Winter arrived last weekend in Madison. The northern winds swept ice and snow across the Midwest and buffeted the stadium with freezing air and football misery. It is as if Jim Delany, sitting comfortably in his LeaderLegend Big Ten Command Center flipped the switch from "football" to "Big Ten football" all the way up to "Ludicrously Big Ten football" and a torrent of sleet and cold and inability to pass the football like it was 1944 and we needed to send all our forward passes to the front and the Big Ten chaos referees all flooded into the stadium while the Big Ten Network beamed the debacle to dozens of American homes. And, in the end, the Wildcats came away with a 13-7 victory, their ninth of season, and a chance to make it a 10-win Hat season.
Both defenses played heroically. Wisconsin's held even as the offense refused to hold onto the ball. The Badgers turned the ball over five times; Wildcats continued to bedevil quarterback Joel Stave, who threw two picks and fumbled. Tanner McEvoy, who threw an interception as a quarterback last year and now has become a receiver, fumbled as well. Yet, time after time, the Badger defense held in their own end of the field as the Wildcats stalled out and missed field goals. After an early pick led to a Northwestern touchdown, the coaches decided to run the Besieged Citadel offense. Justin Jackson's 139 rushing yards accounted for about two-thirds of their entire output.
The Wildcats' play calling was so conservative that they only ran packages called "The
But the entire game was overshadowed by referee decisions.
CALL ONE: THE RETURNER'S PREVARICATION
With the third quarter winding down, Northwestern had satisfactorily run into the Wisconsin enough times to get in punting position. Badger receiver Alex Erickson caught the punt, shrugged off two Northwestern tackles, and weaved his way into the endzone to put Wisconsin up as Camp Randall erupted. OR DID HE? As the punt bounced its way towards him, Erickson signaled for his teammates to clear out. As the referees later explained, Erickson's attempt to move the ball was an act of deception, of grave duplicity where he would signal a fair catch-- when the fair catch becomes not fair at all. There is some precedent here. Two weeks before, a Penn State returner had clearly made a fair catch signal then advanced the ball in an act of fair-catch signal derring-do that the officials ignored. An apoplectic Fitzgerald charged onto the field, his head so red that he resembled a human matchstick. This time, the ball was handed back to an incredulous offense with six points removed. The Badgers could do nothing and punted.
As a Northwestern fan, I applaud the officials for their enforcement of clear, well-known rules against that rogue Alex Erickson. If Erickson wanted to make sure he got credit for his touchdown, he should have gone to the Memorial Library, requested a book from off-site storage entitled "Approved Football Gestures," and studied up on it instead of deceiving the Wildcats and preventing them from ineffectively attempting to tackle him. I will quote here from the NCAA rule book:
VERDICT: THEY GOT IT RIGHT
CALL TWO: THE POSTMODERN CATCH
With less than a minute remaining, the maligned Stave drove Wisconsin down the field. Tight End Troy Fumagalli appeared to score the winning touchdown. Instead, his knee was ruled down at the one subatomic molecule line. On the next play, Stave appeared to have hit Jazz Peavy for the winning touchdown. Peavy caught the ball, ran several steps, and then bobbled the ball as he fell out of the endzone. After a lengthy review, the referees determined that every Wisconsin football player has an incredible name. Then they lit up a few Gauloises cigarettes, consulted their Derrida, determined that it is impossible to determine what a "catch" is anyway, and ripped away the winning score. On the next play, Stave was sacked and knocked out of the game. Backup quarterback Bart Houston entered the field through swinging saloon doors and tossed an incompletion aimed at McEvoy.
While Peavy appeared to snag the ball and possess it for several steps, the rules are clear. Peavy may have caught the ball, stopped, filled in the proper catch paperwork (the Transfer of Football from Quarterback to Receiver is available as a PDF on the NCAA website), but failed to get it properly notarized before falling out of bounds. This unfortunate oversight on the part of the Wisconsin coaching staff cost them dearly, but is clearly stated in the rules.
VERDICT: NORTHWESTERN WINS YOW YOW YOW YOW YOW YOW
The sloppy pace of the game and the numerous sound and rational refeeeing decisions left a small but rowdy group of Badger fans with no recourse but to pelt their own cheerleaders, officials, and Northwestern players with snowballs. It was a difficult loss on senior day, particularly for Stave, who thought he had rallied his team to victory twice. Northwestern had numerous opportunities to extend the lead to the point where the referees would have no part in it, but the Wisconsin defense and the Wildcats' ultra-conservative play calling kept it close. Northwestern fans in the stands had no idea how they won. Pat Fitzgerald was delightedly perplexed. And the Wildcats canceled their bus service back to Evanston so they could ride back in rum-running getaway cars.
HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT
The Hat Game is upon us! This blog has already covered hat-lore in Thirty Days: Hat November, An Oral History of the Northwestern-Illinois Game at length. Last year, the Hat Game reached its apotheosis as it became a bowl eligibility game. With the Beck Man at the height of his powers and Northwestern desperate to salvage a miserable season, it is hard to imagine a more perfect Hat Game scenario than as the Golden Ticket to what turned out to be the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl against a superior Conference USA team.
This year, the teams have gone in opposite directions. Northwestern has powered its way to a 9-2 record. The Illini are reeling. They fired Beck Man eight days before the season and released a 1,200-page report that depicts him as Will Ferrell's impression of George W. Bush. After making fun of Beckman's absurd anti-Northwestern crusade for the past three years, many of his actual, real life behaviors turned out to be something like 15 percent less insane than this nonsense blog that claimed that he had an anti-Northwestern command center and crafting shed where he built shoddy replica Willies to set on fire and assault first-year players during Illini training camp.
There's no evidence that this is Beckman's car, but the man has crossed into the Beck Man
Valley, where no piece of ludicrous anti-Northwestern activity can be ruled out unless
specifically mentioned by a 1,200-page report.
The University of Illinois is also in turmoil. The university sports an Interim Chancellor, an Interim Athletic Director, and an Interim Football Coach; the game will be played at Soldier Field, making this an Illini Interim Home Game. Bill Cubit is playing for more than just a Hat. He hopes a win and a bowl game will keep him in Champaign-Urbana for a long time. It is hard to root against the Illini this season as the team has fought through the disorder, and Cubit's Northwestern-related pronouncements remain within the bounds of normal football person behavior.
What happens to the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry now? I've noted earlier that the intensity of the Hat Game developed as a rivalry not between the two schools but between Northwestern and Tim Beckman himself. Without the Beck Man and his avant-garde dada interpretation of football rivalry, can the Greatest Rivalry in College Football persevere? The Illini, like Northwestern, are a historically moribund team often left for dead by the Big Ten Football Brands, all of whom are insufferable. Nevertheless, it is important to soldier on and remember that, no matter how well the Illini have coped through a tumultuous season, they have The Hat. That is no way to live.
After last year's debacle, Northwestern has hired its Assistant Dean of
Procuring Rivalry Trophies By Any Means Necessary
So, it is with a heavy heart and with all respect to our friends at That School South of What Beckman Called The School Up North, I say:
Give us that hat, Cube Man.
Give us that hat back.
Want that Hat.
Hat Hat Hat