Saturday, October 31, 2015

Week 9: Welcome to The National Juried Bowl Show

It's been two long years, but the Northwestern Wildcats are going bowling again.  They have six wins, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them from appearing in the Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants Bowl located in an illegal industrial meet freezer accessible only by a six step handshake and the password "McGarigle."  As a wise football proverb once said "yow yow yow yow yow; yow."
 
These wholesome Wildcat cheerleaders from 1953 have no idea they are about to be torn 
asunder by what they thought was Willie but was actually a failed thesis project conjured 
by the Department of Unholy Incantation

There is no better way to get back into the Northwestern spirit as we head into a bye week than by checking out this Evolution of Willie article from Northwestern Magazine.  It comes with a link to one of the great websites in the history of the internet called Faces of Willie, allowing us to take at how the Northwestern mascot Willie the Wildcat spent most of its time as resembling a terrifying Hittite deity of death and destruction that has come back to the Earth to devour the souls of football fans and haughty professors who spend most of the semester arrogantly denying the existence of terrifying Hittite deities until they find out too late that pointers and compasses are no defense for vengeful, ancient mascot gods.

The Northwestern band plays the Song of 
Suppiluliumas in order to appease its
terrible claws

Northwestern managed to fend off Nebraska.  The defense spent most of the game on the field, repeatedly blunting Nebraska's running game and frustrating Husker quarterback Tommy Armstrong.  Dean Lowry terrorized Nebraska's offensive line.  Nick VanHoose scored when an errant Armstrong pass entered VanHoose's Land and was immediately spirited away to the Nebraska endzone.  The offense continued to stall in the first half, except on two occasions when Clayton Thorson got loose scrambling room.  Thorson herky-jerked his way to 126 yards, and his running set up two crucial Northwestern scores as 90,000 Nebraska fans looked on incredulously.  Thorson came to Northwestern as a running quarterback, but his ungainly scampers still take opposing teams by surprise, in the same way that Mike Kafka took Minnesota by surprise with his record-setting jaunts in the Metrodome, where he underwent a metamorphosis into something that cannot be described via clumsy literary references.  In the second half, Thorson connected on passes, including a touchdown to Superback Dan Vitale.  Yet, it wouldn't be a Northwestern-Nebraska game if either team easily waltzed through.  Nebraska managed to come back to within two late in the fourth quarter, but their rally fell short when Marcus McShepard knocked down the pass on the conversion and the Wildcat offense ran out the clock.  

For Northwesten, the win served as a tonic to the miserable bludgeonings the team had suffered in two consecutive weeks.  It secured another bowl game after two miserable 5-7 seasons.  For Nebraska, on the other hand, the close loss continued an astounding trend of last-second losses.  New coach Mike Riley has faced criticism as the once-proud team now has a tough path toward bowl eligibility.  On the other hand, it is difficult to attack a first-year coach for a string of unfortunate Rube Goldberg losses.  Once a team loses via Hail Mary and series of impossible fourth-quarter collapses, it is time to start looking for a fan with a Monkey's Paw that had wished for the Huskers not to be blown out in any game this season.

AN ABSTRACTION

From time to time, the United States Congress creates a special committee to dig into issues pressing the nation.  Wikipedia's helpful list of defunct committees chronicles hundred of committees from French Spoliation to Space Travel to everyone's favorite Mileage (this is a committee of Senators screaming "MILEAGE" before sucking on opium or betting on congressional cobra fights).  Many of these are eventually folded into larger committees. Others run their course.  And one involved an investigation of congressional library books, threatening to bring the weight of the United States Congress to bear on scofflaws.

In February of 1861, a New York Times report alleged that Representatives from seceding states had no only left the Union, but had also made off with hundreds of dollars of books from the Congressional library to add to their treasonous Confederate library:

(click to expand)

Perfidy!  Secessmanship!  Webster's Dictionary Defines As! The United States Congress was not going to stand for a library looting and commissioned a thorough investigation using a series of nineteenth-century epithets.  Here, for example, is the initial author of the New York Times article, hauled before the committee and forced to explain to them and to the American People how he knew of librarous larceny.  And, when called to testify, H.H. Pangborn came through:


An enormity had been perpetrated upon our volumes.  The Committee on Alleged Abstraction of Books was determined to get to the bottom of it.  I imagine that nineteenth-century editors had this handy chart: abstraction for ill-gotten books, abscond with ill-gotten persons, and abscond upon a slow-moving train, the number one choice in absconding from 1870-1945. The committee's voluminous report is available here.

The Committee dug into the alleged theft.  They questioned Pangborn on the extent to which his depiction of  the theft library books as an act of low-level treason was his own creation.  Pangborn mentioned that he sent his stories back to New York on the telegraph, where they were transcribed and rewritten, more or less, by a night editor.  He writes quickly, he said, and could not remember all the details.  Congress listened, skeptical and disapproving.  They hauled in the editor and the night editor and the telegraph transcriber.  The committee questioned Col. Daniel De Jarnette, the freshman Congressman from Virginia accused by the New York Times of ordering hundreds of volumes to be secreted away in preparation for secession (the hearings took place in February 1861; Virginia did not secede until April, and De Jarnette would serve in the Confederate Congress).  They did not question Milledge Bonham, the South Carolina Representative accused of stealing dozens of volumes because he no longer considered himself part of the United States.
 
Daniel De Jarnette (l) and Milledge Bonham, the two alleged abstracters. 
Both came under scrutiny for looking as Confederate as humanly possible

After days of testimony, it became increasingly clear that the special committee had become a search to blame whomever had insinuated to the New York Times that Confederate Congress had developed an arch plan to clean out the Congressional library's valuable volumes of Jefferson speeches.  They finally find their man: Frederick Soulé.  Soulé worked for the Post Office and tracked down missing books from the Congressional Library.  He had been told of the missing books and told Pangborn of the Confederate plot.  Everyone else agreed that the alleged theft came solely from Soulé's imagination.  Here is some intense questioning on D.A. McElhone, the assistant librarian from whom Soulé claims to have heard about the missing volumes.
QUESTION: Did you say anything to Mr. Soulé that occasion to warrant the impression on his part that these gentlemen had fraudulently carried away these books?
ANSWER: I did not say one word about that.
And here's a more pertinent question that preceded it:
QUESTION: Does Mr. Soulé drive a wagon around?
ANSWER: I have seen him in one; I do not know whether that is his business.
It was Soulé, the rumor-mongering postal worker who might or might not have a wagon. The rest of the case fell apart.  De Jarnette showed that he never took delivery of the books he had ordered.  The hundreds of dollars of missing books supposedly packed and sent to the Confederacy by Bonham were revealed to be a clerical error.  The report, which summoned 13 witnesses, commissioned a list of every book checked out by a Congressman from a Southern state, and covered a solid week of testimony, ultimately blamed the media:


The alleged abstraction of books remained alleged.  Two months later, Beauregard's Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter.

NBA PREVIEW

For this year's preview of the 2015-16 NBA season, bringyourchampionstheyreourmeat.blogspot.com reached out to literary superstar Karl Ove Knausgaard.  In between a busy schedule of international literary festivals, appearances on Norwegian radio programs about him, and rustic shed-brooding, Knausagaard has agreed to turn his unique observations about his life and European ennui to slam dunks and bounce passes.


WHY DO YOU WANT ME TO WRITE ABOUT BASKETBALL?
Karl Ove Knausgaard
Special Basketball Correspondent




I don't know why I agreed to do this.  I have no interest in basketball.  I logged onto the web and found an e-mail from my American agent.  He told me that highbrow American publications love it when foreigners go and try to understand American phenomena.  Every time I protested, he just said "that's why it will be great!"  It was like wrestling with a boa constrictor.  Eventually I said yes because it was too exhausting to keep replying to e-mails.  I still did not know anything about basketball.

They are tall.  Everyone knows that.  How am I going to write for an American audience that basketball players are tall?  That is the one thing people know about basketball.  Fucking bullshit.  Fuck.  I was in Edinburgh at the literary festival.  I had spent the afternoon in their largest auditorium, reading, answering questions from bearded men with canvas satchels.  People lined up for hours for me sign their books.  It was hell on Earth.  The next morning, I had to kill some time before I left.  I found a cafe across the bridge, in a residential area where I didn't think anyone would recognize me and ask me questions about my books.  No one did.  There were no bearded men with canvas satchels in there.  I opened my notebook and looked inside.  "Basketball players are tall," I had written.  Shit.

I decided to call Gunnar.  Gunnar lived in New York for a few years in his 20s as an editor and there is a chance he may have seen a basketball game.  "Karl Ove, good to hear from you," the voice said.  Damn it.  I had clumsily dialed the wrong Gunnar.  This Gunnar had a daughter in my daughter's class in Stockholm several years ago and I must have forgotten to delete him.  Years ago, before mobile phones, I could have mumbled about a wrong number.  Now, everyone knows who has called.  There is no room for error in dialing.  I thought about saying I found a phone and had randomly selected a number, but my voice already gave it away.  "Gunnar, how is Emma?" I said because I could not bring myself to tell him I had no intention of talking to him today or ever again and I had always avoided him at children's birthday parties.  We agreed to have a beer next time I was in the city.  I know too many Gunnars.

After a month of e-mails that I had not returned, the American agent started calling.  "How is it coming?" he said casually although both he and I knew there was nothing casual about it.  He suggested that I purchase something called "NBA League Pass International" that would allow me to watch every basketball game on my computer.  I put in my credit card information.  It did not work.  "Password not found."  I tried again.  "Not found."  I lit a cigarette.  I clicked on a button that said "Forget Password?"  I hadn't forgotten it; it was a Norwegian curse word that a friend had scored into a teacher's car.  He always kept a pen knife on him that he had found somewhere that summer.  His favorite use was petty vandalism, but he was secretly waiting to brandish it in a fight.  We all saw him scratch the car, but none of us would talk, not even when they threatened to call our houses, not even when I cried.  We were eleven years old, and we had dared him to.  The janitor saw us and we ran into the forest.  It was a cold, rainy afternoon and the forest was damp with pits of mud.  It didn't take long for him to stop pursuing us, but we kept going for at least a kilometer and managed to hide in a tree.  The damp bark pressed through my too-thin jacket.  It seemed like hours.  We eventually climbed down and then we had to find a way to clean our shoes and our pants.  It wouldn't take long for our parents to connect our muddy clothes to the car knife incident.  That was my password, the word Isak had carved into the car: FUCK FAC.  He did not have time to finish the e.  The new password, a mishmash of letters and numbers, did not work either.  I called tech support.  "I am trying to watch basketball for a blog post," I said.  

Eventually, I saw basketball, mostly in clips on the web.  I typed basketball into the search engine and I saw tall men leaping in the air and jamming the ball into baskets.  I saw others stop this from happening.  Sometimes, at seemingly-random intervals, they would take penalty shots, although not as often as the players seemed to want.  Every so often, the game paused for the stars to convince people to buy cars or insurance.  It is a slick, modern sports product.  The game was not recognizable to me, but the sponsors' logos, the inane television commentary, the players dramatically hurling themselves to the ground in order to get a penalty, these I understood.  There was nothing meaningful I could say about it.  Sport as spectacle that meant nothing unless you were young enough for it to mean something.  I e-mailed that to my editor.  

[Editor's Note: Karl Ove thinks the Cavs will beat the Warriors in seven]

BYE

Northwestern can neither heroically win nor ignominiously lose this week.  Regardless of what happens, Northwestern will go to a bowl.  As the website thebattleofthebowls.com puts it, "the bowl has been made for thousands of years." 

The Big Ten West has almost certainly passed from their grasp, and the rest of the games are for bowl positioning.  And on November  28, at Chicago's Big Ten In-State Rivalry Neutral Site, the battle to seize The Hat begins.  It is time to set the clocks back.  It is time for Hat Reclamation Month.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Week 8: It is a Sad Day, When Your Sports Team Loses the Game

Sports fandom is inherently silly.  Watching people you do not know chase balls up and down fields or courts or regulation handball galleons is pointless.  Touchdowns? Meaningless.  Slam dunks? Wastes of time.  Butt bumps? Sophomoric, airborne, gluteal showoffery.  Bullpen cars? Only three have ever understood the point of bullpen cars-- Chief Wahoo, who is dead and problematic-- Tommy Lasorda, who has gone mad-- and I, who have forgotten all about it.

The baseball helmet-shaped car taps into the primal fear of hitters, 
reminding them that all that stands between them and a baseball to the 
cranium is a thin, plastic helmet, but look there is a larger helmet, and its 
cruel master is the relief pitcher and he probably has a mustache

Spectator sports are a pointless diversion. Instead of spending free time screaming at neckless people slam dunking on each other and then making fart faces, we should probably learn how to harvest legumes, fend off attackers with nunchuks, and successfully build operational nunchuks.  Or maybe read a goddamn book or something.

Emotional involvement in sports is ridiculous; some guy runs to the other end of a field with a ball and a bunch of people throw their arms up in triumph like we just walked on the goddamn moon and other people watching the same thing are visibly exacerbated, only slightly less devastated than discovering that it was Earth all along you maniacs.  For a ball!  It's madness.


And yet, here we are.  If you are reading this blog you probably like sports to a level of derangement that involves locating a blospot.com blog about Northwestern football that is only less ludicrous than actually writing several thousand words about Northwestern football and nineteenth-century mustaches and reviews of books about botanical piracy that are read by fewer people than attendees at a Lincoln Chaffee rally, he wrote, chuckling then pausing to adjust his blogging gloves at that topical political reference.

Of course, the reason why it is fun to get all wrapped up in sports is because there are no real consequences.  There's three hours of yelling and cheering and incredulously making gestures at the referee and feeling elation or dejection at something that we have no control over and has no bearing on the rest of our complicated lives.  There's a simple line: there's our team and the other team and our ONE WEEK DAILY FANTASY SPORTS TEAM IT'S SO EASY JUST SELECT YOUR PLAYERS AND GIVE YOUR CREDIT CARD INFORMATION AND YOU TOO CAN MAKE MILLIONS JUST LIKE THIS MONOTONE IN A WES WELKER JERSEY WHO LOOKS LIKE THE WORD ACTUALLY BROUGHT TO LIFE WHEN A BOLT OF LIGHTNING HIT A PACKET OF COMBOS.

Or maybe this is all just a long justification for why it is kind of a bummer when all of your sports teams lose badly in a single week in the Anthology of Sports Horror.

CHAPTER ONE

Northwestern has been mercilessly clobbered in its last two football games.  Have the Wildcats just run into two very good teams?  Are they still good at football?  Have they entered some sort of ranked football Logan's Run scenario where whenever they hit a certain AP Rank they are then hunted down by Big Ten teams and run over by fullbacks?  No one has any idea.

Iowa takes a commanding 33-10 lead at Ryan Field

The vaunted Wildcat defense has succumbed to a rash of injuries and tired as an unceasing succession of punts and turnovers has kept them onto the field.  The offense over the past two games has resembled a hungry dog spotting a raw stake on a counter but unable to devise a plan to get it because it is a dog.  Northwestern's struggles to move the ball are nothing new; the 'Cats have relied on defense, turnovers, and special teams all season and remained content to use Justin Jackson as a battering ram against lesser defenses. Now, against tougher Big Ten defenses that have had seven games to scout the Wildcats' leather helmet offensive playbook, the offense needs to find ways to stay on the field and score points or Mick McCall needs to reveal that college football's new inefficiency is punt muffs, and Northwestern will revolutionize the sport by giving opponents as many opportunities to drop punts as possible.

Northwestern has had a baffling season.  Few fans started the year with high expectations as the 'Cats had to break in a freshman quarterback and faced two tough non-conference opponents.  Then, Northwestern surged to 5-0, inspiring dreams of a run for the West.  After two brutal blowout losses, Northwestern seems lost.  Two years ago, when Northwestern's last dream season fell off the rails, the 'Cats suffered a series of ridiculous close losses.  This season, they have been completely outclassed, unlikely to be favored in a Big Ten game again except home against Purdue and maybe against Illinois in Hatpocalypse: Soldier Field.  It is still possible, even likely that Northwestern grabs a bowl bid, which would be a vast improvement over the past two miserable bowl-less years.  But six or maybe seven wins and a bowl, which would have delighted fans over the summer, now feels hollow.  A win over a reeling Nebraska team could give the 'Cats an opportunity to turn the faltering season around.  Another miserable blowout could put in the meager bowl dreams in question and allow Northwestern's lawyers to file an injunction against the Associated Press from ever ranking them again. 

CHAPTER TWO

The NFL season is not even halfway finished, but there was already no point to a Bears-Lions game. The Bears had come off two consecutive thrilling comeback victories and the Lions had yet to win a single game all season, but everyone had seen enough to know that these two teams specialize in futility.  After 60 minutes of uninspired nincompoopery, the teams proved themselves equally bad and, for some reason, the National Football League allowed the game to continue into overtime. After some 11 minutes of helpless flailing, the Detroit Lions managed to scrape a field goal, win the game, and begin a season of jockeying for position against the Bears in order to determine who will draft a guy who will instantaneously shed all of his ligaments like a molting caterpillar, completely forget how to tackle people, or disappear of the face of the earth only to return a decade later with an eyepatch and a team consisting of 52 helmeted brooms to apply for an expansion franchise.  

Detroit's overtime win prevented the team from sinking into the ignominy 
of the Matt Millen era, who has slunk back to television as a professional 
ignominy

The game was marred by a questionable call on an apparent interception in the endzone by a Bears linebacker that was ruled a touchdown.  The Lions are no strangers to bizarre catch calls.  Calvin Johnson was famously victimized by catch ambiguity in a 2010 game-- now the so-called "Calvin Johnson" rule is invoked whenever a wide receiver makes a spectacular catch in the endzone that, after 25 minutes of review and a pixel-by-pixel analysis and Troy Aikman saying "Joe, I don't think that's a catch. Joe" a dozen times, the the catch is inexplicably ruled an incompletion.  At this point, the NFL no longer needs an instant replay booth-- it needs to send questionable catches to a conference of French postmodern philosophers who, after two years of peer review, will determine that a catch is shaped by systems of language and state-imposed power structures while a desperate crew of NFL broadcasters grow haggard in their booths, surrounded by copies of Representations. 

AIKMAN: Joe, if you take a look at that discourse there, I mean that's just
a philosopher's thesis right there, just the type of argument you want at the
philosophy position.
BUCK: Joe.

Regardless of the call, the Bears had no business winning the game. It featured a patented Jay Cutler endzone interception, which he tosses out at this point like a catchphrase from a washed-up sitcom actor at a mall appearance before wearily collecting his check. The Bears have actually had exciting games; the maligned Cutler seems to have found his niche heroically leading comebacks against other terrible teams as every other phase of the team falls apart around him. Meanwhile, the Bears have fallen into traditional Bear dysfunction. The Bears released Jeremiah Ratliff after the police removed him from Halas Hall because he reportedly got into a screaming altercation with the General Manager.  Maybe it would help to change the name of the Bears' facility because Halas Hall sounds like the name of an English estate where languid aristocrats pass the summer months scheming against each other and enlisting footmen their intrigues. 

A Midnight Modern Conversation at Halas Hall 

The Bears' loss featured not only a bizarre call, but also a Detroit comeback allowed by John Fox's punt 'em all and let God sort 'em out philosophy while clinging to a lead with less than three minutes left. But it's not a particularly painful loss, since the Bears are abysmal and Fox's conservative gameplans will not affect anything that matters. Fox remains a breath of fresh air after replacing Marc Trestman, who seemed to relate to his players by having his face suddenly appear in their windows when lightning flashes. 

CHAPTER THREE 

The 2015 season was the most fun summer of Cubs baseball I've ever experienced. The desperation emanating from a 107-year title drought dragging the corpses of generations of disappointed Cubs fans in its wake tried to ruin it. The future of the Cubs, with their heralded group of dinger zealots is bright. The future of the Cubs today and until the moment they either hoist a World Series trophy or baseball is outlawed by an Evil Future Government as described in every science fiction movie for the past 30 years remains bleak. 

BASEBALL IS CANCELED, AMERICA, YOUR ONLY SPORT IS GROWING MUSTACHES 
AND GRABBING 

There should be no heartbreak in Wrigleyville. The Cubs relied on five rookies this season. They started Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel in key spots. Hammel never recovered from an injury and gradually transformed from an effective starter into a batting practice pitching machine. Hendricks throws dipping, darting sinkers and changeups and looks like he spends the days he is not pitching maintaining the Clark the Cub twitter account. It goes without saying that he is one of my favorite Cubs, but he is also not the most comforting sight on the mound in a do-or-die playoff game. The team, laden with cheap rookie contracts and the deep pockets of the Ricketts family, will attempt to bolster the rotation with high-profile arms. 

 The Cubs got completely walloped in the series. The Mets' equally exciting young pitchers completely shut the Cubs down. Lester and Arrieta could not respond in kind. Nothing, though, was more dispiriting than the transformation of Daniel Murphy, Anonymous Middle Infielder, into the best baseball player on the face of the Earth. Murphy has hit half as many home runs in nine playoff games as he did over the course of a 162 game season. He has hit them off Zach Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and Jake Arrieta, all vying for the National League Cy Young Award. It is as if the universe had allowed the Cubs to enjoy too much success and sent a scourge to the Earth in the form of a guy with a career .755 OPS. His run would be delightful and absurd except when it is your team that is being viciously murphied out of existence in front of an increasingly horrified crowd. 

The Cubs were not supposed to be here. But that is cold comfort. The Cubs certainly seem to be set up for a period of contention, but nothing is guaranteed and even making the playoffs each year is an arduous task unless you root for the grimly inevitable St. Louis Cardinals. Next season will bring an inordinate amount of pressure on a young team from Cubs fans who expect a championship. The one positive is that we have all been liberated from ever having to hear about Back to the Future again and the next person who brings up Back to the Future should be flung head first into a pile of manure that is bought specifically to ram Back to the Future people's heads in. 

WE GET IT 

There is no curse. For most of the past century, the Cubs have been inept at baseball, and they have rarely even had a chance to completely implode in the playoffs. The Cubs could one day make it back to the World Series since the invention and fall of the Iron Curtain. Until they make it, every playoff pitch carries the weight of crushing inevitability, of the possibility of never seeing them win a championship, of the punishment of an infinite series of Murphys that will only end with the Cubs eliminating their ridiculous drought and finally taking their rightful place as one of the most reviled teams in baseball that no one ever wants to see ever win anything again. 

EPILOGUE 

Sports misery is absurd. We can all turn off our televisions, turn in our tickets, and go about our lives without it making an iota of difference. Northwestern can be ranked 120 or 1. The Bears can continue to play like they have all season forever. The Cubs can miss the World Series for the rest of our lives and all of the lives of our descendants. It does not matter. But it's fun that for a few hours a week, it sort of does. 

Northwestern's performance this Saturday against a down-on-its-luck Nebraska team means nothing in the larger context of our lives. It means very little even in the world of college football, with two Big Ten West also-rans slugging away at each other for bowl positioning. But I'll be tuned in on Saturday, riveted as ever. Because what is at stake should they win this game or any other is the relative prestige of hypothetical fly-by-nite bowl game operations and that injustice demands reckoning.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Week 7: BIG TEN SLOBBERKNOCKIN' and the Laws of the Universe

For the past three years, the Northwestern-Michigan game has ended in a conflagration of unlikely football misfortune robbing the Wildcats of a victory over a depleted, languid Michigan team.  That did not happen this year.  Instead, Northwestern kicked off and then I'm pretty sure the field opened up and swallowed the Wildcats whole for the rest of the game.  I know that people come to this website for detailed play-by-play football expertise, so I've diagnosed some of the key plays in this video below (you might not want to blare this one at work):


The result was a 38-0 debacle that only became watchable once it mysteriously transformed into a festival of improbable Cubs bunts through the magic of television.  Northwestern's football Wildcats were utterly dismantled and are no longer undefeated.  Michigan put up another shutout and remains ascendant, insufferably. 

Losing to Michigan is annoying.  The rebirth of Michigan and the barely-disguised giddiness of national football pundits at the reestablishment of a Football Brand is annoying.  The incredible series of idiotic San Francisco 49ers skulduggery that exiled an excellent NFL coach and brought him to Michigan through a blood-red sky on a war chariot raining a pestilence of nose tackles upon the Big Ten is annoying.  Jim Harbaugh is profoundly annoying.
 
Every week, an assistant coach is tasked with assuring Harbaugh that he 
has not been thrown out of the domed settlement on the surface of Mars 
in Total Recall

Despite the disheartening clobbering, the Wildcats are still 5-1, still close to clinching a bowl berth, and in contention in the Big Ten West.  Their time in the national spotlight has passed; now Northwestern fans can retreat to the shadows comfortably away from college football bloviatrics and enjoy what still has the possibility to be an incredible season.  A repeat of the 2013 season, where a hot Northwestern start devolved into a series of inconceivable late-game meltdowns where the Wildcats found themselves turning into the opposing team on Friday Night Lights every week will hopefully not happen.
 
Listen up, we're gonna run the you scramble around for two minutes 
before heaving the ball up against their entire defense with no time 
remaining and I want you to throw that ball with metaphoric resonance 
about small-town football and triumphs and misery and what it means 
to be a man and I want you to do it while people scream in wide-eyed 
wonder in slow motion in the stands, what are you doing, don't you get
in that huddle without this post rock CD

But Northwestern will not contend for anything if they don't get past an undefeated Iowa team with its own designs on the West in a bloodthirsty Big Ten showdown.


BIG TEN FOOTBALL: THE NATION'S SHOVIEST FOOTBALL

Iowa-Northwestern games are technically football in that there are football teams and balls and crowds and everything.  But the games are also demolition derbies, where dream seasons from teams far removed from Big Ten royalty smash into smoldering piles of ligaments and animus.  Pat Fitzgerald broke his leg in the 1995 Iowa game, preventing him from playing in the Rose Bowl.  A dreadful Iowa team crushed Northwestern's chance at Pasadena in 2000, relegating the 'Cats to a share of the championship and a berth in the Alamo Bowl.  Both teams lost starting quarterbacks in consecutive years in 2009 and 2010. Iowa and Northwestern exist to ruin each other's seasons in complete anonymity because not a single soul outside Iowa City and Evanston is aware that these teams play each other every year on a regulation football field.
 
Artists' rendition: Iowa 12, Northwestern 7

The Hawkeyes are flying high with an undefeated season and the Wildcats are still recovering from the drubbing they received in Ann Arbor.  It would appear that Iowa should cruise to an easy win.  The Hawkeyes, however, have been hammered by injuries.  Star defensive lineman Drew Ott is lost for the season.  The offensive line is so beat up that Kirk Ferentz may suit up; he has spent the week lifting triangular weights, looking for his leather helmet, and practicing hand-to-hand combat against Soviet agents in preparation.  Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard his also nurturing an injury, but he plans to counter by having the best football name since Army quarterback Trent Steelman managed to tactically subterfuge his way through Northwestern's defense some years back.

Northwestern's miserable outing in Ann Arbor exposed some problems that the defense had covered up.  They still have trouble moving the ball against good defenses.  The defense had trouble stopping Michigan's power running game, and Iowa's Jordan Canzeri has absolutely sliced defenses apart.  Last week against Illinois, the Hawkeyes simply stopped throwing the ball, giving it to Canzeri over and over again as he literally ran over the Illini to seal an Iowa victory.  Add in that Ferentz, long considered an ambassador of Big Ten Fuddy-Duddery has embraced a Cornfield Gambler persona that has the stereotypically staid Hawkeyes going for it on fourth down, embracing the forward pass, and occasionally eschewing a field-goal-and-safety scoring philosophy, and it is not hard to see why they are undefeated and favored.  This time it is the Wildcats who live and die with the defense, run the ball between the tackles, and try to punt other teams into submission in order to win football games while Ferentz mocks Fitz's conservatism from the groovy psychadelic bus where he now lives.

The Wildcats will honor the twentieth anniversary of the Rose Bowl team on Homecoming this Saturday.  They will be wearing throwback 1995 uniforms.  This marks the seventh different uniform combination Northwestern has worn this season: white helmets, white jerseys, Aggressive Wildcat Bite Helmets, Dracula Uniforms, Chicago's Big Ten Municipal Corruption Boodle Bag helmets, Lake helmets, Colbert Eyebrow uniforms, and Fake Opposing Uniforms to Convince an Overwhelming Away Crowd At Ryan Field to Root For Northwestern Uniforms.  Northwestern's marketing partnership with UnderArmour has been vital for building the Northwestern Brand, which is crucial for twenty-first century football programs who plan on using their Solid Brands to stop the option play.

THE CUBS ARE VERY GOOD AND YOU ARE GOING TO READ ABOUT IT IN THIS BLOG

There is a dumb comfort to fatalism.  When the seemingly-insurmountable lead evaporates through a series of miserable Rube Goldberg events, well it could never end well. It's not necessarily a belief in curses or goats or any sort of supernatural malevolence.  It is just the idea, lodged in the Neanderthal Cortex of a primordial human brain that if something happens a few times over the short course of a human lifetime, it is a truth from time immemorial.  The Cubs would never win anything and, if they did, they could never beat the St. Louis Cardinals, as ever-present at the top of the National League Central division as a sun shining the Right Way. 

The Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals in a playoff series.  They beat them and the St. Louis Cardinals are no longer able to play baseball.  They can go out and play some stickball or get together on the diamond to practice calibrating their baseball caps to avoid tilting them at morally unacceptable Strop levels, but these games will not be sanctioned by Major League Baseball and there is nothing anyone can do from disseminating accounts of them all over the Midwest.
 
The bizarre Costas diatribe against Strop after a disastrous outing is one 
of the funniest subplots of the season.  "KNOW THIS, STROP," Costas 
said, puffing out his bulging eye sacs to make him appear larger and more 
menacing. "WHEN YOU ARRIVE IN WHATEVER DAMNED AFTERLIFE 
WILL ACCEPT YOUR SHODDY RELIEF PITCHING SOUL, I HOPE YOU 
FACE AN ETERNITY SERVING UP MEATBALLS THAT WILL SOAR 
ACROSS THE HEAVENS TO DESTROY YOUR MOST CHERISHED 
MEMORIES AND WHILE THAT IS HAPPENING YOU ARE MOCKED 
WITH GRAVITY-DEFYING BAT FLIPS WHICH HANG FOREVER 
TURNING AND ECHOING DEMONIC LAUGHTER AT YOU, HERE I 
SHOULD NOTE I AM PROBABLY ALSO OPPOSED TO BAT FLIPS BECAUSE 
THAT SEEMS LIKE A REALLY BOB COSTAS THING TO GET ANNOYED 
WITH, THIS IS BOB COSTAS SIGNING OFF WITH UNEARTHLY CACKLING." 
 Costas then rode off on his High Horse, which is a normal, regular-sized horse.

The Cubs sent Jason Hammel, a pitcher sponsored by the American Meatball Council for the past several months, against the Cardinals in a potential series-clinching game.  Hammel immediately gave up a hit and home run to put them down 2-0 before fans even had an opportunity to aggressively point to their arms in an effort to remove Hammel from the game in world where it was possible to make citizens' pitching changes.  The move to keep him in seemed even more ludicrous in the second, when Maddon sent Hammel to bat with men on base.  Hammel responded with an RBI single, setting the stage for Javy Baez to homer home the go-ahead runs and for Cardinals pitcher John Lackey to argle-bargle his way back the mound in a delightful display of baseball fury.  A Cardinals rally (started by a scrappy backup catcher who hit .200 this season, whose crucial RBI double against the Cubs was fore-ordained by the Big Bang) was answered by thundering Cubs dingers including a Kyle Schwarber blast that affected the rotation of the Earth.

If the Cubs can defeat the Cardinals, if they can make it to the National League Championship Series, then hell, why can't they make it to the World Series?  If all it takes to break through the playoffs is a team full of young people who do not realize they are Cubs, a manager who manages the team with cuddly zoo animals, and a lumpy, chin-bearded home run machine, then I suppose it is worth unmooring ourselves from an entire baseball cosmology and actually believe.  Or, do what I plan to do and miserably watch every playoff game, spending the most fun Cubs season of all time  in a protective flinch waiting for the other shoe to drop.
 
Playoff baseball makes Larry Kings of us all

IMAGINE DOING SOMETHING OTHER THAN WATCHING OTHER PEOPLE PLAY SPORTS THIS WEEKEND

Northwestern faces off at 11:00am in Chicago's Big Ten time slot against Iowa at Ryan Field.  Perhaps a return to confines of Ryan Field alongside the '95 team can shake the team from whatever hit them last Saturday at Michigan.  All that's at stake is a bowl berth, contention in the Big Ten West, and avoiding a Ranked Northwestern Death Spiral that has claimed so many other seasons.  The vestigial quasi-rivalry with Iowa, Homecoming,  and a stadium filled with hostile Iowa fans will certainly lend the game an intense atmosphere.

There is no fatalistic doom-and-gloomery that hovers over a Northwestern/Iowa game. Instead, it is a shared horror that both promising seasons can simultaneously implode by slobberknocking so hard that it causes some sort of rift in the slobber/knock continuum, throws the earth off its orbit, and opens the Big Ten West to be claimed by Purdue. After all, we are living in a world where the Chicago Cubs have beaten the indomitable St. Louis Cardinals in a playoff series and the Laws of the Universe no longer apply.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Week 6: Big Ten Carnival

Northwestern tarps off one or two ends of the northeast stands for games.  This is to prevent the shameful appearance of naked bleachers on television, covering them with an aesthetically superior giant banner that says NO ONE IS SITTING HERE (CHICAGO'S BIG TEN TEAM).  It was a raw, overcast, two-tarp afternoon in Evanston when Minnesota came to open Big Ten play.  Northwestern's grounds crew could very well have tarped off the endzones when the Gophers had the football because they did not cross the plane.  They did not kick a field goal.  They did not get a safety or a point-after conversion or in fact score in any other way possible in a football game because the Wildcats shut them out, remained undefeated, climbed to #13 in the rankings, and actually I don't think I'm going to make it to the end of this sentence before I pass out.

Northwestern's defense has shut down all comers so far.  The defensive line goes ten deep.  Dean Lowry is playing football like UnderArmour has designed a special grass-camouflage alternate jersey and he keeps popping up in the backfield to tackle running backs who think the field itself has come alive and seized them.  After a referee inexplicably overruled an apparent interception, Tyler Lancaster poked the ball away from Gopher quarterback Mitch Leidner, and Anthony Walker ran it in for a touchdown.  Clayton Thorson ran in two touchdowns, Justin Jackson rushed for 120 yards, and the Wildcats Big Tenned their way to a field goal with a nearly nine-minute-long drive to open the third quarter that has probably been prescribed to someone as a sedative. 

I wish I could be as excited about anything in my life as Northwestern's PA 
Announcer is when Justin Jackson is The Ball Carrier.  Northwestern played 
once again in their gothic uniforms, which have become so popular that I 
expect the entire campus to become more gothic until the clock tower is
replaced by a moon-blotting bat alcove that broadcasts nightly cackling from 
university president Mortuary Shapiro

Northwestern has arrived.  It is currently part of The Conversation.  It is somewhat gratifying and bizarre to see Northwestern actually discussed in the context of major college football as a subject itself and not merely as part of a highlight montage of some Heisman candidate blithely stiff-arming a Wildcat into oblivion.  Of course, absolutely no national college football pundit has anything at all useful or insightful to say about Northwestern football because they are a bunch of square-jawed suit men whose entire job is to clumsily restate the obvious with the unhinged zeal of a doomsday prophet.
 
An ESPN analyst, dug from the rubble of a natural disaster, will immediately grab your lapels 
and explain that at the end of the day, I tell you what you move that ball up and down the 
field but what it's going to come down to is turnovers and scoring points off turnovers that's 
how you're gonna win this football game and also toughness

Only one victory remains between Northwestern and bowl contention.  Another win would set them up for an apocalyptic showdown against hated quasi-rival Iowa with Big Ten West Championship Implications.  But first, they have to get past another unexpectedly resurgent team from the East that has spent the last three consecutive years funded by a grant by the United States Department of Northwestern Football Misery.

SHIT, MICHIGAN IS GOOD AGAIN

Well, it had to happen.  Michigan fans, facing suffering unimaginable to less august fanbases when their team was not good for a couple of seasons, cried out into the night for a savior.  They got Jim Harbaugh, a grating football monomaniac who seems poised to return the Wolverines to tedious prominence just as he did at San Diego, Stanford, and in the NFL with the 49ers.  The Wolverines have jumped out to a 4-1 record and the AP top 25.  Michigan fans are excited; the revival of Michigan football reminds me of the Simpsons episode when the Soviet Union unexpectedly returned.

Michigan and Northwestern mirror each other this year.  Both feature fearsome defenses and suspect offenses.  And both feature animated coaches that irritate the hell out of other teams.  Jim Harbaugh and Pat Fitzgerald are the yin and yang of obnoxious football coach gesticulation: Harbaugh reacts to every penalty like a thwarted space emperor while Fitzgerald celebrates like he is at a Great Awakening tent revival and has just been moved for the first time by the spirit of Butt Slap Jesus.



Who maniacally cavorted it better

Northwestern will be relying heavily on workhorse Justin Jackson, but will need a big game from Clayton Thorson.  Thorson has only played one road game in his career at Duke's sedate Wallace Wade Stadium.  Saturday, he'll have to deal with the Big House and the cacophony of 100,000 Michigan fans disapprovingly harrumphing.  Michigan will turn to quarterback Jake Rudock, late of Iowa.  Finding a graduate transfer quarterback from Iowa is like finding the last grizzled, one-eyed captain in a sleepy bar in Marrakesh to try to run a shipment of dubiously-procured artifacts past an Ottoman blockade.  It is worth mentioning here that Northwestern has never defeated Jake Rudock in football.

Despite being undefeated and ranked higher in the polls than Michigan, Northwestern will enter this game as underdogs.  This game projects as a really Big Ten game, where teams will spend most of the first half building elaborate trench systems.  Both teams will be looking to make a statement and keep themselves in the Big Ten championship picture.  More importantly, Northwestern is playing for the distinct honor of ruining the afternoon for a bunch of people in Michigan Stadium, as high a calling as exists in the Big Ten Conference.

ALMOST BIG TEN CARNIVAL

The opening week of Big Ten play was an exciting time of upsets, near upsets, field goals, and the state of Indiana nearly upending the entire conference in a single fell swoop.  It could have been a Big Ten Carnival, an upsetting of the traditional order when the Great Powers of the conference were overturned in a drunken bacchanal.

Bruegel's Fight Between Carnival and Lent is a Big Ten painting, showcasing sixteenth-
century agricultural practices, beer-swilling, smoke meat enthusiasm and, on the Lent side, 
abstinence from the forward pass  

Ohio State 34, Indiana 27  
Urban Meyer is trying very hard this season to prove the old football chestnut "if you have three Heisman-caliber quarterbacks, then you have none."  The defending champs have looked listless on offense and a heroic Indiana team that lost its starting quarterback and running back nearly upset the number one team in the country.  Unfortunately, the Hoosiers called a play called "The Entire History of Indiana Football," that ended the game on a bad snap, but we all know that an SEC partisan has already gotten the phrase "they almost lost to Indiana, paawwwlll" tattooed backwards on his face in case he suffers a Memento accident.

Purdue  21, Michigan State 24  
Michigan State survived a spirited comeback from Purdue at home.  We are just minutes from inhabiting a bizarre world where Indiana and Purdue upset the first and second-ranked teams in the country, the college football world becoming contained entirely within their Old Oaken Bucket. Instead, the Hoosier state stuck to its moribund football destiny, forever forced to remain in the shadows of a powerhouse football state like Illinois.

Nebraska 13, Illinois 14
Illinois is now 4-1 in the post-Beckman era.  It is great to watch the Illini rallying around Bill Cubit, a man who once got into a heated sideline altercation with Beck Man while they were ostensibly coaching the same team.  The Illini are looking far friskier than the dilapidated husk of a team you would assume to see when a coach is fired eight days before the beginning of the season.  While the recovery of The Hat in America's Greatest College Football Rivalry remains paramount, I hope the Illini continue to bedevil Big Ten teams, if only because Tim Beckman is home watching these games while wearing a disconnected headset, drawing sideline interference penalties for dripping nacho cheese onto the sofa.

Beckman has not yet, as far as I can tell, followed through with his wrongful 
termination suit against the University of Illinois.  I imagine it is because 
he is thoroughly preparing to take the case to trial, fire his legal team, 
represent himself, and interrupt court proceedings every five minutes to 
yell INFILTRATION YOUR HONOR and then army crawl over to the defense 
to rifle through their papers

Iowa 10, Wisconsin 6 
I did not watch a minute of this game and assume that it involved two people screaming at each other at the 50-yard line until one of their heads exploded, after which the teams were assigned an arbitrary Big Ten score of 10-6 and the fans went home.

BIG HOUSE, BIG GAME

If there's one thing the last few years have told us, it is that Michigan-Northwestern games will defy the laws of physics and space-time in order to rip the beating heart out of a Wildcat football team.  Last year, the infamous M00N game ended with what I had described as Trevor Siemian's one-man Charge of the Light Brigade against the entire Wolverine defense on an ill-conceived two-point conversion.  Pat Fitzgerald had attempted to win in regulation because the previous two had ended in overtime after bizarre collapses allowed Michigan to tie.  In 2012, it was on a tipped pass hauled down by a Michigan receiver with just enough time for a field goal.  The next year, Michigan somehow rushed its field goal unit onto the field like Indiana Jones escaping a collapsing temple to get the kick off as the dying second melted from the scoreboard.  Every football game is a unique series of independent events that should not be affected by the approximate amount of insanity that ended the last game, but it seems entirely possible that the outcome of this game depends less on football plays than on a series of rivalries played out on some football Mount Olympus for reasons we cannot possibly fathom.

If this game plays out as predicted, it should be an unwatchable festival of the punting arts, with brown footballs raining from sky like autumn leaves.  The Wildcats have a lot to prove; Michigan fans seem to have already looked past this game to their contest against Michigan State the next week because they've spent the last several games effortlessly dominating Northwestern by winning in the dumbest, flukiest way possible.  

But, in the spirit of Big Ten Carnival, maybe the Wildcats will once again upset the traditional Big Ten order and maybe even win the West.  It is impossible to say because Northwestern has so delightfully surpassed expectations this season that it would be a shame to stop pundits from blandly pontificating about Northwestern because let me tell you when it comes to Northwestern football they're gonna need to go out there for sixty minutes and I tell you what this team they can play some defense in the Big Ten Conference but (he says, staring into the camera like he's about to tell the American people he has authorized the use of nuclear weapons against a meteor hurtling towards the Capitol building) you need to get into the endzone.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Week 5: UNDER THE LIGHTS

The sun dipped behind the press box, the lights shone on the field, and, with the eyes of the nation upon Northwestern in Big Ten Network Regional Action and with a fearsome two-tarp crowd, the Wildcats narrowly defeated Ball State to a deafening chorus. Northwestern is 4-0 and the Associated Press has declared them #16 in the country as they prepare for the perfunctory Big Ten play as a warm-up to an all-but-inevitable national championship.

Northwestern opened the game with a touching tribute to Classic Northwestern Football. The offense stagnated and turned the ball over, and the defense looked solid but more vulnerable than the top-ranked tackle wall that consumed its first three opponents. Ball State's freshman quarterback Riley Neal extended drives. More importantly, he continually hucked the ball in the direction of Jordan Williams, an eight-foot colossus with net hands who continually out-leaped Wildcat defenders for ridiculous catches.

Jordan Williams, artist's rendition


In the third quarter, though, the offense switched on. Clayton Thorson looked like a different quarterback, spreading the ball around, and letting Dan Vitale terrorize Ball State defenders and confuse Ball State coaches who presumably spent a week scouring arcane tomes of football lore to figure out what a superback was before deciding it was a myth and then found out only too late that it is a slightly different word to use for a tight-endish player. This is a successful tactic, and the Wildcats should come up with unnecessarily weird-sounding names for all of their positions, such as renaming guards to Man-Walls and the quarterback to the Unholy Shaman of the Ninth Eye.

IF YOU WANT TO PLAY THE UNHOLY SHAMAN OF THE NINTH EYE
POSITION YOU NEED TO MAKE QUICK DECISIONS AND GET THE 
BALL OUT TO YOUR PODMEN AND YOUR KRAKUS GROUP IF YOU 
WANT TO WIN GAMES IN (SEARCHES DESPERATELY FOR FALLEN 
CUE CARD HOLDER WHILE HE PAUSES LIKE A DEER IN HEADLIGHTS 
BEFORE AN INTERN RACES TO HOLD UP THE CARD) THE NATIONAL 
FOOTBALL LEAGUE 

Ball State came back to pull within five, but the game never seemed in doubt. The 'Cats did suffer some injuries. Standout tackle Geoff Mogus left on a stretcher. Safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro also left the game. Pat Fitzgerald has remained characteristically tight-lipped about his injured players, although at press time BYCTOM has been able to secure a confirmation from him that some of his players may be made of molecules.
It was a harrowing win, but let us remember that we are talking about Northwestern football. Let the football gluttons sit around in their tuxedos grousing about not winning by enough points and intriguing about playoff committees. Northwestern has started undefeated for the third time in nearly two decades and has yet to lose a game through a spectacular series of football misfortunes.

Over the course of following Northwestern, I thought I had experienced 
every single heartbreaking way to lose a football game. In the past two weeks, 
the Texas Longhorns saw a spirited comeback end when their kicker was 
 temporarily possessed by the Spirit of John Carney and then the next week 
were done in by a hideously mishandled routine punt. If the Longorns, the 
Habsburgs of college football, have experienced decades of football gluttony, 
this is their period of football gout 

BIG TEN RECKONING

Northwestern has beaten two good teams already, but the real season begins on Saturday with Big Ten play. The Big Ten West is hardly considered a crucible; instead, it is more often portrayed as a sad relic of Midwest, where the football factory has closed and rusted and now only manufactures fullbacks on back order since 1996 and rusted knock-off spread offenses that falter when weak shouldered quarterbacks, originally designed to dive heedlessly into an interwar leather-helmet ruck, now heave the ball in the direction of nowhere.

 The Northwestern-Minnesota game features two excellent defenses with suspect passing games. Conventional wisdom says that we should be in for another exciting game of field possession, dive plays, and punting. Hunter Niswander already attempted 10 punts in the Duke game. Any more double-digit punt games and he should be allowed to ride out onto Ryan Field on a custom-built punt-based motorcycle, his punting cape billowing behind him majestically while the marching band blares his majestic punt anthem.

Northwestern/Minnesota probably will not reach the heights of the 1939 Texas Tech/
Centenary College game, which featured 77 combined punts, including 36 by Tech punter 
Charlie Calhoun. The amount of punting is mind-boggling in a game that happened after the 
Spanish-American War. Were the teams handing off to a punter in the backfield who surveyed 
the defense and immediately punted? Was there a rule that any person involved in the game, 
including spectators and faculty members, were invited to stop play at any time to punt? Was 
Shreveport, Louisiana temporarily engulfed by a disruption in the space-time continuum 
that trapped a community in a maelstrom of endless punting and they could have been in 
there for years and have no way of knowing? It is also important to note that the Centenary 
College's team was known as the "College Gents" which is the puntingest football team name 
possible. 

The game also featured 14 fumbles 

I don't anticipate a nonsensical paelolithic Big Ten puntfest because I have walked this Earth and I know that Minnesota/Northwestern games are a cauldron of insanity. These games have ended with hail marys, walk-off interception returns, 100-yard kickoff returns, and more improbable reversals of fortune than the last five minutes of a movie where a villain thinks he has successfully killed Arnold Schwarzenegger. I expect this game will end with the discovery of a heretofore-unknown NCAA rule that football games do not end until a team has successfully telegraphed the NCAA Head Office in the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago even though it no longer exists, prompting donors to attempt to build the hotel first. The game will be completed in several dozen years after the lawsuits are finalized.

THE CUBS ARE GOING TO WHAT IS TECHNICALLY THE PLAYOFFS

I am a Cubs pessimist. I am a Cubs miserablist. I am a Cubs doom-sayer wandering around Wrigleyville in a sandwich board prophesying millennia of non-championship baseball, tormenting fans with occasional heart-breaking misery until they embrace the sweet release of death or become Yankees fans. 

 Now, the Cubs face a do-or-die Wildcard quasi-playoff invented by the champagne and goggle industry to have the honor of facing slaughter by the mirthless St. Louis juggernaut that trains by stomping on hearts. They will, barring a miraculous showing against the Pirates from a Reds team that ended its season two weeks ago and is now fielding their social media interns, travel to a raucous PNC Park to face an excellent Pirates team. The consensus is that the Cubs have the upper hand; they will send out Jake Arrieta, who has ascended to some Olympian plane of pitching transcendence that has made him nearly impossible to hit for months at the cost of only his facial expressions (Arrieta is scheduled to start Friday night; there is still time for him to suffer the entire litany of Springfield softball ringer tragedies before the playoff game on October 7). This is precisely the point where the impending Cub calamity is so glaringly obvious that Euripedes has already dismissed it as "on the nose" in a snarky blog post. 

 On the other hand, who cares? 

This Cubs season has been far too much of a joy to ruin with worry of an impending collapse. The Cubs have spent the past several years in an intentional death-spiral, slowly siphoning the fun out of the team like a python constricting the life out of a drunk, swamp-curious Floridian. The unfortunate reality of American sports teams, which favor bottoming out with no consequences, especially when you play in a tourist attraction guaranteed to draw during the summer despite sending an army of Darwin Barneys and Junior Lakes to helplessly flail at baseballs, nearly demands it. 

 The turnaround was not supposed to happen this fast. Kris Bryant, the probable Rookie of the Year, has been a star since he was brought up from Iowa awaiting the end of Theo Epstein's corn prison service time imbroglio. Addison Russell has been a revelation with the glove at short. Javier Baez and Jorge Soler have missed time with injuries, but both have returned towards the end of the season to clobber things. And Kyle Schwarber is a moon-faced stump person who has constantly entertained fans by finding new and more exciting ways to fall down and also smash baseballs into uncharted galaxies.

The team has been led by wacky old Joe Maddon who marries unconventional baseball tactics with whimsical entertainments for six-year-old birthday parties including dress-up days, zoo animals, and a magician. Anthony Rizzo could be making a case for an MVP-type season if Bryce Harper did not exist.

Harper (r) fights off Jonathan Papelbon's literal attempt to strangle him 
 according to baseball's unwritten rules of monster-violence. "Noose" 
 Papelbon plans to start a radio show with his twin brothers Garrotte and 
Throttle called Choke Talk where everyday Americans call in with problems 
and, after uproarious banter, one of them asks "have you tried choking 
 someone?" and then the brothers gently rib each other about the times 
 they've strangled and head-butted ineffectively 

The most curious part of the season has been Starlin Castro's transformation from the worst everyday player in baseball to a genuine force with the bat, hitting .403/.429./.708 in September. Castro was pulled as the everyday shortstop in August and his resurgence has been difficult to explain. But these wild fluctuations make up the Starlin Castro experience. Castro doesn't walk and, until recently, had shown sporadic power. His entire worth is based on fluctuations in batted-ball placement. He is a no true outcomes player. Starlin Castro performs as a baseball casino, letting the capricious whims of fate guide his game whether hitting slap singles or flipping a coin as a ball barrels towards him in the infield to decide if he makes an impressive play or attempts to fling it to the cutoff man in a sixteen-inch softball game happening at the lakefront park. 

 As much fun as the Cubs have been this season, the ultimate goal of a World Series seems unlikely this year, even if they get past the Pirates. Jake Arrieta is only one man and he cannot not pitch every day. Jon Lester has had a fine season of his own, but remains hampered by a bizarre inability to throw to first base, his feeble batting, and his use of David Ross as a personal catcher. Ross, a grizzled gray-beard who looks like a warrant officer on British frigate torn between his loyalty to a captain going insane on the high seas and the men fomenting mutiny to return the ship to combat, is one of my favorite players, but he swings the bat like a crusty Napoleonic naval officer who has never heard of baseball.

Sailing Master David Ross ponders a plot to lock the skipper in the brig
after the captain has disregarded RN orders in order to pursue the Captain's
sworn enemy Louis-Antoine-Cyprien Infernet across the seas

The rotation after Lester and Arrieta remains suspect. Jason Hammel, who pitched a strong first half, has imploded. Before the All-Star break, he sported a 2.86 ERA. After, his ERA ballooned to 5.10, he has pitched only 67 innings, and opponents have mashed a robust .856 OPS against him. That is an entire team of Kris Bryants. Kyle Hendricks has been better, but his 95 ERA+ (just slightly below an MLB-average 100) inspires little fear. The Cubs have cobbled games out of an armada of former starters in the bullpen, including Travis Wood and mid-season pickups Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill. In order for the Cubs to win, they will need Lester and Arrieta to be essentially perfect for every start. 

 And should the Cubs reverse every single defining feature of their team for the past ten decades and defeat the Pirates, they will be forced to play the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals have had an incredible season. They lost numerous key players to injury for all or part of the season including superstar pitcher Adam Wainwright, but have steamrolled to baseball's top record. Talismanic catcher Yadier Molina is out with a thumb injury sustained when Anthony Rizzo slid into him. Starter Carlos Martinez will not pitch in the postseason. This will not stop them. The Cardinals are essentially a Terminator factory of anonymous boring dudes sent to mirthlessly destroy baseballs. Their season has been a commendable testament to resilience and organizational depth. To fans of other Central teams leveled by the Cardinals juggernaut over the past decade, it is also a depressing paean to their inevitability. Facing the Cardinals in the playoffs is like receiving a tax audit, an impending bureaucratic nightmare that cannot avoided or triumphed against.
Unsurprisingly, Wainwright has returned months ahead of schedule to join the 
Cardinals' playoff bullpen. I suspect that the Cardinals have cloned all of their 
players and have only been waiting for the first opportunity to unleash this version 
of Waino Mk. II in order to defray suspicion instead of replacing him immediately 
and while this may seem impossible, far-fetched, and taken from the opening 
segment of the crappy latter-day Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Sixth Day, 
may I remind you that the Cardinals' cheating scandal from earlier this season involved 
computers, case closed

Meaningful baseball has returned to the North Side for the first time in seven years. It does not matter that the Cubs will be playing in a truncated, bastardized play-in game seemingly designed by a malevolent baseball deity for Cubbish heartbreak. The season has been too enjoyable to be undone by a single disappointing loss. The Cubs, with their young bats, piles of free agent money, and bats still lurking in the minors seem poised to remain relevant for years to come; it is only then, with sky-high expectations, can Cub fans be properly and traditionally broken.

GOPHER INVASION 

The Gophers started the season with high expectations of Big Ten West contention. They opened with an encouraging loss against championship contender TCU, but have struggled against Colorado State, Kent State, and Ohio, defeating each by only a field goal. Minnesota's fearsome defense has also suffered attrition, more than Northwestern's. A win against a ranked Northwestern team would instantaneously restore Minnesota's status as a team to be reckoned with in the division while giving Northwestern fans flashbacks to the squandered 2013 season. A Northwestern win, though, will set the Wildcats up for a showdown with angry football muppet Jim Harbaugh's frisky Michigan team at the Big House for bowl eligibility.

 It is October, Northwestern is undefeated, and the Chicago Cubs are riding high into the postseason. Perhaps the most dangerous thing is not the tough Minnesota defense or presumed Pirates playoff starter Gerritt Cole. The most dangerous thing is the possibility of a comet striking the Earth.