Friday, August 14, 2015

14 Philosophically Midwestern Universities Attempt to Play Football. You Won't Believe What Happens Next!

Oh it is coming.  August is the first ripple in the water glass, next is the coaches goldblumically cackling their way through press conferences, then a goat is dismembered, a lawyer flees to a toilet, and college football season comes stomping out of its paddock, bellowing its blood-curdling roar.

Across the country, college football teams are baking in the sun, running into blocking sleds, and getting screamed at by crew-cut wearing millionaires.  The Northwestern Wildcats are in Kenosha, trying to figure out who will be the quarterback.  Defending national champions Ohio State (good grief) are turning their training camp into a reality show called "Scarlet and Gray Days," which, stunningly, is not a turgid nineteenth century Southern Gothic epic.

Last season, a bunch of morons had declared the Big Ten dead and buried, including the least-informed football blogger in the world.  Bowl season, however, eased those doubts, with the conference scoring several close wins over highly-ranked teams.  Statistically, a close win in a single game depends so heavily on chance that no thinking person can possibly assume it means anything; these games have naturally has fueled the discourse on college football since time immemorial.  Ohio State returns as the consensus favorite amongst the football yellerati after downing Alabama and Oregon with a third-string quarterback.  Michigan seems poised for a return to prominence under Jim Harbaugh.  The Big Ten refuses to be anyone's punching bag until the first significant out-of-conference loss, in which case the Big Ten will return to its perception as a conference of ignorant fullbacks and linebackers squinting quizzically at the flickering shadow of a forward pass on a cave wall.


Fortunately, the Wildcats will be avoiding the Buckeyes this season.  Another East powerhouse, Michigan State, will mercifully remain off the schedule as well.  Rutgers and Maryland as yet exist on the "here be dragons" portion of the Big Ten map.  Instead, let us turn to an exhaustively-researched and comprehensive preview of the Big Ten West and East Division Interlopers as they appear on Northwestern's schedule while pretending they won't be effortlessly clobbered by the invincible Wildcat football team.

Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota, led by crimson walrus Jerry Kill, appears to be a program on the rise.  They took an 8-4 record to the Citrus Bowl.  Minnesota had been a Big Ten cellar-dweller and reliable Wildcat victim; from 2007-2012, the 'Cats won five out of six.  More importantly, Northwestern had some spectacular Metrodome mojo, with two of the most absurd endings to a football game I've seen within the arena's glorious roof-pouch.  Minnesota had been a welcome sight on the schedule, a cobblestone on the yellow brick road to Pizza City.  Now, they are a much improved team that has irritatingly beaten Northwestern the last two years-- once with an assistant coach at the helm filling in for an ailing Kill, the other time with a 100-yard fourth-quarter kick return.  The 'Cats may regain the advantage this year by playing at Ryan Field in front of a river of maroon that has seeped down Interstate 94.  As with most Big Ten opponents, Northwestern will be relying on the home field advantage of hoping that the visiting team tenses up and gets nervous in front of an overwhelming deluge of their friends, family, and supporters and the dozens of purple-clad handclaws occasionally voicing their disapproval.

Michigan Wolverines
The Michigan Wolverines suffered the apparently unbearable burden of being kind of bad for more than one season.  The team devolved into a rudderless mess with a mediocre coach, regarded by Michigan fans as a catastrophe on par with a situation where the President of the United States has dissolved the court system and replaced all jurisprudence with trial by monster truck rally.  Michigan fans would only accept one man for the job.  And, because it is not feasible to have a team coached by an animatronic Bo Schembechler standing on the sidelines spitting out dot matrix printouts of what Bo Schembechler would do in any given situation, they decided to hire an unhinged football monomaniac.

I can't wait to hate Jim Harbaugh.  He comports himself like a nineteenth-century military officer just returned from some colonial posting no longer able to function in the West where he has to answer to a doddering hierarchy of muttonchopped generals.  Even by the insane standards of football coaches, whose lives revolve around yelling and watching film and taking fanboats to the east end of nowhere to convince a 300-pound 16-year-old to allow himself to be yelled at by them for the next four years, Harbaugh is intense.  He seems to strive to exist in a world of wide-eyed zeal, where humans only communicate in elaborate football play argots, where discourse is limited to talking about how determined you are, and where the punishments for variation in pants style are unspeakably draconian.  He is also a very good football coach and that is intolerable.

Harbaugh politely disagrees with a holding call

Northwestern had their window.  Michigan had never been so vulnerable.  And, with this final shot at crushing the Wolverines in front of a group of demoralized Michigan fans for once coming into Ryan Field with the slightest tinge of doubt in their inevitable victory, the 'Cats could not pull it off.  Instead, the teams engaged in an embarrassing display of quasi-football, immortalized now as the M00N game.  Neither team could score, hold onto the ball, or attempt any sort of coordinated movement that did not result in a Buster Keaton calamity.  Fitzgerald decided to go for two and Siemian fell onto his buttocks and now Northwestern may never beat the Wolverines again.

But what if something goes horribly awry?  What if, for some unfathomable reason, Harbaugh's tin-pot dictatory doesn't work in Ann Arbor?  What if all of the shouting and baiting officials and making dumb turning into Ghostrider faces can't turn Michigan around and the program continues to list like once-stately liner careening into an iceberg?  What if Harbaugh gets run out on a rail, with angry Michigan alumni braying about him being tainted by the NFL and the Michigan Men condemn him for not living up to their hilariously lofty Michigan coach should be on the list of possible emergency presidential successors in the face of numerous simultaneous calamities standards and bray on the internet about things being UNACCEPTABLE?

That turn of events would somehow justify the existence of college football.

The Werther's Originals of football teams takes to the field again under Kirk Ferentz.  Ferentz's team has fallen from its mid-decade heights challenging for Big Ten titles and some Iowa fans have begun to lose their patience.  He remains dedicated to the platonic, plodding ideal of Big Ten football, churning out endless highlight reels of guards running into people.  There's nothing flashy, exciting, or particularly irksome about Iowa football except somewhere along the way they have become blood-rivals with Northwestern and should probably be crushed, with all Iowa merchandise loaded onto a boat armada and burned in the middle of Lake Michigan witnessed only by a single contemptuous man.  

For most of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Iowa and Northwestern traded off foiling each others' hopes of contention and losing quarterbacks.  The stakes, however, have vanished.  Now, with the Hawkeyes stagnating at Insight Bowl levels and the Wildcats bereft of bowls entirely, the rivalry seems brief and fleeting.

Ferentz reignites Northwestern/Iowa enmity by cruelly accusing him of inadequate fist pumping 
and taking it more than one play at a time out there

Whatever lingering antipathy has declined at the same time as the Rise of Beck Man.  There is nothing the University of Iowa can possibly do that can match his ludicrous Northwestern bashing.  Iowa fans no longer care about this quasi-rivalry since Northwestern has ceased to be a thorn in their side.  That is why it is imperative that the Hawkeyes get hot and win all of their games before rolling into Ryan Field and losing on a preposterous series of laterals so Northwestern fans have another fanbase that might hate them before Beckman volunteers for interplanetary travel to start a pointless rivalry with theoretical Martian bacteria. 

When Nebraska entered the Big Ten, Northwestern fans immediately demanded to know: who is the true NU?  Here's a quick rundown of the case: Northwestern fans claim NU since the school is literally "Northwestern University." Nebraska fans counter by having had no idea that Northwestern had a football team with uniforms and everything. Since then, there has been a tense but civil NU détente between the fans because the controversy is inane even by college football standards, a sport where people get incensed by a victorious team scoring too many points.  

Last year, the Huskers defeated Northwestern and turned our Homecoming into a pitiless sea of red.  Now, the 'Cats have to face thousands of Nebraska fans in Lincoln without the benefit of Dracula jerseys.  The Huskers have a new coach this season, Mike Riley from Oregon State.  Jug-eared cave person Bo Pelini has returned home to Youngstown State because he has figured out that there are entire generations of Youngstonians who have not been screamed at within two inches of their face.  The best way to beat Nebraska is to reclaim the crowd advantage so if you're some wealthy teeth-clenching monocle enthusiast planning to name a building on Northwestern's campus, why not endow a Chair of Showing Them What It's Like instead, buy every goddamn ticket in their stadium, and flood it with Northwestern fans or, in a pinch, Kansas State fans with holdover anti-Nebraska animus?

Penn State

Ten years ago, Purdue was riding high in the Big Ten, with a conveyor belt of quarterback champions.  Kyle Orton played there, and I can think of no greater aspiration for a football fan than rooting for Kyle Orton.  Now, the post-Tillman Boilermakers are a living museum of football indignity.  The high-flying offenses are probably a thing of the past because who the hell knows what kind of offense Purdue runs. The coaching staff probably puts in a tape and then says the hell with it and watches a bunch of Magnum PI reruns before passing out in their Strategy Caboose.  Everything about Purdue football is misery.  Even Northwestern, at its depths of ineptitude, managed to lose operatically, setting records and throwing things into lakes.  It would take a herculean effort to throw anything larger than a shoulder pad into the Wabash River. 

The Wabash river is further east on this map, but look at what's going on near the stadium. 
Beck Man would never stand for that.  He would have that street name changed immediately 
to That Road Up North, Chief Boulevard, or Fill In Field Here Before Submitting Form

Purdue muddles through, eclipsed even by its slightly-less-moribund state rival Indiana, bucketless and heartbroken.  Northwestern-Purdue will kick off at 8:30 AM, reluctantly televised with commentary recycled from an old copy of NCAA '05.


There was uncharacteristic intrigue in Madison this off-season as head coach Gary Andersen decamped to Oregon State.  He filled the vacancy left by Mike Riley, who left for Nebraska. The Badgers failed to close the circular coaching loop by hiring Bo Pelini.  Instead, they brought in long-time assistant coach Paul Chryst from Pitt.  Once again, Barry Alvarez descended from the his lofty perch in the athletic department to lead the Badgers to an Outback Bowl victory.  This is the closest thing to a statue coming to life to coach a football team until the technology is perfected by Penn State scientists.

Wisconsin football is not about gracefully lofting passes over a defense.  It is about running around them, over them, and preferably through them by using Wisconsin's hulking offensive linemen and the parts of defenders that are still stuck to them from the week before.  Last year, the Badgers had one of the most comically lopsided offenses in college football, with Melvin Gordon wreaking havoc behind a typical wall of beef while the passing game approximated the replacement of a football with a regulation anvil.  Then, Wisconsin came into Evanston and decided to air it out.

And pass they did.  Badger fans stood there, stunned, as their quarterbacks heaved up 29 miserable passes into the field, off of helmets, and into the waiting hands of Godwin Igwebuike.  Time and time again, Melvin Gordon ran the ball close to the endzone and then watched helplessly as an inexplicable series of passes flew anywhere but.  Andersen and his coaches became textbook victims of what I call Vizzini's Law: never try to do the unexpected when the unexpected is unexpected because it is self-evidently dumb.

"The wide receivers will be wide open," Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig 
cackled while calling for another Joel Stave rollout

BYCTOM PREVIEW NUGGET: Wisconsin will probably run the ball a lot this year.


Beck Man finally did it.  After years of clumsy rival-mongering and quizzically squinting at something in the middle distance, Ham Fistman managed to beat the 'Cats at home in a loser doesn't get to go to a crappy bowl game match.  And, given an entire off-season to luxuriate in his possession of the Hat, perhaps Beckman will grow from his glories.  Perhaps he'll make the Hat an assistant coach (Coach Hat says you're only giving me 105 percent out there), change his name to Beck Hatman, or walk around Champaign in a home-made hat-cape-- these are all things that most of us would do if we won as prestigious a trophy as the Lincoln Hat.  The Wildcats won't get a chance to wrest the Hat from Beckman in Champaign.  Instead, the contest moves to Soldier Field, Chicago's Big Ten Neutral Site, in order to seize the attention of Chicagoans interested in a Northwestern/Illinois game only if the halftime show consists of 25 guys simultaneously screaming about Jay Cutler.

Tim Beckman is the greatest thing to happen to this football blog.  He has single-handedly taken a rivalry that was at best ironic and elevated it into something approaching an actual rivalry.  He then backed up his talk steering his team into an abysmal record while bumbling around the sidelines and getting bowled over by the occasional referee.  He comported himself at all times like he was flummoxed by an unfamiliar frozen yogurt ordering procedure.  And, in a satisfying narrative twist, he somehow beat Northwestern, not only winning the Hat, but winning a golden ticket to lose a Conference USA team in a bowl game, which is the platonic ideal of stakes for an Illinois-Northwestern football game.  Beckman may not last past this season if the Illini are crappy again, but he has already accomplished everything there is to accomplish in the game of football.

It is football season.  It is Hat Season.  

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