Friday, September 9, 2016

WEEK 2: A Reversal of Fortune

Football is an insane game dreamed up by a maniac and altered by generations of maniacs, each more maniacal than the last. There is an oblong ball that bounces irregularly. The rules have become so complicated that the concept of a catch has transcended the empirical to the realm of metaphysics. They play in withering heat and blizzards, on grass and artificial turf, in front of tens of thousands of bellowing football zealots, in a flurry of flying limbs and football equipment and those inscrutable playcalling cards that show a walrus, the HMS Bounty, Chester A. Arthur, and Herm Edwards dressed as his alter-ego The Herminator. There's an infinite number of ways to lose football games.

Northwestern has seen its share of normal losses, outmatched, the victims of butt-kickings so profound that the team was driven from the field and forced to mournfully snap the ball from a neighboring backyard swing set.  The Wildcats have also suffered a profound number of losses so absurd that they have formed a litany: the Hail Marys, the Double-Tip Firewagon Field Goal, the Onside Kick Returns, The Entirety of the 2010 Outback Bowl, The Time Tim Beckman Won The Hat and The Entire Earth Was Temporarily Shrouded in Darkness, His Unearthly Hat Cackle Summoning Forces Beyond Our Comprehension.

Beckman, having looted the Hat and placed it in its Hat Cradle to catch the light of the Blood 
Moon, planned a Reign of a Thousand Hats, proclaiming once and for all Illinois as Chicago's 
Big Ten Team, the fearsome billboards of the Illini lined from toll plaza to toll plaza but then 
he got fired

The loss against Western Illinois belongs in this woeful gallery.  It has all the elements: a MAC opponent viciously rowboating through an erstwhile dominant defense; a blown lead; a heroic drive stalled by the fumble-touchback, the single most damaging reversal of fortune play in organized sports; a spectacular, potentially game-saving blunder by an opposing player so grotesquely misguided that his own inept execution of his plan actually turned out to his benefit,; a 25-minute replay challenge that ended in misery.

To quickly break it down: Thorson's fumble into the endzone would be ruled a touchback if 
Davonate Ginwright either grabs it or falls down or grabs it and takes it from the endzone. 
Instead, Ginwright hurled the ball back into the endzone like he was John McClane throwing 
an explosive device back at a Gruber Brother before leaping out of a window, which is literally 
the only way Northwestern could get the ball back.  BUT, Ginwright did not manage to stay out 
of bounds, foiling his own plan to do the single most foolish thing in the situation.  The only 
way for the play to be more costly for the Wildcats is if the NCAA had spraypainted a "Dr. Pepper 
Fumble Here to Lose Game" logo on the exact spot Thorson dropped it

The loss undid a heroic effort from Justin Jackson who ball carriered and ball received all over the WMU defense.  Clayton Thorson and the new crop of receivers played solidly until Thorson fumbled his way into a Rube Goldberg catastrophe.  The loss could be chalked up to an excellent game from Western Michigan's Zach Terrell and Jamuri Bogan and a disappointing day for a Northwestern defense that sorely missed Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry.  On the other hand, Northwestern lost on a controversial endzone replay, which clearly means that once again the College Football Establishment is conspiring against the Wildcats, the insidious tentacles of their agents reaching into replay rooms operating out of dozens of shadowy organizations.  Chris Collins identified a Michigan referee conspiracy against Northwestern during the Big Ten Basketball Tournament, and I've discovered some mindblowing evidence that will shake you to the core:


Last Saturday's disappointment gives way to this week's hope.  Fortunately for Northwestern, the cats face FCS Illinois State at home.  Traditionally, FBS teams and especially major conference teams take this opportunity to steamroll FCS squads while touchdown-crazed fans bray for the walk-ons in a twisted football bacchanalia.  This is not that game.  For one, Illinois State is a season removed from a berth in the FCS championship game, where they lost a close game to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State.  For another, Northwestern has lost home games to lower-division teams in the past, most recently Chip Kelly's New Hampshire team in 2006.  Despite the recent success, the history of Northwestern football remains a museum of football indignities, and there are few types of losses the Wildcats have not suffered with the exception of the consistent domination over defunct Chicago-area dental colleges, whose team message boards to this day are filled with tooth-taunts from swaggering Northwestern partisans.

The 1903 Wildcats handled Chicago Dental according to this Tribune article 
that describes an unrecognizable sport featuring dental backs and line bucks: 
"In a game which showed Northwestern weaker than even the most pessimistic 
feared, the Methodist school yesterday allowed the Chicago Dental college 
eleven to make two touchdowns, scoring only three itself, so that the final score 
was 18-11.  One of the touchdowns made by the Dental college was scored on a run 
of 105 yards, but the other was made by straight playing, the dental backs 
pushing the ball by line bucks the length of the field."
This information comes from Hail to Purple, which not only tracked down 
the game but successfully lobbied to change inaccurate accounts of the game 
that dared to insinuate that Northwestern had lost to the dental college. I count 
this as their greatest victory

More importantly, Wildcat football over the past several season has alternated between indomitable luck and turns of events so catastrophic they seem to be the provenance of trickster football deities. Last season, the 'Cats got every bounce in close games, every big stop, and every call on their way to ten wins.  The two years before, a snakebitten Wildcat team innovated increasingly baroque and intricate ways to lose games.  Every game remains its own discrete event.  But in a season that has already begun with disturbing harbingers of chaos, of footballs bouncing off arms and crossbars and a crimson Pat Fitzgerald storming onto the field in protest, his fists pumping not with the vigor of victory but ineffectually against the referees and the laws of football and physics, it is hard not to be on guard.


Football was originally developed as a way for college students to beat the ever-loving snot out of each other so they can grow up to be monocled industrialists and talk about manfully looking into the eyes of a hale-hearty fellow who attempted to put his head through their sternum. Now, I am convinced that its most important function is as a release valve for monomaniacs that would otherwise be sieging post offices or filibustering through Costcos and instead they’ve channeled their energy into making kids run through those nets that make you keep your knees up while yelling KEEP YOUR KNEES UP.

All coaches of sports at high levels work insane, unreasonable hours to justify the insane and unreasonable amounts of money and attention we shower on professional and college sports. Football coaches represent the extreme end of the coaching version of monomania.  NFL coaches all but move into coffins in their offices, emerging only to draw a bunch of Xs and Os and reluctantly talk to the press about injuries. They operate at all times under a veil secrecy usually associated with government space laser programs that we all know exist. In the offseason, they are usually fired. Those that keep their jobs disappear from view until the next Mandatory NFL Event.

A resigned Belichick breaks down under a hail of reporters' questions to admit that the New 
England Patriots play football

College football coaches have a similar job except they spend their entire off-season text messaging with teenagers and filming commercials for truck dealerships and debasing themselves with internet meme gaffes. This, it turns out, is extraordinarily useful. Instead of passive-aggressively tweeting at each other and gang-stalking sixteen year-old nose tackles, we could have armies of goateed men named Chip and Bobby diagramming whiteboard coups and aggressively blowing whistles at helpless citizens.


Northwestern hopes to recover from the disheartening display of rowboatsmanship at Ryan Field last Saturday.   If that game is any indication, though, the chaos has only begun. Expect desperation heaves, multiple fumbles, dozens of laterals, natural disasters, plagues, and bands of unemployed coaches interrupting games to attack with their fearsome retinues of practice tackle apparatus.  Expect a grizzled Chris Collins, his purple track suit in tatters and stained with the ink of mildewed newspaper archives to appear with reams of new information about the Michigan Referee Conspiracy and its attempts to infiltrate the highest levels of college athletics through shadowy networks accountable to no one.  This is a lunatic sport designed for heartbreak and incredulity.  This is every season of Wildcat football.    

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