a national ranking, and a bowl game.

Clayton Thorson came out firing in the first half as the 'Cats scored three touchdowns.  It appeared as though the Wildcats had spent the entire season refusing to throw before unveiling the Trojan Pass in the crucial Hat Game.  In the second half, though, Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall turned to their innovative Run 'n Punt offense, relying on Jackson The Ball Carrier to Carry The Ball while the defense took over.  All-Big Ten linebacker Anthony Walker terrorized the Illini backfield and the Wildcat secondary kept the passing game in check.  They were helped out by Illinois receivers who dropped an almost unfathomable number of balls-- Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt had a much better day than the box score indicates.  No sequence better sums up the snake-bitten Illini than their effective drive to a fourth-and-one near the Northwestern goal line.  The Illini lined up to go for it, then false-started.  Down ten, Cubit decided to kick a chip-shot field goal which then shanked wide right.  This series of plays will be displayed in the Van Pelt Museum of Football Cruelty.

HAT IS GREAT. ALL HAIL HAT

Illinois fans seem disappointed with the Bill Cubit contract.  Cubit was certainly not one of the marquee names changing jobs during this Flight Aware season.  On the other hand, Cubit presents a few advantages to the University of Illinois:

1. Players seem to like him and he has weathered the storm of general administrative tumult.
2. Probably believes in hamstring injuries.

Illinois's interim athletic director seems less than excited about the hire.  Here is what Paul Kowalczyk has to say about Cubit:
"Obviously, it's not ideal but for now, I don't think it'll put a dagger in the heart of the program."

 
I am not an athletic director.  But I am fairly sure that is not a ringing endorsement.  And I am also sure that you should use the phrase "dagger in the heart" unless your profession involves antechambers.

It is disappointing to see Illinois fans disillusioned about their football program, even if the schools are sworn enemies forever destined to clash as foretold by Beckman's Clock.  There would be nothing more satisfying than seeing a Hat Game have actual consequences in the Big Ten West.  There would be nothing more exciting than seeing ESPN College Game Day come to a Northwestern/Illinois game not because it is an embarrassing one-endzone baseball stadium sideshow novelty act, but because the winner would be going to Indianapolis.

Both Northwestern and Illinois have had great seasons this decade, just never at the same time.  The Northwestern/Illinois rivalry is in that way like a seesaw, although most of the time it is more like a rotting plank of wood moldering in a dirt patch four feet from a rusted seesaw mechanism.  Yes the teams compete for recruits, for media coverage, and in a grimly farcical branding war futilely focused on the Chicago market that climaxed in Saturday's game at a well-nigh empty Solider Field.

But, in the larger Big Ten, both are traditionally moribund programs overshadowed by the conference's Football Brands that expect to effortlessly plod through them on their way to yet another Rose Bowl.  Despite the in-state rivalry, Northwestern and Illinois remain bound together in Big Ten also-ran solidarity.
 
HATCHAT SIDEBAR

Northwestern's stirring victory over the Illini not only gave them bragging rights in America's Greatest College Football Rivalry, but it also gave them America's Greatest Rivalry Trophy, the Land of Lincoln Hat.  But there is one thing about the Hat trophy that has bothered me and that is this: the Hat is permanently attached to the base and it cannot be worn.

Look this Wildcat sadly attempt to mime wearing the Hat.  He cannot.  There is a base in its way.  This is madness.  The Hat should be removed from its base and worn triumphantly upon the victorious heads of the hat-winners, not reduced to a grotesque locker-room burlesque.

Abraham Lincoln did not travel through Illinois carrying his hat on a trophy base.  That would be ludicrous.  The Lincoln-Douglas debates would have never helped publicize Lincoln enough to take Democratic nomination in 1860 because no one would consider voting for a hat-carrying maniac. 

LINCOLN: That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of 
                     Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these 
                     two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.
DOUGLAS: Why do you carry around your hat on a base instead of wearing it on your head?
LINCOLN: At this time of strife and division, you wish to discuss my hat?
DOUGLAS: Your hat practices are discomfiting and peculiar.
ANGRY BYSTANDER:  Answer the question, Lincoln!
ANGRIER BYSTANDER: Go back to Kentucky, you hat-carrying scarecrow!

I urge you to write school administrators and your representatives about this travesty and to engage in pointless hashtag activism about this by tweeting #WEARABLEHAT at all involved parties.  I plan to publish a 3,000 page screed about this in a new screed format I have invented called the monomaniagraph. Together, we can unite and probably amuse ourselves for nearly 45 minutes.

BOWL POSITION: DANGER ZONE

By Monday, Northwestern will know its bowl fate.  The Playoff Committee awaits the results of Lucrative Conference Championship games.  The bowls begin their dance of selecting teams by trying to land the biggest Brand Teams allowed by their slotting.  The combination of bowl selection and playoff rankings have made this a week for the brandishing of advanced statistics, complex transitive property arguments, and the traditional claims that teams ain't played no one.  It's Recrimination Week.  Northwestern, for once, is in the middle of this because they are jockeying for a more prestigious bowl game and higher rankings.  This is exciting because it implies a small amount of relevance for Northwestern's football program and also because it is fun to complain about things on the internet and make snide remarks about body clocks.

Of course, bowl positioning does not really matter.  The entire hierarchy of bowl games after the playoffs is a meaningless system where older bowl games that have names that appended by ridiculous sponsors rank higher than games that are named completely by their ridiculous sponsors; thus, the Gator Bowl (now known as the TaxSlayer.com Bowl) is more prestigious than the GoDaddy Bowl, the Quick Lane Bowl or the arrestingly bellicose Armed Forces Bowl.
 
The Beef O'Brady's Bowl, played at the decrepit Tropicana Field, was such a perfect shitty 
bowl game name that it burned out like a glorious comet.  Then, it metamorphosed into the 
BitCoin Bowl, which was somehow even more ridiculous before settling into the 
disappointingly stolid St. Petersburg bowl.  I have pledged $45.00 in naming rights for the 
bowl to be called the Bringyourchampionstheyreourmeat.blogspot.com St. Petersburg Bowl. 
If you are a representative of the St. Petersburg Bowl, please contact me and let me know 
when to fly down a present the trophy.

The hierarchy of bowl games is, I suppose, a way to differentiate the bowl games that have multiplied across the nation.  This year, there are more so many bowl games that there are not enough teams that have reached the magical 6-6 threshold of Bowl Eligibility to play.  Therefore, 5-7 teams will receive invitations, in order of Brand Status.  This means that Illinois, despite dashing itself upon the rocks of Northwestern's defense for four quarters last Saturday can still go to a bowl (and I hope they are selected).  Nebraska, America's most prominent 5-7 team, will almost certainly receive one.  At this point, matchups and rankings and hierarchy are all that separate the bowls until the NCAA decides to thrust all of the non-playoff teams into a giant fishbowl and select bowl matchups by lot.

This is not a time to become stressed about Northwestern's ranking or bowl positioning.  The Wildcats have won ten games and they are ranked and I am still sort of dreading a flood of hail marys that will somehow take them all away.

NORTHWESTERN SEASON IN REVIEW

Northwestern has finished off a season of the impossible.  In the past two years, the Wildcats won ten games combined, and lost in mind-bogglingly improbable ways.  In two games, Northwestern fell victim to passes bouncing off a defenders hands at the last possible second.  In one game, they lost to a field goal team that successfully assembled itself like they were in aBuster Keaton movie.  They lost in overtime and they lost in the final seconds of regulation attempting to prevent overtime when the quarterback fell on his buttocks.  They literally lost to Tim Beckman. 

This season, the Wildcats went an astonishing 8-0 in games decided by a ten points or fewer and every one of those weird breaks fell their way.  This season, Northwestern managed to stop the tying conversion.  This season, the winning field goal went through the uprights.  This season, the referees took an apparent game-winning touchdown off the board because the whimsical hands of fate have decided that Northwestern should have that win fair and square by redefining what the terms fair and square mean.  This year, the Wildcats got the Hat.

Northwestern won with ugly football.  They unleashed a defense rivaled only by the 1995 team and seemed content to score only as many points were necessary, as if by winning by more than the bare minimum would trigger a loss through an innovative Price is Right scoring system.
 
Coming this spring to Big Ten Network, contestants bid on Rotel, extra-large men's pants, 
and luxury vacations to Indianapolis

Fitzgerald and McCall were content this year to let Justin Jackson ball carrier at people until they got within scoring range.  If not, they were happy to punt and let the defense back onto the field.  Every once in awhile, Thorson would find a receiver or, more excitingly, find a lane to gallop down the field with gangly strides through a baffled defense.  This offensive approach was effective, but also kept Northwestern's games within terrifying range of Northwestern events at all times.  Wildcat football is not often going to roll into a Big Ten stadium and demolish the opposition, and good seasons thrive on plays designed for wild swings of fortune.  The head football coach doubles as the endowed Dr. Ray Arnold Chair in Butt-Holding. 

It is possible to look at the Wildcats' numerous escapes this season and see their record as dependent on luck.  Advanced statistics appear to think the Wildcats have wildly overachieved.  But college football is itself an anarchic scrum relying on young people, the bounce of an oblong ball, BODY CLOCKS, weather conditions, referees deciding on increasingly arbitrary and obscure definitions of a catch, and a host of a zillion other things that wreak havoc on a twelve-game sample.  No teams, not even the championship-caliber, coach-firing, juggernaut nightmare teams win all their games without weird bounces and luck.  Northwestern not only played lockdown defense and had an effective running game, it also enjoyed the favor of the football chaos deities for once.  They won ten games, went 6-1 at home (and 1-0 at Chicago's Big Ten Neutral Stadium), and will finish the season ranked and in a prominent bowl game.  And our reward is to get to watch them one more time without the pressure of a bowl drought that originated in the Truman administration.  Most importantly, we have The Hat.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Week 13: The Sound Decisions of Learned Referees

Winter arrived last weekend in Madison.  The northern winds swept ice and snow across the Midwest and buffeted the stadium with freezing air and football misery.  It is as if Jim Delany, sitting comfortably in his LeaderLegend Big Ten Command Center flipped the switch from "football" to "Big Ten football" all the way up to "Ludicrously Big Ten football" and a torrent of sleet and cold and inability to pass the football like it was 1944 and we needed to send all our forward passes to the front and the Big Ten chaos referees all flooded into the stadium while the Big Ten Network beamed the debacle to dozens of American homes.  And, in the end, the Wildcats came away with a 13-7 victory, their ninth of season, and a chance to make it a 10-win Hat season. 

Both defenses played heroically.  Wisconsin's held even as the offense refused to hold onto the ball.  The Badgers turned the ball over five times; Wildcats continued to bedevil quarterback Joel Stave, who threw two picks and fumbled.  Tanner McEvoy, who threw an interception as a quarterback last year and now has become a receiver, fumbled as well.  Yet, time after time, the Badger defense held in their own end of the field as the Wildcats stalled out and missed field goals.  After an early pick led to a Northwestern touchdown, the coaches decided to run the Besieged Citadel offense.  Justin Jackson's 139 rushing yards accounted for about two-thirds of their entire output.
 
The Wildcats' play calling was so conservative that they only ran packages called "The 
Bourbon Restoration"

But the entire game was overshadowed by referee decisions. 

CALL ONE: THE RETURNER'S PREVARICATION


With the third quarter winding down, Northwestern had satisfactorily run into the Wisconsin enough times to get in punting position.  Badger receiver Alex Erickson caught the punt, shrugged off two Northwestern tackles, and weaved his way into the endzone to put Wisconsin up as Camp Randall erupted.  OR DID HE?  As the punt bounced its way towards him, Erickson signaled for his teammates to clear out.  As the referees later explained, Erickson's attempt to move the ball was an act of deception, of grave duplicity where he would signal a fair catch-- when the fair catch becomes not fair at all.  There is some precedent here.  Two weeks before, a Penn State returner had clearly made a fair catch signal then advanced the ball in an act of fair-catch signal derring-do that the officials ignored.  An apoplectic Fitzgerald charged onto the field,  his head so red that he resembled a human matchstick.  This time, the ball was handed back to an incredulous offense with six points removed.  The Badgers could do nothing and punted.

As a Northwestern fan, I applaud the officials for their enforcement of clear, well-known rules against that rogue Alex Erickson.  If Erickson wanted to make sure he got credit for his touchdown, he should have gone to the Memorial Library, requested a book from off-site storage entitled "Approved Football Gestures," and studied up on it instead of deceiving the Wildcats and preventing them from ineffectively attempting to tackle him.  I will quote here from the NCAA rule book:

VERDICT: THEY GOT IT RIGHT

CALL TWO: THE POSTMODERN CATCH


With less than a minute remaining, the maligned Stave drove Wisconsin down the field.  Tight End Troy Fumagalli appeared to score the winning touchdown.  Instead, his knee was ruled down at the one subatomic molecule line.  On the next play, Stave appeared to have hit Jazz Peavy for the winning touchdown.  Peavy caught the ball, ran several steps, and then bobbled the ball as he fell out of the endzone.  After a lengthy review, the referees determined that every Wisconsin football player has an incredible name.  Then they lit up a few Gauloises cigarettes, consulted their Derrida, determined that it is impossible to determine what a "catch" is anyway, and ripped away the winning score.  On the next play, Stave was sacked and knocked out of the game.  Backup quarterback Bart Houston entered the field through swinging saloon doors and tossed an incompletion aimed at McEvoy. 

While Peavy appeared to snag the ball and possess it for several steps, the rules are clear.  Peavy may have caught the ball, stopped, filled in the proper catch paperwork (the Transfer of Football from Quarterback to Receiver is available as a PDF on the NCAA website), but failed to get it properly notarized before falling out of bounds.  This unfortunate oversight on the part of the Wisconsin coaching staff cost them dearly, but is clearly stated in the rules.

VERDICT: NORTHWESTERN WINS YOW YOW YOW YOW YOW YOW

The sloppy pace of the game and the numerous sound and rational refeeeing decisions left a small but rowdy group of Badger fans with no recourse but to pelt their own cheerleaders, officials, and Northwestern players with snowballs.  It was a difficult loss on senior day, particularly for Stave, who thought he had rallied his team to victory twice.  Northwestern had numerous opportunities to extend the lead to the point where the referees would have no part in it, but the Wisconsin defense and the Wildcats' ultra-conservative play calling kept it close.  Northwestern fans in the stands had no idea how they won.  Pat Fitzgerald was delightedly perplexed.  And the Wildcats canceled their bus service back to Evanston so they could ride back in rum-running getaway cars.

HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT

The Hat Game is upon us!  This blog has already covered hat-lore in Thirty Days: Hat November, An Oral History of the Northwestern-Illinois Game at length.  Last year, the Hat Game reached its apotheosis as it became a bowl eligibility game.  With the Beck Man at the height of his powers and Northwestern desperate to salvage a miserable season, it is hard to imagine a more perfect Hat Game scenario than as the Golden Ticket to what turned out to be the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl against a superior Conference USA team.

This year, the teams have gone in opposite directions.  Northwestern has powered its way to a 9-2 record.  The Illini are reeling.  They fired Beck Man eight days before the season and released a 1,200-page report that depicts him as Will Ferrell's impression of George W. Bush.  After making fun of Beckman's absurd anti-Northwestern crusade for the past three years, many of his actual, real life behaviors turned out to be something like 15 percent less insane than this nonsense blog that claimed that he had an anti-Northwestern command center and crafting shed where he built shoddy replica Willies to set on fire and assault first-year players during Illini training camp.
 
There's no evidence that this is Beckman's car, but the man has crossed into the Beck Man 
Valley, where no piece of ludicrous anti-Northwestern activity can be ruled out unless 
specifically mentioned by a 1,200-page report.

The University of Illinois is also in turmoil.  The university sports an Interim Chancellor, an Interim Athletic Director, and an Interim Football Coach; the game will be played at Soldier Field, making this an Illini Interim Home Game.  Bill Cubit is playing for more than just a Hat.  He hopes a win and a bowl game will keep him in Champaign-Urbana for a long time.  It is hard to root against the Illini this season as the team has fought through the disorder, and Cubit's Northwestern-related pronouncements remain within the bounds of normal football person behavior.

What happens to the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry now?  I've noted earlier that the intensity of the Hat Game developed as a rivalry not between the two schools but between Northwestern and Tim Beckman himself.  Without the Beck Man and his avant-garde dada interpretation of football rivalry, can the Greatest Rivalry in College Football persevere?  The Illini, like Northwestern, are a historically moribund team often left for dead by the Big Ten Football Brands, all of whom are insufferable.  Nevertheless, it is important to soldier on and remember that, no matter how well the Illini have coped through a tumultuous season, they have The Hat.  That is no way to live.
 
After last year's debacle, Northwestern has hired its Assistant Dean of 
Procuring Rivalry Trophies By Any Means Necessary

So, it is with a heavy heart and with all respect to our friends at That School South of What Beckman Called The School Up North, I say: 

Give us that hat, Cube Man.
Give us that hat back.
Want that Hat.
Hat Hat Hat

Hat.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thirty Days: Hat November


An Oral History of the Greatest Rivalry in College Football

For more than one hundred years, the University of Illinois and Northwestern University, separated by about 150 miles, have nurtured the premier rivalry in college football.  Both situated in the heart of Big Ten country, their annual game has not only stopped the state in its tracks, but has captivated millions of Americans.  The Northwestern-Illinois game goes beyond college football.  For residents of Illinois, this is a way of life.

I. THE EARLY YEARS

The first Illinois-Northwestern game, played in 1892 ended in a 16-16 tie. The next ended in a 0-0 tie.  This portentous refusal to yield or play watchable football marked the rivalry for the next century and beyond.

PUTNAM WALNUT-RUMPP, Northwestern Wrench-back, 1893 [Interview appears in October 22 edition of the Occasional Northwestern]: We stood at half-field, us and the fellows from Illi-nois. Spirits were high. The crowd gathered ‘round the football circle and jostled each other. A monocle was brandished in anger. After twenty minutes of fisticuffs, we could not locate the foot-ball and so we declared it a tie and the Illinoismen retreated to their football wagon.

Northwestern and Illinois continued to play their annual game, but the rivalry lacked a trophy, something to be carted away by the victors. Several objects were tried: a mummy, a carved, anatomically incorrect dinosaur, a defaced picture of Kaiser Wilhelm, but none stuck until the 1940s.

NEIL PINCE-NEZ, Northwestern Football Historian: The mummy was a purported artifact looted from the Pyramid of Sensuret I and obtained in a complex black market mummy trading scheme. It began as a sort of reverse trophy. Students tried to hide the mummy in the visitors’ stadium to supposedly curse the rival team before the big game. Illinois students once successfully set the mummy up in Walter Dill Scott’s office with a nameplate reading Walter Dill Sarcophagus. The mummy, of course, wasn’t a mummy at all. It was a poorly done papier-mache thumb that was rescued after being hurled in anger at a professor. But this was around the time the Boris Karloff mummy picture had come out, and all anyone wanted to talk about was mummies. After a few years, it petered out as these things tend to do.  After that, it was all wolf-men.


A. BARTLETT HARRUMPH, Daily Northwestern, 1944-1949: I obtained the original trophy, the cigar store Indian, when the theater department was throwing out props. It had been used in a production of a play called The Tobacconist’s Wife about the proprietor of a cigar shop whose marriage of convenience draws him into a web of international intrigue. I remember grabbing the sculpture, scoot it into the newspaper offices and bellowing, “my wooden friend, what mischief can we get into?” My first idea was to hurl it at the provost, as provost-hurling was the fashionable university prank. 

NEIL PINCE-NEZ: As Harrumph will tell it, he bumped into some Illini fans at a bar and got into a fierce drinking contest.  Heavily intoxicated on brandy and Northwestern football braggadocio, he claims that he then offered the statue as a trophy.

A. BARTLETT HARRUMPH: I had been dragging the statue around as my new features editor Wally Scoop. It was right there with me in the tavern that night!

NEIL PINCE-NEZ: What I have heard is that Harrumph lost a high-stakes game of Suicide Whist. He was already cleaned out, but, out of pity, the Illinois fans took the trophy instead of the traditional wager of kidney punches and throttling, the usual fate of the destitute suicide whister.  They then decided to give it back to him based on the outcome of the upcoming football game in order to stop his sobbing.

A. BARTLETT HARRUMPH: When I came up with the idea of exchanging the trophy, I was hoisted upon the patrons' shoulders as everyone shouted in unison "THAT'S A CAPITAL IDEA."

The original cigar store Indian was stolen.  Afterwards, the schools only began to pass the tomahawk back and forth.  The "Sweet Sioux" Tomahawk became the symbol of the rivalry, but the circumstances behind the theft remain murky.

NEIL PINCE-NEZ: There are two main suspects in the theft of the statue.  One is State Senator Copernicus Smelt, a wealthy industrialist who hated the statue and wanted to replace it with a gigantic classical sculpture called the Spirit of the Prairie, which was basically a Colossus of Rhodes standing astride Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River with hands replaced with mittens in the shape of Illinois.  The other is a group of drunken fraternity members.

OTTO CORNELIUS SMELT III, Nephew of Copernicus Smelt and Chairman of the Smelt Foundation: Yes, it is true that my uncle had grand designs for the trophy.  He used to refer to the original wooden trophy as "that wood trinket" that is "good for bestriding nothing."  But there is no evidence to link him to any theft, no matter what fairy tales Pince-Nez wrote in his book.

NEIL PINCE-NEZ: He Who Smelt lays out a convincing case not only for Smelt's desire to steal the statue but also exposes his entire occult philosophy.  Only snippets remain on the record: Smelt's letters to both university presidents.  His pamphlets involving iconography of deities with Illinois hands.  And the treasure trove of rumored papers and books that vanished after his bizarre disappearance in 1974.

OTTO CORNELIUS SMELT III: My uncle died in a tragic falconry accident.

A. BARTLETT HARRUMPH: After the theft of the statue, both universities were thrown into chaos.  I wrote an editorial suggesting the tomahawk replace the full trophy and it was greeted with cheers from the simple man in the street all the way to the top levels of the administration.  I had to stop the Daily from running the headline "HARRUMPH TRIUMPH."

WINSTON FARMGRISTLE, Assistant Editor, Daily Northwestern 1946-48: I've always suspected that Harrumph stole the trophy.

II. AGE OF THE ILLINI

In 1978, Northwestern and Illinois tied 0-0.  Northwestern would not win again until 1986.  The Sweet Sioux became anchored to the Illinois football trophy room.  In Evanston, the football program descended into the worst stretch ever suffered by a top-division football program.  The rivalry had fallen into disarray as the Wildcats no longer posed a threat.

HORACE GROAT, Host of Illinoize AM 1580 The Voice of Illini Football: The 1980s were good for Illinois football, they were good for neon pants, and they were good for Horace Groat.

NEIL PINCE-NEZ, Author of Lose Cruise: On the Bus with the 1981 Wildcats: In 1981, Northwestern lost its 34th consecutive game.  After the game, the students rushed the field and tore down the goalposts.  That's how I lost this eyebrow.

HORACE GROAT: At one point, Illinois didn't even bother to bring the tomahawk with them to Evanston.  They even recorded a novelty rap song in 1985 called Keep that Tomahawk.

BYRON "SATURN" HERMAN, Member of Planet Boogie: They hired me to write Keep That Tomahawk.  I had a small production company and I was really blowing up in Champaign-Urbana.  What I did was, I took a person's name and then I'd mention what they had to say and I'd bring it around like that.  Before that, people were turning on raps and they had no idea who the guy was or what he was about to say.  Everyone was pretty confused.

HORACE GROAT: They made a video, I don't know, I haven't seen it in ages.  It's got all the Illinois football players, and they're all dressed in neon orange jumpsuits in front of a painting of the trophy.  And for some reason, the first verse is some guy named Saturn wearing two headbands.

BYRON "SATURN" HERMAN: My name is Saturn and I'm here to say, I'm rapping all night and I'm rapping all day.  See that there?  I introduced myself and let people know that if they needed to find me rapping, it was a process that was not stopping.  Yeah, I got myself on that video.  Two headbands, like the rings of Saturn.

NEIL PINCE-NEZ: That song was preposterous.

BYRON "SATURN" HERMAN: Well, in 1986 they lost the Tomahawk at home, man.  You can't record a song called "Keep that Tomahawk" and then lose that Tomahawk.  I'm here to say that totally blew up in my face.

III. NEW TROPHIES, NEW ERA

In 2009, Northwestern and Illinois decided to replace the Sweet Sioux Tomhawk as part of Illinois's effort to remove Native American imagery.  The question was how to replace the trophy symbolizing College Football's Greatest Rivalry.


A. BARTLETT HARRUMPH: After years of hard-fought games that captured the imagination of America, the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk had become an icon.  Sure, I agree we had to replace it, but with what? One day as I was driving I saw a license plate.  It said "Land of Lincoln." I pulled over.  Bingo.  I wrote a letter to the editor.

J. SMELT ROBERTS, University of Illinois Trustee 1994-2012 [published in Mascots and Trophies, July 2009.  Roberts died in a falconry accident in 2012]: It was down to three choices: Lincoln, the Tully Monster (the state fossil of Illinois) and a Colossus majestically bestriding Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, his hands fearsome mittens in the shape of Illinois.

A. BARTLETT HARRUMPH: I naturally gravitated to Lincoln's favorite piece of equipment: the rail splitting axe.  Those sons-of-a-bitch went for a hat.  A hat!  Who associates Lincoln with a hat?  Go ahead and stop someone in this state, and grab him by the lapel and say "Lincoln, did he have a hat, my man?"  The answer, you'll find, is "get the hell away from me!"  That's how preposterous it is.

J.G.A. PIDLOW-MACE, Northwestern Dean of Football Iconography, [Letter to A. Bartlett Harrumph, August 22, 2009]: I am afraid that the decision is final.  We believe the hat is a universal symbol of Lincoln to this great state.  Your desire to commemorate President Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, as fine an orator as we've had in this nation, as a rail-splitting ignoramus shows a disrespect to this great man and his hat as I've ever seen.  Though I am writing you a letter, I direct you to get out of my office on principle.     

In 2010, the Northwestern-Illinois rivalry once again attracted the notice of the college football world as the game moved to historic Wrigley Field.  ESPN's College Game Day followed them there.  


NEIL PINCE-NEZ: No one had played football at Wrigley since the Chicago Bears left for Soldier Field in 1970.  Dozens had tried with disastrous results.

HORACE GROAT: You could have taken the dinosaur bones out of the Field Museum that day.  No one cared about anything but the game.

RON ZOOK, Fireronzook.com: Baseball? Football?  You tell one thing to Zook and that's this: get the dang ball.  This isn't pee-wee football.  This isn't cricket.  This isn't tiddly-winks.  This isn't Hungry Hungry Hippos.  This isn't the game where the wind-up dinosaur spins around.  This isn't Cluedo, which is what they call Clue in England.  This is football, gentlemen.  And Zook has one rule about football: you go after the football.  Ron Zook.

PAT FITZGERALD, Northwestern Head Coach, 2006-present: Any time you get a chance to get your young men into a position to take things one game at a time, you take that opportunity. And we saw this one and we circled it on the calendar. I said, young men: Take a look at this.  Don't think about it. Don't look at it.  One day, and we're not thinking about that day young men, but one day we'll take it one game at a time and the game it will be time to take it one of will be this game go 'cats.

NEIL PINCE-NEZ:  Just before the game, they were told they could only use one endzone.  For the whole game.  Ludicrous!  Sure, there was an unpadded brick wall at the end of one of the endzones.  But what else was going on in that endzone?  I'll tell you who didn't want you to know: Jim Delany and his goons who denied me at least four requests to investigate the banned endzone.

OTTO CORNELIUS SMELT III: The stenciled occult symbols found in the unused endzone are a ridiculous coincidence. Those tasteful Illinois-handed reptiles were a child's graffiti or a drunken fraternity prank. 

RON ZOOK: One endzone, two endzones, three endzones.  This isn't baccarat.  This isn't Battletoads.  This isn't Step Up 2: The Streets.  This is football, gentleman.  And this is what Ron Zook has to say about football: You've got to get into football mode, you've got to have a tough football mentality if you want to win at the game of football. That's a quote from Ron Zook.

IV. THE TIM BECKMAN ERA

In 2012, Illinois hired Tim Beckman from Toledo.  Beckman, who festooned the locker room with anti-Northwestern signs, imbued the rivalry with unprecedented rancor.


PETER FRANCIS GERACI, ((infotapes.com)): My client, Tim Beckman, will not be answering questions about University of Illinois football.

NEIL PINCE-NEZ: There had always been some animosity-- after all it is Northwestern-Illinois--but Beckman's swaggering demonstrations seemed not only to be a football rivalry but an ideology based entirely on hostility to Northwestern.

J. SMELT ROBERTS [Interview in the Daily Illini, December 10, 2011]: I applaud the hiring of Tim Beckman, who will help this University take the next step in the Legends Division and win whatever pitiful unbestriding trinket they have representing the rivalry with Northwestern.

JOHN BARGLE, Director, Big Ten Network Presents Tomahawk Tomfoolery:  In 1963, Northwestern fans spent months creating a fake student organization at the University Illinois with the ambiguous title of FEST!.  Students put on shows, raised money, and ultimately secured a float in the Homecoming Parade.  People were really excited about Fest!.  What Illinois's student government did not realize was that FEST! was an acronym for Fake Equine Statue Task(!).  The float, a literal Trojan Horse, burst apart in the middle of Green Street revealing a horde of Northwestern students contorting their palms into fist-claws and yelling incoherently.  That really put the quietus on that celebration.

HORACE GROAT: In 1987, I distributed eight counterfeit Willie Wildcat costumes.  There were Willies flooding the field celebrating Illinois first downs.  It took until the third quarter for seven to be subdued.  The eight got tangled up with the real Willie.  The authorities had no way to telling which was the real Willie.  Security shouted Willie trivia questions, but both remained in character, mute.  The standoff lasted for hours.
 
GABRIELLE MOLDOVA, Editor of Big Ten blog ArtisanalPunts.com: Beckman's first Big Ten Media Day was certainly memorable.  They had to get a new podium for the next coach because of all the fist dents.

TIM BECKMAN, University of Illinois Head Coach [Big Ten Media Day 2012]: PURPLE? I DON'T HAVE ANY PURPLE CLOTHING. WHAT KIND OF QUESTION IS THAT? FOR TOO LONG ALL WE HEAR FROM THE MEDIA IS THAT TEAM UP NORTH THIS, THAT TEAM UP NORTH THAT.  WELL I'VE GOT SOME NEWS FOR THE TEAM UP NORTH. I'VE BEEN UP NORTH, BY THE TEAM. WHEN I'M DONE THEY WON'T BE THE TEAM UP NORTH ANYMORE.  THEY'LL JUST BE THE...TEAM. OSKEE! OSKEE! OSKEE! [By this time, Beckman had removed his visor and was punctuating each oskee with a blow against the podium until he tired himself out.] THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME.

GABRIELLE MOLDOVA: The anti-Northwestern propaganda in the Illinois locker room was insane.  There were anti-Northwestern signs strewn everywhere, even the urinals.  One player Instagrammed a picture of a series of posters from Beckman's office where he stuck his own head on a picture of the Macho Man Randy Savage elbow dropping a wrestler with a Wildcat head taped on it, but the picture was quickly deleted.

PETER FRANCIS GERACI: That is absurd blog nonsense.

H. BERTRAM JESSUP, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Interim Athletic Director of Communications [from August 2015 press release]: What you are holding is a list of confirmed anti-Northwestern propaganda brought by Tim Beckman onto university property.  However, in the interest of dispelling certain rumors, let me make it clear.  At no point, did Tim Beckman bring the following items onto campus: A set of purple wooden sticks perforated to be broken apart in a single headbutt, a spittoon with an anti-Northwestern symbol, a portrait of a caped Beckman charging the streets of Evanston in on an orange steed with a horse mustache, and a Russian Soviet-style poster with a legend that Beckman thought says "We Will Crush the Decadent Wildcat With Tractor-fists (it actually translates to "We Will Bring Hydroelectricity to the Republic of Turkmenistan.")

NEIL PINCE-NEZ: One has to be a skeptic of the list of Beckman objects.  There was something dark and sinister going on in the bowels of Memorial Stadium.  It wasn't just Soviet propaganda or headbutt planks, like you'll find in any college locker room.

DERRICK HARMS, Illini tackle, 2010-2013:  It was intense.  Rivalry is a big deal in college football. You're keyed up.  They're keyed up.  The fans are juiced up.  And the coach made it a point every year in training camp when he rented a decommissioned tank and drove it over a cardboard Evanston screaming GENTLEMEN, THE HAT.  But we just couldn't win it.

The feud reached its boiling point in 2014.  Northwestern and Illinois were both 5-7.  There was more than just state pride on the line.  Whoever won the game would go to a bowl game.  Whoever lost would stay home. A century of football animus had reached its apocalyptic zenith.

GABRIELLE MOLDOVA: For two weeks, every time we tried to run a story about any other Big Ten game, the comments just filled up with people talking about the Hat Game Bowl Game.

PAT FITZGERALD: There was a lot on the line in this game.  It was for our young men, for our seniors, a big game.  A chance to go 1-0 one last time.  Their young men, our young men, probably your young men were geared up to take it one game for this particular game, which hadn't yet been played one play at a time go 'cats.

The Illini prevailed and went to the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl.  Beckman disappeared with the Hat for weeks.  The Land of Lincoln Trophy spent the offseason under an armed guard of Lincoln impersonators.  But Beckman would not have a chance to defend it in Soldier Field.  He was fired only eight days from the start of the 2015 season.

Northwestern is 9-2 this season and ranked sixteenth in the country.  The 5-7 Illini once again need to beat Northwestern to become bowl-bound.

For months while reporting this story, Beckman and his attorneys refused to answer questions.  Two days before this story was published, I found a voicemail from Tim Beckman.  He refused any further contact.  The following is a transcript:

TIM BECKMAN: ENOUGH OF YOUR LIES AND MISEXAGGERATIONS.  I AM THE HATMAN.  I AM THE BRIM.  I BESTRIDE LAKE MICHIGAN AND THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER.  ILLINOIS AND NORTHWESTERN MAY BE PLAYING THEIR FUTILE QUOTE-UNQUOTE FOOTBALL GAME AT SOLDIER FIELD, BUT THEY'LL NEVER HAVE THE TRUE HAT.  I HAVE MELTED IT DOWN AND INJECTED INTO MY VEINS.  I AM MORE HAT THAN MAN AT THIS POINT. WITH MALICE TOWARDS ALL AND CHARITY TOWARDS NONE. PLEASE TRANSCRIBE THIS IN ALL-CAPS.


This article is dedicated to the memory of Neil Pince-Nez, who died in October in a tragic falconry accident.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Week 12: WINTERBALL

Purdue football is a depressing morass of football ineptitude that nearly turned Ryan Field into an unimaginable house of horrors.  The Boilermakers managed to accomplish that with the dangerously plucky play of their football team and not by unleashing the pure creepy power of Purdue Pete, a mascot so unnerving that the students who portray him are invited to spend a semester abroad appearing briefly in mirrors in Japanese horror films.
 
Don't play this video or else seven days later you have to watch a Purdue 
football game

It is astonishing that decades of focus testing a mascot with a giant plastic head simultaneously wielding a hammer and the placid, blank expression of a loping movie slasher has made the current version of Purdue Pete the least harrowing.  Behold the 1960s version of Purdue Pete, who looks like a cross between a malevolent bad-trip Bob's Big Boy and a prescient antecedent to Frank from the movie Frank.
 
This really should be the new Purdue fight song

On Purdue's first play from scrimmage, Boiler quarterback David "The Bloughman's Crede" Blough hit a streaking receiver for a 68-yard bomb to tie the game and from there Purdue did not yield an inch.  At the half, the Wildcats clung to a 14-7 lead and had managed something like 19 passing yards, because the forward pass is an unmanful and unsporting instrument of deception.

The ineffective pass attack led to a miniature quarterback controversy.  Fitzgerald replaced quarterback Clayton Thorson with Zack Oliver after an egregious interception.  Oliver moved the ball somewhat more effectively until an equally egregious interception convinced the coaches to give Thorson another shot.  The quarterback rotation either showed a desperate attempt to spark the offense or a brilliant ploy by Mick McCall to use the fact that number 10 and 18 look similar enough on Northwestern's jerseys that the Purdue defense can be easily discombobulated by a classic quarterback switcheroo with the ultimate goal of convincing the opponent that any Northwestern player can become a quarterback at any time without warning.
 
McCall's substitutions ideally cause the opposition to yell out he's 
quarterback no he's quarterback no he's quarterback in the classic play 
known colloquially as the Reverse Quarterback Spartacus

Thorson recovered from his temporary benching to lead the Wildcats on the game-winning drive with his patented ungainly giraffe runs.  In the fourth quarter, a sleepy Northwestern defense came alive, keeping the Boilermakers out of the endzone.  There is little to learn from this game.  Purdue has given many Big Ten teams scares despite the team's moribund record, and Northwestern's offense continues to resemble a Rube Goldberg machine designed to manufacture punts.  Nevertheless, Northwestern is an unexpected 8-2 and any Northwestern fan who is disappointed should be immediately fitted with a Napoleon hat.  With two games to play, this is already the third-most successful team in the Pat Fitzgerald era.

CAMP RANDALL REVISITED

After three consecutive wins, the Wildcats face their toughest challenge since Iowa on the road at Wisconsin.  The Badgers are also 8-2, and their only losses were to mighty Alabama and the undefeated Iowa juggernaut that is devouring the Big Ten West.  Wisconsin has flown under the radar this year, with some underwhelming wins and without the mesmerizing brilliance of Melvin Gordon who had one of the greatest seasons in the history of college football last year.

The Wildcats have their work cut out for them at Camp Randall.  They have not beaten Wisconsin there since the 2000 Damian Anderson game.  In fairness, the Badgers have not won in Evanston in the same period, which has to be the most confoundingly wonderful stat in college football considering the fact that Ryan Field is at best a neutral venue during Wisconsin games.  There are typically so many Wisconsin fans at Northwestern home games that the Wildcats appear to have been victims of a slick marketing scam that promised a home crowd and the customer service number is now a deli.

Last year, a ranked Wisconsin squad came to Ryan Field against a struggling Northwestern team at a time when Gordon threatened to explode for a touchdown every time he touched the ball.  Instead, the Badger coaches decided to put the ball in the hands of their quarterbacks Tanner McElvoy and Joel Stave, who had missed most of the season to that point struggling with the yips.  The 'Cats picked off four passes and had a tremendous game from Justin Jackson to secure the upset.
 
Joel Stave is shown celebrating the upset with his primary receiving 
targets

This Wisconsin's team is markedly different.  Head Coach Gary Andersen departed for Oregon State and UW alumn Paul Chryst has come over from Pitt.  Stave has improved considerably and is enjoying a far better season.  Wisconsin's defense is as fearsome as Northwestern's and, though they lack a running back as terrifying as Gordon and starter Corey Clement will likely miss the game, there is no doubt the Wisconsin Badgers are going run the ball a ton because they ought to change their team name to the Wisconsin Running Behind 400-Pound Manifestations of the American Midwest.  The weather forecast calls for bitter cold and accumulated snow and is being televised on the Big Ten Network as the Big Tennest football event of the year as two running backs slam into defensive linemen for three hours in between commercials for extra-large men's pants.

Northwestern and Wisconsin have identical records and wildly different reactions to it.  Northwestern fans are giddy for the 8-2 season, even if both losses involved a systematic dismantling of the team into subatomic football particles.  The Badgers expected to effortlessly romp through the division-- during their opening game with Alabama, the broadcast put up a graphic of Wisconsin's schedule while the announcers cackled like televised von Schlieffens explaining how the forces of the Kaiser will trample unopposed across Western Europe.  Instead, Wisconsin lost the de facto Big Ten West championship game at home to Iowa in an unbearably ugly 10-6 game.  Wisconsin is heavily favored, but they, like Northwestern, are playing only for a shot at a "New Year's Six" bowl game.
 
"New Year's Six" is apparently a football term now as part of the Iron Law of College 
Football Terms that says they all have to sound like nineteenth-century anarchist regicide 
cells

Northwestern will rely heavily on the defense and its running back trio of Justin Jackson (the ball! carrier!), Warren Long, and electric kickoff return man/receiving threat/hardbitten noir detective operating out of the Monadnock Building Solomon Vault.  Perhaps Godwin Igwebuike, who intercepted three Wisconsin passes last year, can continue to fool Wisconsin's quarterbacks into throwing to him by convincing them that he just spilled a bunch of purple gatorade on his jersey.  No matter what, it will be a difficult task to manage to scrape a victory in this series dominated by overwhelming home field advantage.

IT IS TIME TO MAKE A DAMN TOURNAMENT ALREADY

Northwestern basketball season has begun.  Chris Collins's third year features an intriguing mix of young players, but is led by two vestiges of the Bill Carmody era.  Those two are center Alex Olah, a bruising seven-footer from Romania who has quietly turned into one of the conference's best big men who is not temporarily hanging out in the Big Ten because the NBA won't let him in, and Tre Demps, an undersized gunning guard who specializes in insane clutch shots.


The Wildcats return sophomores Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsay and introduce sharp-shooting freshman Aaron Falzon.  These promising players, plus a forgiving out of conference schedule against an unending stream of Chicago Dental Colleges, should allow the 'Cats to rack up enough wins to contend for an NIT berth.  Unfortunately, their hopes of finally breaching the NCAA tournament took a big hit when Vic Law underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.  Law, a heralded Chicagoland recruit, seemed to come into his own at the end of last season and had fans excited for his next season.  His injury also seriously harms Chicago-area pun headline writers, who spent last week sadly filling notebooks filled with headlines such as "McIntosh reboots Northwestern's backcourt" or "Alex Olah says 'Adios' to backboard" before dramatically hurling a whiskey glass to the floor and storming out of The Siemian's Paw, Chicago's Big Ten sports pun headline bar.
 
Pun headline writers receive no solace from the news that freshman 
forward Dererk Pardon will redshirt this season

The NCAA Tournament is Northwestern's El Dorado.  Every November begins with a faint hope of making it in; every March reveals it to be mythical.  Before the Law injury, this season seemed like the best shot they've had since Shurna brought them within a Big Ten Tournament game of a shot.  Northwestern's weak non-conference slate does not help, nor does a season in the brutal Big Ten against some of the best teams in the country. 

Last year, Northwestern qualified for the College Basketball Invitational, a gray-market sub-NIT tournament that probably operates from illegal Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball rules, but the Wildcats declined to participate.  Northwestern declared that it was above such a lowly tournament. This was disappointing for fans of underground sporting events such as the CBI and illicit wrestling matches in which Bonesaw is ready.

Northwestern University does not officially endorse the use of any kind of saw

This Northwestern season gives fans an opportunity to see young players like McIntosh and Lindsay come into their own and send off two senior stalwarts.  A young, exciting team should bring out supporters.  There is no reason why Welsh-Ryan Arena, a tiny, ridiculous bleacher barn, should not become a tiny, ridiculous, sweat-soaked death barn filled with raucous fans actually cheering for Northwestern.  A pro-Northwestern crowd at a home game against Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, or Michigan would so discombobulate the visiting team they'd have no idea where they were and that would lead to at least one easy backcut layup.

TWO TO HAT

Northwestern faces a tough challenge on the road at Wisconsin.  The Badgers are incredibly difficult to beat at Camp Randall and the game will be played in miserable cold and snowy conditions.  A Northwestern win would solidify them as the second-best team in the West and set them up for a potential New Year's bowl game.  A loss on the road against a good team would not be catastrophic.  We are only two weeks from Chicago's Big Ten Hat Vengeance Game at Soldier Field and the delightful, improbable, and terrifically fun season would be substantially dampened without reclaiming The Hat.

The Illini face a tough test on the road against an improved Minnesota team that gave Iowa all it could handle last week.  If the Illini falter, then the Hat Game will not only be for the Hat and a win in College Football's Greatest Rivalry Just Look at the Anti-Northwestern Merchandise, it will have an Illini bowl berth on the line.  Even though Northwestern and Illinois are sworn blood-rivals according to Tim Beckman's Clock, I've been rooting for them this season as they've played well in the midst of institutional chaos.  That all ends November 28th in the fog of Hat Rage.  All of Chicago will be watching this clash between Chicago's Big Ten Team and The Team That is Annoyed About Chicago's Big Ten Team Even Though Chicago's Big Ten Team is Pretty Much Every Big Ten Team But Northwestern and Illinois.