Friday, September 25, 2015

WEEK 4: A Twenty-One Punt Salute

Northwestern came into the season with a tough schedule, an undefined situation at quarterback, back-to-back bowl-free seasons and the loss of the Hat to a team coached by a human bobblehead.  Another tough season seemed on the horizon.  Instead, Northwestern has won all of its games, they are 3-0, they beat Stanford and Duke, they have allowed a grand total of one (1) touchdown, they are ranked #17 in the country in the AP Poll, and they are going to win five simultaneous national football championships this year. 

The Duke-Northwestern game was played on the surface of the sun and broadcast locally on a channel showing nothing but Judge Mathis and ninja knife infomercials. Both teams feature ferocious defenses and both teams had first-year quarterbacks.  What followed was practically obscene.


Both offenses struggled in the unforgiving heat.  Balls sailed past open receivers.  Running backs fell fruitlessly into the arms of defensive tackles.  And punt after punt rained down upon Wallace Wade Stadium as possessions went through a football samsara, a cycle of death and rebirth off the exhausted legs of Hunter Niswander and Will Monday.

Do not adjust your monitor.  You are looking at eleven 
consecutive punts. This is taken directly from ESPN's 
game log.  The only adjustment I made was to zoom 
out the web browser because mine could not fit all of the 
punts on a single screen

The game was brutal and ugly.  And who cares?  Northwestern won.  Solomon Vault took the second-half kickoff some 97 yards and Warren Long snuck past a Duke defense that had loaded up on the line of scrimmage for a third-and-one.  The defense remained unmovable.  Dean Lowry terrorized Duke by tipping an interception to himself and coming inches from swatting another to the turf for a fumble and touchdown (referees ruled that the ball traveled forward enough to constitute a forward pass).  Anthony Walker was credited with 19 tackles, securing another Big Ten player of the week award.  Northwestern has the top-ranked scoring defense in the entire FBS.  The Wildcats' endzone might as well be the moon; sure it is possible to go there, and it's been done in the past, but opposing teams are wondering if they have the manpower and the short-sleeved white button-down shirts to engineer a way there and how are they going to convince the government to give them the resources to try in this economy.

Stanford scientists attempt to engineer a drive, but are unable to navigate past the 
VanHoose Belt

Yes, there are causes for alarm.  The offense, despite a superhuman 35-carry day from Justin Jackson on a muggy afternoon, bogged down.  The passing game remains a work in progress.  But cautious, measured optimism has no place in college football, a sport that lunges from ecstasy to horror in seconds, where victories are temporary and fleeting, where the only sensible way to handle the success of this team is to mold a car into the shape of the angry wildcat head from the helmets that says TRANSITIVE PROPERTY PAC 12 CHAMPIONS and shoots flames at passing motorists, most of whom have never heard of Northwestern's football team. 

UNDER THE LIGHTS

But before Northwestern can move on to dismantle the Big Ten West, the 'Cats will be going UNDER THE LIGHTS to face the Ball State Cardinals.  This is not just a football game; this is prime time slobber-knockin', clock-cleanin', ball jarrin', big puntin' Midwestern football under the stars and on Big Ten Network regional action. 
 
Ball State's logo is a cardinal's head plummeting from the sky, presumably 
from a distressed headless cardinal injured in an unimaginably violent 
conflagration only seconds beforehand

The Big Ten Network has brought this team to prime time because of the storied rivalry between Northwestern and Ball State.  It all stems from the 1920s, when Ball State's football team consisted of Pericles N. Ball, a distant relative of the school-founding Ball family, who would travel to Northwestern football games and taunt the players for being feeble arm-noodles with the weak mustaches of a child.  Ball ordered pennants of a Wildcat logo with a giant no circle around it, but no printers would agree to print them because they were too absurd.  Each year, the Ball State football banquet would begin, end, and consist entirely of Ball reading an unhinged rant claiming that Ball State would start its program at the junior college level, eventually move up to the top division, and, 34 years later, finally walk into Evanston with a team mighty enough to grind the Wildcats into dust in a game momentous enough that word would spread over the telegraph to the far flung corners of Yugoslavia.

Northwestern and Ball State have never played, but only a fool would pencil in an easy victory.  The Wildcats will be favored, but anything can happen UNDER THE LIGHTS.  The Cardinals are 2-1 and have a very good coach.  They know the Wildcats will want to run the ball, and the 'Cats have yet to show they can pass effectively.  It is hypothetically possible that the lights in the stadium will go out and the plaintive cries of a Husky will echo through the Evanston night and Northern Illinois will come out of the tunnel as a MAC Commissioner John Steinbrecher swaggers onto the fifty yard line while Pat Fitzgerald stands in gape-mouthed stupefaction and Dave Eanet yells NO NO NO THERE ARE RULES AGAINST THIS.
 
Three kestrels flying over the Castle Steinbrecher heralded the inevitable ascension of young 
John to his destiny as the Commissioner of the Mid-America Conference, as noted in the 
ancient football text "Ain't Prophesied No One Yet" 

Ball State will be playing for a grand upset, a chance to demonstrate yet again that MAC teams can hang with a Big Ten opponent.  Northwestern has even more at stake: a chance to go undefeated into Big Ten play, solidify bowl positioning, and maintain a top-25 ranking and status as a Big Ten West contender.  Northwestern football rides high again, and the possibilities are unfolding in front of fans like an Early Modern prince with vague ties to the Spanish Crown seeing a portrait of the inbred, sickly Habsburg on the throne.  We have seen this before.

Two years ago, a ranked Northwestern finished its nonconference season 4-0 and ranked.  A bowl seemed certain and a spot in the Big Ten championship game seemed possible.  A tough loss to Ohio State showed that Northwestern could keep up with a top contender.  Then, the wheels came off.  The Wildcats lost every single game in the most confounding way possible like they had been cursed by a vengeful football deity for committing some sort of forgotten football blasphemy such as taking it more than one game at a time or scoring on the Forbidden End Zone or not jumping up and down and pointing emphatically enough after a fumble even if the ball rolled out of bounds 15 feet away from the closest Wildcat defender.  There are no certainties in college football.

AS I MENTIONED, UNDER THE LIGHTS

Northwestern football is under the lights.  It will be dark out and later than normal.  There are several hours available to travel to your local library and peruse the section labeled by the Dewey Decimal System as incoherent football yelling (this section includes All Right It's Time to Trade Cutler to Zounds, Trade Cutler Already: The A to Z Anthology of Doug and OB Callers).  Ball State players will have to contend with the mayhem of Prime Time Ryan Field, with its shrieking fan maniacs and terrifying glow-in-the-dark tarps.  Kickoff is scheduled for 24 hours before a blood moon eclipse event, and the game should have been scheduled for then, a Big Ten-MAC showdown under Chicago's Big Ten Blood Moon with a tiny but fervent group of people braying about portends of the end of the world and a slightly smaller but no less fervent group proclaiming the glories of Wildcat football.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Week 3: The Northwestern-Eastern Illinois Game is Decadent and Depraved

Northwestern is ranked.  According to the Associated Press and the cabal of harried graduate football video coordinators who fill out the Coaches' Poll, Northwestern is one of the top 25 teams in these United States.  And now they have a looming showdown with a good Duke team in Durham that will be broadcast on the Internet to Northwestern fans, Duke fans, and people involved in football betting pools so degenerate that they spend halftime betting on nineteenth-century horse races by looking up the result in microfilmed copies of Gentleman's Magazine.

Among the Gentleman's Magazine's famous writers was Samuel Johnson (l, pugnaciously 
squinting), who craftily evaded a ban on parliamentary reporting by inventing the country 
of "Magna Lilliputia" and helpfully explaining that parliament's debates, which bore eerie 
similarity to the actual Parliament. It is hard to know how Johnson could have found anything 
extraordinary to write about eighteenth-century Parliament, such as when MPs would attempt 
to murder each other. In the early 1760s, radical reformer John Wilkes (r, depicted by Hogarth) 
dueled Samuel Martin after Martin referred to Wilkes as a "stabber in the dark, a cowardly and 
malignant scoundrel."  The two met at Hyde Park, where Martin shot Wilkes in the stomach.  
According to Edward Walford's Hyde Park from 1878, some gadflys suspected Martin of practicing 
for months and attempting to lure Wilkes to the duel through his use of brazen eighteenth-century 
epithets.  Wilkes survived long enough to get tried in absentia for co-writing a pornographic 
poem that was read in the House of Lords by his arch-nemesis, the Earl of Sandwich.

The Wildcats crushed an overmatched Eastern Illinois with another dominant display from the defense.  The defensive line and linebackers stymied the Panthers all afternoon.  Matthew Harris picked off two passes although one was on a faltering trick play where a panicking wide receiver attempted to huck the ball up to Mount Olympus and the other when the Panther quarterback improvised a shovel pass as if someone in the crowd had suggested the ball had suddenly become a rabid bat.

This game did not tell us much about Northwestern other than reinforcing the fact that the Wildcats can comfortably defeat a team that is structurally set up to be worse than Northwestern at football.  Eastern Illinois showed up, collected its check, and was subject to Chicago's Big Ten Football Stadium roaring comfortably at a one-tarp level (Northwestern has not yet deployed the Full Tarp; with the one home game happening UNDER THE LIGHTS before Big Ten play fills Ryan Field with jeering Iowans for the rest of the season, we may not yet see it).  The game certainly reinforced the Wildcats' defensive bonafides.  Opponents have yet to score a touchdown against them.  There are a number of rational reasons to proceed with cautious optimism, but for the love of everything holy the Northwestern Wildcats are ranked and I'm not going to let my native sports pessimism to take over here and heartily invite the Big Ten Conference to be effortlessly CRUSHED BENEATH ANTHONY WALKER'S CLEATS I'LL SEE YOU CHUMPS IN INDIANAPOLIS.

TITANIC SHOWDOWN BETWEEN FOOTBALL POWERHOUSES

On Saturday, the sudden proclamation that Northwestern might be good will be put to the test by a very good Duke team.  Duke has made short work of its two first opponents, Tulane and North Carolina Central.  Before the season, pundits had questioned whether the Blue Devils could withstand numerous key graduations, especially on defense.  They have not yet shown any ill effects and now the 'Cats are going into their steamy swamp stadium in a battle of undefeated football titans.

Duke and Northwestern have met fairly often since the late '90s.  Both teams are small, private schools in big conferences that have spent most their footballing history flailing ineffectively at opponents like balloon men in a car dealership parking lot.  Northwestern has gotten the better of Duke, taking six of the last seven.  In fact, the Duke/Northwestern quasi-rivalry is evidence of Duke's stunning turnaround; the last Duke victory in 2007 ended a 22-game losing streak, and Duke played in the ACC Championship game just six years later.

Despite these similarities, Duke fans have endured the relative tragedy of their football program because Duke basketball is an unstoppable death-juggernaut.  While Northwestern sports are generally ignored or pitied, Duke's basketball team is almost universally reviled.  Northwestern takes the court to indifference; Duke basketball plays against a planet of seven billion fist-shaking Beck Men.  Northwestern has actively sought to emulate Duke's basketball success through a complex conspiracy involving numerous shadowy organizations, clandestine meetings, and hiring a guy who was literally Coach K's assistant coach. 

The mysterious disappearance of Duke Assistant Coach Chris Collins and his sudden 
reappearance at the head of Northwestern basketball is explained by the Chris Collins 
Conspiracy Corkboard that explains everything clearly and is not at all inscrutable-- in fact 
the Chris Collins Conspiracy Corkboard won Honorable Mention, Most Scrutable at the Screedies 
Conspiracy Awards or at least would have if it weren't for the intervention of shady forces 
beyond your wildest imagination

If the Wildcats wilt in the Carolina heat, they can still rally against Ball State (LET ME REMIND YOU: UNDER THE LIGHTS) and turn a strong non-conference record into a bowl campaign.  If they beat the Blue Devils, then it's TOOT TOOT THIS TRAIN ONLY STOPS IN PASADENA time and the Northwestern hype will switch into overdrive, kept off the front pages of the sports sections of Chicago's Big Ten Newspapers only by a particularly noteworthy Notre Dame practice.

THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE IS NATIONAL AND FOOTBALL

The NFL has kicked off again with the controversy, lawyer-laden press conferences, and general up-in-armsmanship that has come to define America's game.  The actual games are almost incidental to ancillary NFL nonsense.  Some of it is a designed spectacle; the NFL has blown up the draft into a three day list-reading extravaganza that closed down parts of Downtown Chicago for upwards of a week.  Other times, it is the general bumbling created by the NFL's desire to serve as an independent branch of the United States justice system featuring a court lorded over by a a man who acts at all times like the guy from Bananas who goes mad the second he takes power and starts issuing underwear statutes.


The NFL's pompous nincompoopery came to a head during the Great Ball Deflation Media Event of 2015, which climaxed with Roger Goodell upholding Roger Goodell's decision to suspend Tom Brady over a shrill chorus of Wahlbergian moaning before an actual judge intervened.  At least the ball deflation scandal involved something as silly as Patriots skulduggery; earlier attempts to adjudicate on domestic violence through football justice were bungled so egregiously that I am surprised that Goodell has not yet mistakenly suspended himself before quickly changing suits and exonerating himself at a press conference featuring military hardware.

Even without scandal and legal wrangling the NFL has become exhausting.  Professional football includes the grandiose bumbling the NFL specializes in, but comes packaged with what can only be described as the dumbest shit imaginable.  The NFL's broadcasts aren't uniquely joyless; every televised sporting event bombards us with the same corporate simulacra of the concept of fun.  NFL games, however, are presented with a ponderous self-importance where announcers imbue inane platitudes about football players making football plays at the quarterback position in the national football league with the gravity of a U.N. conference on arms control.  Ads airing on sports events are universally intolerable, but only NFL games stop seemingly every three minutes to breathlessly shill rifled beer bottles, various pickup truck brands in increasingly hardy settings that will seemingly climax at the Super Bowl with a consumer-grade Gravedigger dragging Dennis Leary through the apocalypse, and an endless wave of Babas Booey screaming about fantasy football.

The fact that rational people tune into this week after week and that Americans are willing to cede precious hours of their lives to be screamed at by Trent Dilfer shows just how entertaining football games are. NFL players are really good at smashing into each other. And as long as players continue to fly through the air catching passes, drag five tacklers across the first down marker, and dramatically steam from their heads on winter days, we will continue to watch, no matter how badly the experience becomes laden with promos for TV shows about abrasive detectives who get results and this week the internet has become a person and it is murdering people.

This season airing concurrently on Fox, CBS, and NBC, Dan Bakkedahl 
stars as Karl Fugue: Asshole Detective. This week, Fugue is suspended for 
dropping leaflets outside police headquarters entitled Your Police Are 
Morons illustrated with a cartoon of the chief clumsily struggling to put on 
a dunce cap but he can't because he is so uselessly stupid. But then, Fugue 
solves the case because despite his gruff obnoxiousness, he possesses 
incredible powers of observation that no one on the force can match even with 
their newfangled computers. He is reinstated, tells the chief that he is an idiot, 
then goes to drink self-destructively, possibly with his reluctant partner, a 
by-the-book detective who can't stand Fugue but respects him and also while 
her career is going well, her personal life is in shambles. On the next 
Karl Fugue: Asshole Detective, someone fires a gun and drives a car recklessly

DUEL IN DURHAM

It is way too early in the season to consider any game make-or-break.  Last season, a roller-coaster where Northwestern struggled against non-conference opponents, scored two massive upsets against Wisconsin and Notre Dame, and then lost a bowl play-in game to Illinois, reinforced the unpredictability of Big Ten football.  The Duke game, however, should reveal a lot about the Wildcats: whether the Stanford game was a fluke, whether the defense can remain dominant, and whether Thorson can continue to play like a quarterback with far more experience than he has.  The game should be a defensive duel, complete with some pre-game social media chatter in which Ifeadi Odenigbo's expectations of a shutout have been received as if he referred to the Duke team as malignant cowards in Parliament. Everyone expects a close game, everyone that is except for Karl Fugue: Asshole Detective who is also a sports-betting sharp whose encyclopedic knowledge of college football betting patterns allows him to foil a series of shrimp restaurant robberies before that goddamn idiot chief has a chance to mess things up with his computers in Episode 8: Pick Six Murders.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Week 2: The Day of Two Noons

There are numerous ways to begin a season: elation, disappointment, caution, and amid accusations of football malfeasance.  This year, an unheralded Wildcat team looked awfully good against a sluggish and flummoxed Stanford, securing a jubilant upset and making the Big Ten look slightly less blighted.  A first-game victory tells us little, and it is important to be sober and dispassionate in our analysis but that is for fact-bloggers and football experts so let's build an elaborate cardboard edifice, wait inside, and then burst forth from it screaming about how Northwestern demands the Big Ten West, especially if you are living in a country where no one knows what the Big Ten or Northwestern or football is.

HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT WILDCAT FOOTBALL

This first win has changed the complexion of the season.  The schedule had looked like twelve games of grim butt-holding.  Now, a convincing walloping of an FCS team and a respectable showing against Duke and Ball State (UNDER THE LIGHTS) can set the Wildcats up for a bowl run.  Some teams spend the season with a predetermined arc.  ESPN announcers constantly mentioned that Wisconsin, once scraped off the bottom of Alabama's boots, should expect to romp virtually unopposed through the West against a bunch of cardboard football programs such as Northwestern.  Ohio State's schedule remains under vigilant scrutiny should they fail to adequately humiliate each and every opponent they face.  Every Northwestern game, however, will remain an adventure game to game, quarter to quarter, and Pat Fitzgerald fist pump to Pat Fitzgerald fist pump, whether it results in a thrilling Wildcat comeback on a hook-and-lateral or an attack on Ryan Field by heretofore undetected Tremors monsters.

It is too early to celebrate.  But the fundamental tenet of sports fandom is irrationality, so for just one week let's allow for the possibility that Northwestern is much better than the prognosticators thought. In fact, let us throw out most of our assumptions about the universe as we know and spend the rest of the week as a cult of moon-haters celebrating every new moon as a victory and shaking our fists when it slowly grows throughout the month invoking our credo "I'll get you next time, Moon."

NORTHWESTERN'S UNSTOPPABLE JUGGERNAUT VICTORY

The Northwestern Wildcats scored 16 points and Stanford scored six and now Northwestern has one win and Stanford has zero.  This is a fact.  It is a matter of public record.  It is on television, on newspapers, on the internet, and possibly in Gregg Easterbrook's Game Over notebook.  The reasons for this result are up for debate.

Stanford did not play particularly well.  Quarterback Kevin Hogan struggled.  The running game, after the first drive, sputtered.  Wide receivers and cornerbacks dropped passes, including at least one sure interception in the endzone and one wide-open route where a receiver broke free of the defense with absolutely nothing to stop him from running into the endzone other than a temporary hallucination that the ball had turned into a vengeful porcupine.  Stanford fans have also complained about the early start time after traveling from the West Coast.  This problem, though, is part of the Ryan Field home field advantage, where opponents must learn to adapt to Chicago's Big Ten Time Zone.

(click to read)
Railroad companies introduced the first standardized time
zones in 1883. On November 18, the Day of Two Noons,
railroad stations across the United States simultaneously
synchronized their clocks. This is routine now, but the
synchronization provided some dislocation by reinventing
time itself and because The Day of Two Noons sounds like
the beginning of a Young Adult post-apocalyptic trilogy
where time itself is controlled by a mysterious Council that
can only be undone by a plucky tween and a mysterious old
man who knows the Terrible Secret of the Before Times.
This New York Times Article illustrates the concept with the
help of a couple of broadly-drawn Irish stereotypes which I
imagine newspapers brought out as their nineteenth-century
explainers:
“Begorra,” remarked to his companion a vermilion topped
Hibernian who was watching the south face of the clock, “the
thing has stopped; phwats the matther wid it, anyhow? I don’t
see no time changin', do you Mike?”


Northwestern's defense, especially the defensive line, played well against a team whose M.O. is shoving people and falling down.  But the game belonged to the two 18s: Clayton Thorson and Anthony Walker.  Thorson's first game included a few nice passes and a few adventures through the hands of Cardinal defenders.  He won the game on the ground by flying untouched through the Stanford defense for a 42-yard touchdown.  Walker, on the other hand, was everywhere, tackling Stanford players at the line of scrimmage, in space, and in their classes after posing as a precocious guest lecturer before ripping off an elbow-patched sport coat and punching at their three-ring binders. 

SPONSORED CONTENT: HOW TO HAVE A RAD FOOTBALL COOK-OUT



It's football Saturday. You got your grill? You got your friends? You got your jersey and your facepaint and your foam finger with a generic football message? You got your Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants? Well, friend, it's cookin' time.

World-Renowned Chef Vaughn Sharkle knows what tailgating is all about as he drives the Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants RV through the heart of college football grilling.
"I've seen everything," Sharkle says moving his wrap-around sunglasses to the back of his head. "Shrimp, brisket, pork. The only thing college football fans are more passionate about their team is their barbecue."

And everywhere he goes, Sharkle draws a crowd with the smell of fresh, sizzling meat.
"You know a lot of people think of industry when they think of Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants.  Hard work. Smelting aprons. The work that forged America. But Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants are also a part of making America fun, like at this tailgate," said Sharkle completely spontaneously while casually flicking a beach ball with white hot anviling tongs in the direction of some giggling, clean-cut youths.

"I got involved with Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants because we're all about the same thing: Make it More Awesome," Sharkle said, putting on a Make it More Awesome t-shirt.  "I'm going to keep putting meats in more meats and blow people's minds, just like Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants has been doing in the anvil and anvil lubricant industry for 135 years." 

"Dude," he added.  

Vaughn Sharkle's quest for the perfect tailgate hasn't ended yet. You can follow him on Facebook and tweet to #AmalgamatedAnvil&AnvilLubricantGameDayHASHTAG and you could get Vaughn Sharkle and the Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricant Ultimate Game Day Tailgate Team to make your tailgate more awesome with Amalgamted Anvil and Anvil Lubricants.

EASTERN PROMISES

Eastern Illinois looms next for the Wildcats.  The Panthers play in the FCS, and Northwestern fans are expecting a convincing victory after beating a ranked team.  But you can't sleep on the Panthers.  For one, expect them to take Northwestern by surprise by being primarily south and slightly west of Evanston.  For another, they will be gunning for an enormous upset of their own.  Last season, the 'Cats had a tough time scoring against Western Illinois in a miserable game involving a three-timeout kicker freeze and cheerleaders bearing placards reading (and this is a direct quote) "NECKS."  

Eastern Illinois threatens the Wildcats with a disembodied H.R. Giger panther head

Northwestern has only played Eastern Illinois once before in 2011.  Last year, the Panthers lost to all of the FBS teams they played as well as FCS Championship runner-up Illinois State, but they did pound the holy bejesus out of the teams they did beat.  Eastern is a surprising supplier of NFL quarterbacks. Jimmy Garoppolo was poised to start for the Patriots this season while Roger Goodell had Tom Brady imprisoned in the Ch√Ęteau d'If. Tony Romo worked his way from an undrafted free agent to stardom, riches, and getting assailed by angry Texas talk radio callers for nearly a decade no matter what he does. Northwestern has not had a regular starter in the NFL since Otto Graham, with the exception of that time Brett Basanez played for the Panthers or whenever Mike Kafka surfaces in preseason games to a chorus of the same Kafka jokes everyone made when he was at Northwestern some seven years ago and will haunt him for his entire professional career until the debut of a quarterback named Bobby Sartre or Jimbo Nietzsche.

ALSO RECEIVING VOTES

It has only been one week and it is foolish to draw too many conclusions.  Every single football article you will read this week probably includes that disclaimer.  But the entire point of college football is these madcaps swings in confidence and despair, anointing strong teams and contenders and consigning losers to the dust bin of Pizza City bowls.

Official AP Style Guide for College Football Writing

Northwestern beat a ranked Stanford team and siphoned off their AP poll votes like a Highlander who has just successfully beheaded someone.  The 'Cats are Also Receiving Votes.  The day has two noons.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Week 1: Fall of the House of Beck Man


Football has returned!  On Saturday, the twenty-first ranked Stanford Cardinal drive their crowd-sourced content-centered Silicon Valley Tesla bus into Evanston while the Wildcats will try to disrupt their Pac 12 North title bid.  A long, bleak, hatless offseason finally ends.  Northwestern football is back to terrify the Big Ten West, to seize the Land of Lincoln Trophy from the cold, fired hands of the Beck Man, and make it back to a damn bowl game because I am pretty sure there are no more possible ways for Northwestern to lose every single game in a bizarre last-minute conflagration of football misery.

Since last week's exhaustive preview, Pat Fitzgerald has named a starting quarterback.  Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson has emerged to grab the starting job, probably because you can't bench the offspring of a Norse deity.  The coaching staff hopes that Thorson will remind Wildcat fans of the traditional scrambly Northwestern quarterback that has led the team during successful years without betraying his lack of experience.  He'll have some help with the return of speedy wideout Christian Jones, who missed all of last year, and Pierre Youngblood-Arry, the Cockney Prince of Agincourt.

Northwestern's offense plans to baffle the opposition with a secret play 
called "The Invisible Didgeridoo"

Northwestern's out of conference schedule this year includes a miniature tour of equally insufferable Power 5 private schools.  Stanford can be seen as a funhouse mirror Northwestern, albeit far more successful on the field, with much nicer weather and an ignominious loss involving a kick return team running over a marching band instead of an ignominious win involving the drowning of a goal post.  The Cardinal went 8-5 last year, including a loss to Notre Dame, a team that crumbled easily before the might of the Wildcats and the cumulative effect of every single lucky break that Northwestern had been denied in nearly two full seasons of football action. 

Maybe opening against a top-25 powerhouse with a freshman quarterback is not the ideal way to start a season.  But top-quality opposition will invite the full pageantry of non-conference football to Ryan Field: ESPN broadcast, Stanford's hallucinogenic tree mascot, and Chicago's Big Ten Tarp.  Northwestern's greatest seasons in recent memory have come out of nowhere.  It is time for them to once again ruin opponents' seasons, crush dreams, and travel to a bowl game even if we have to invent one from whole cloth using shell companies and a long con involving inventing a dot com company.

FALL OF THE HOUSE OF BECK MAN



We don't have Tim Beckman to kick around anymore.  Last week, Illinois abruptly fired him amid allegations of player abuse.  Beckman's dismissal could hardly be seen as unexpected after years of futility, controversy, and general flailing Beckmania-- at one point his Wikipedia page contained a section entitled "Public Outcry"-- but his sudden termination eight days before the start of the season certainly caught the college football world unaware. He spent his last year of coaching like Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea; we all knew he'd get eaten by a shark, but the end was still sudden and jarring.

There's nothing at all amusing about the reasons why Beckman was ultimately canned.  A University of Illinois-commissioned report claimed that Beckman pressured injured players to keep playing and threatened players with the loss of their scholarships.  These charges are not that surprising in the world of college football, where some tobacco-stained mustache columnist is probably still rhapsodizing about the time an old-school hat-wearing Woody Hayes type yelled "you're not injured. I'll show you injured" before running a walk-on through with a Civil War cavalry saber.  A cynic could also note that the report gave the university adequate legal ammunition to fire him with cause and save nearly $4 million owed to him on his contract and his buyout.  Beckman denies the allegations and vows to fight for the money owed on his contract.

It seems likely that Beckman's tenure involved shady injury practices and provided the university with a way to renounce his salary. Illinois administrators, already riven with scandals in the athletic department and embattled leadership at the top, found an opportunity to free themselves from financial commitments to a losing coach who continually acted like Tim Beckman in public.  The allegations against Beckman don't seem outside the realm of possibility because they had already been echoed by some former players and because Beckman has coached like he bought a Weekly Reader book from 1967 called Trench Bludgeoner's Guide to College Football and Commie Spotting and dedicated himself to Cold War-era football: thus insisting on having players play through pain, demanding favorable coverage from print media, and nurturing the second-most ridiculous rivalry in college football.

THE HAT RIVALRY IN THE POST-BECKMAN ERA

If there is one thing that Tim Beckman accomplished at Illinois it was successfully creating a Northwestern-Illinois rivalry.  It is still not a true rivalry the way most intrastate rivalries work; instead, the Beck Man has somehow reinvented the entire concept of a college football rivalry as a quixotic crusade waged by a single man.  His immediate declaration of war against Northwestern was nothing short of ludicrous. His ham-fisted attempts to stoke that rivalry devolved into farce. It is possible to read the entire Beckman treatment of Northwestern as a brilliant deconstruction of rivalry itself, recasting the Iron Bowl, or the The Game, or the dozens of other actual football rivalries as absurd, rendering all football fans as dimbulb Beckman simulacra.

But, let's give the Beck Man his due here: it sort of worked.  No one hates Northwestern football. Northwestern football is briefly remembered and occasionally pitied. I have spent the past few weeks skimming thousands upon thousands of words of college football and Big Ten previews and almost none of them deign to mention the existence of Northwestern football except as evidence of a Big Ten contender's easy schedule. So when Sheriff Beckman swaggered into town with his school up north euphemisms and purple clothing bans, it was fun.  Beck Man stood in front of the press, the world, and his god decrying Northwestern football with a straight face and it was impossible not to respond with hat-taunts as he floundered about. In theory, the rivalry was against the University of Illinois.  In reality, it was a rivalry with Beck Man himself, who inexplicably continued his one-man anti-Northwestern jeremiads while simultaneously comporting himself like a man in an infomercial unaware that an overstuffed kitchen cabinet is about to unleash an unholy rain of tupperware upon his person.

This actually happened.
This actually happened.
This actually happened.
This actually happened.

What on earth are we going to do without Tim Beckman?  Bill Cubit seems unlikely to burst into a press conference with a fresh barrage of Northwestern hate-mongering-- it is possible he removed the anti-Northwestern symbol from the Illini locker room only to discover it was covering up a secret cache of VHS recordings of an unsold television pilot called "Tim Beckman's Hat Police."  I don't know anything about Cubit other than his name is an obscure, ancient unit of measure that is good for maybe one half-hearted stiff-arm joke per season.  Our only hope is that Cubit somehow becomes mesmerized by the Hat, loses all grip on reality, and turns into a Klaus Kinsky character over the course of the season, his clothes in tatters, his hair frayed, his press conferences devolving into incoherent hat-shrieks, only no one notices because that is still slightly more reasonable than Tim Beckman.

Illinois fans, we're in this together.  Beckman may have have stared blankly into the middle distance for the last time as the Illini coach, but we have a conference, a trophy, and two bleak programs eclipsed in our own state by a MAC team and FCS team, respectively.  We only have each other. 

Beckman, banished to the Phantom Zone, vows to defeat That School 
From The Adjacent Dimension Well Actually There's No Way To Define 
Its Relation To Us In Time and Space

Give us our damn hat back.