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.


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.


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.


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.


John Gillett said...

Words fail me. I just love this blog.

clifton said...

Why are there so few comments? Why isn't every Northwestern fan reading this blog? I'm not a Northwestern fan, and I read every post -- it's fantastic!