Friday, November 25, 2016

Week 13: Clean, Old-Fashioned Hat

There is one week left of Northwestern football and the Wildcats are out of time.  Either beat a putrid Illinois team and qualify for the Wattle Farms Chicken Gizzard Remainder Bowl or fall apart, a hatless husk of a team forced to try to shamefully sneak into the Harvester Combine Injury Bowl with a 5-7 record, only allowed into postseason play by dint of their Academic Progress Rate like Dolph Lundgren sneaking into the lead of a 1990s action movie called Viscount Cop only after Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal, Snipes, Willis, Gibson, and even Emilio Estevez have turned it down and it will only be released on special Bulgarian region DVD players.

What is the plot of my fictional Dolph Lundgren Viscount Cop move?  I'm 
glad you asked. Dolph Lundgren stars as a sheltered aristocrat brought up 
with courtly, nineteenth-century manners who joins the police to track down 
a tough, Habsburgh-themed motorcycle gang on the streets of New York City 
where only his knowledge of fencing and post-Metternich diplomacy can 
stop them while his wisecracking partner assimilates him in what the person
writing a Viscount Cop movie would imagine that hip, New York culture is

The 'Cats are reduced to this after a poor showing in Minnesota.  Clayton Thorson spent the entire game in a football version of the Running Man, as various Buzz Saws and Professors Sub-Zero sacked him in a house of bloodthirsty gopher worship.  Pat Fitzgerald decided to abandon his kneejerk football traditionalism and go for it on fourth down repeatedly.  These plays did not work, but we have possibly seen the emergence of a new Fitzgerald, one who goes for it on fourth down, one who occasionally takes it more than one game at a time, and one who joins with other Big Ten coaches in the Society of Slightly Less Punting and shows up with frosted buzzcut tips, BASE jumping anecdotes, and motorcycle jousting injuries.

Kirk Ferentz appears at a press conference to discuss going for it on fourth and two from Iowa's 
36 yardline.

Northwestern caps off a bizarre season.  After the loss to Western Michigan and the demoralizing collapse against Illinois State, the Wildcats seemed on target for a bleak, Purdue-esque tribute to football miserablism.  Instead, Northwestern rallied, developed a prolific and at times unstoppable offense centered on Austin Carr, and started winning games in the Big Ten/ They even managed to give probable division champions Ohio State and Wisconsin a hard time.  The Wildcats could be described as better than you think, although in the given "you" of college football fandom, the baseline seems to be successfully showing up to football games on time and calling at least one recognizable play.  Instead, the tough loss to Minnesota shattered that illusion and the Wildcats have returned to their traditional Thanksgiving position: desperately hoping to keep the Hat and qualify for Amalgamated Bleacher Tarp Bowl located in a floating island in the middle of the Great Lakes accessible only by garbage scow.  After the first two games, this represents a remarkable turnaround and a tribute to the team's resilience.


The last time these two teams met in America's Greatest Sports Rivalry with bowl eligibility represented the apotheosis of the Northwestern-Illinois game.  Two 5-6 teams met with it all on the line: either a berth in a crappy bowl game against a Conference USA team or football oblivion with no bloated glut of bowl games and 5-7 APR bullshit to bail them out.  That maniac Tim Beck Man was still in charge of the Illini, and he took advantage of an injury to Northwestern's superstar NFL quarterback Trevor Siemian to lead Illinois to an unthinkable victory that still chills Chicago's Big Ten Bones.

(UPDATE: I forgot that last year's titanic Hat Contest involved a five-win Illinois team straining for bowl eligibility, although it is possible that the Illini could have rebranded the game the Victory Auto Wreckers Chicago's Big Ten Quasi-Bowl and then salvaged their season in the wilderness).

The Illini's first season under Lovie Smith has had growing pains.  Illinois's only Big Ten wins are Michigan State in full collapse and a Rutgers team that is offering the exact amount of resistance towards its conference foes as a henchman in the movie Commando.

This henchman meets one of the dozens of gruesome ends he and his comrades all played by 
the same stuntman will meet at the hand of John Matrix

Illinois currently nurses a quarterback controversy between Wes Lunt, who has been in Champaign-Urbana long enough to qualify for tenure, and Literally Jeff George Junior.  Northwestern is favored, at home, and will play in front of a sellout hat-thirsty crowd, many of whom will comes disguised as empty bleachers.  The status of Northwestern's superstar receiver (and Biletnikoff Award finalist) Austin Carr is up in the air; Carr left last week's came after a head-to-head shot ruled targeting and is listed as day to day with an upper-body injury, although Pat Fitzgerald would also describe the National Convention as voting to inflict an upper-body injury upon Louis XVI.

But throw out the record books.  It is Hat Week, it is Big Ten Network Regional Coverage, and nothing would give Lovie Smith and the probably two other Illinois players I can name off the top of my head a better Thanksgiving than to mercilessly yank the hat from the Wildcats' heads and drag it back to Champaign in a bus that Tim Beckman had specially designed to hold the Hat to transport it to and from Beckman family functions.


It is a sad confession that the Hat Game has lost some its hat luster over the past couple of years.  This is the second consecutive year with a new Illini coach.  Lovie Smith has not had years to marinate in the spectacle of the Land of Lincoln Rivalry: the parades, the endless media attention, the jawing on the state-wide sports talk radio between fanbases whose trash-talking is based on the relative margin of defeat to Western Michigan. 
It is also the second year of the post-Beckman era, and if Illinois fans are not going to get on the internet and become as semi-ironically obsessed with the Hat as I am the least they can do is get rid of the frustratingly levelheaded Lovie Smith and hire another insane head coach who looks like he would never appear on television on Thanksgiving weekend unless he was a victim of a deep-fried turkey incident or giant inflatable pilgrim mishap with a pathological obsession with beating Northwestern.

Perhaps Lovie Smith, an icon of unflappable cool in his days with the Bears where he had to be transported around town in a Popemobile to prevent 300-pound mustache guys from screaming at him about Rex Grossman, will snap and become unhinged in the pressure of winning this great College Football Rivalry Game.  Maybe he will become the victim of an insane Face/Off incident where Beckman, now disguised as Smith, attempts to retake the Hat by force before escaping in a blimp while Smith has to feign ignorance of hamstring injuries in order to infiltrate Beckman's gang of rogue, fired football coaches.


I hope that the rivalry has not already climaxed with a crappy bowl elimination game masterminded by the only coach on the face of the earth capable of caring enough about Northwestern to hate it. Maybe Lovie Smith will bring about an Illini football renaissance which, along with a Northwestern team that has remained semi-respectable in the Fitz era, will allow for a game with Big Ten West implications.  Failing that, the dream remains a game between the two teams when they are decent at the same time, which as far as I can tell has never happened.

Or maybe the Hat Rivalry just needs a bit more egregious dick kicking.


It all comes down to this.  The pageantry, the rivalry, the all-engrossing spectacle enveloping Chicagoland as these two titans of the Big Ten clash for the 110th time at Ryan Field.  There's a bowl berth on the line for Northwestern.  There's an emergence of hope at stake for the Illini.  And most importantly, there's the Hat, carried off the field by the victorious team, with a giant metal tophat installed on the Art Institute lions and a mysterious light emanating from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library from a secret chamber that is said to be the source of the Hat's mysterious football powers that no one goes into for fear of resurrecting an angry Lincoln ghost that will rampage across the state, destroying all who tries to stop it with heretofore unknown rhetorical flourishes.

Northwestern and Illinois exist in a shared college football obscurity.  They are on national TV only when some Big Ten Football Brand school deigns to flatten them on the way to the Playoff or when they manage a rare upset.  It is safe to say that absolutely no one outside of these tiny, tarp-augmented fanbases cares about the Hat Game; the Big Ten Network could run last year's game at 11AM Saturday and have no one actually notice while changing only the graphics to say "Ryan Field" and dubbing over announcers saying "2015" in the same way that Bruce Willis miraculously discourses on melon farmers in network television airings of Die Hard movies.  But for Northwestern and Illinois fans, this dumb game and its ludicrous trophy that remains molded to a base instead of allowing the coach to wear it is ours.  It is my favorite sporting event of the year.  


Friday, November 18, 2016


I remember a time when Purdue cut a reign of terror through the Big Ten, when Purdue regularly sent its quarterbacks to the NFL instead of to SEC teams as ghoulish Big Ten specters, when the mustaches were blond and resplendent on the sidelines like an army of Bounty Men ordering a neverending bombardment of touchdowns while Purdue Pete taunted the opposition with his blank homicide face.  That was not that long ago.

Everything Purdue Pete does is disturbing and threatening

But recent years have not been kind to the Purdue Boilermakers who have devolved into a pit of forlorn football ineptitude.  The pit is not metaphorical.  Earlier this season, a burst water main caused the formation of a large sinkhole in the Ross Ade endzone, as reported by a twitter account described as "The Official Twitter of the Purdue University Intercollegiate Athletics Sports Turf Crew."
It was as if Purdue's own stadium had grown sentient, preferring to devour itself instead of bearing witness to the miserable football perpetuated against it, against long-suffering Purdue fans, and against the various interim personnel haplessly watching mediocre teams treat Purdue like sports movie winning streak montage opponents.

The strange thing about the Boilermakers is that they have not played up to their bumbling reputation.  They have started games strong and have taken leads to halftime.  They leaped to a 10-0 lead against Northwestern on Saturday, and they took close games to halftime against Minnesota and Penn State.  Then, it all falls apart.  The most foreboding site for Purdue has not been another member of the injury-ravaged roster limping to the sidelines or former coach Darrell Hazell attempting to draw up another ineffectual play with a puzzled look; it is the chilling thump of the World's Largest Drum unleashed during a halftime spectacle to signal the impeding doom of the Dread Second Half.

Normal football fans have pointed to Purdue's injuries and lack of depth for its second-half descent into the abyss.  What I like to imagine, though, is that it is completely due to interim coach Gerad Parker's halftime speeches.  Parker, perhaps wearing a false blond mustache, walks into the locker room before the game screaming football things at them about clear eyes and full hearts and they go out inspired to football greatness.  Then, at halftime, Parker attempts to rally the squad but he starts sweating and screaming before finally a larval Purdue Pete bursts forth from his chest and scuttles into the air ducts and then when David Blough rears back to throw he thinks he sees the creature incubating in the very football he is holding and is forced to repeatedly throw it to Montre Hartage.


The Wildcats will travel to Minnesota to take on the Golden Gophers, desperate to get that sixth win and claim a crappy bowl berth like the third son of a dynasty bumbling into a minor bishopric.  The Gophers lost their opportunity to contend for the Big Ten West after falling to Nebraska and now jockey to move up the arbitrary hierarchy of also-ran bowls.

Last year, the Wildcats pounded Minnesota.  They were unable to run the ball, and Anthony Walker terrorized quarterback Mitch Leidner into throwing footballs like they had been replaced by lead football sculptures.  Northwestern inched over the field on a drive that took almost the entire third quarter.  This year, the Gophers look for revenge with an improved team with a tough defense and fearsome running back Rodney Smith, the Big Ten touchdown leader.

But the Gophers will also have to deal with Austin Carr.  Yes, Carr was on last year's Northwestern team.  He recorded one catch for fourteen yards in last year's Minnesota game.  This season, though, Carr has seemingly come out of nowhere and emerged as the best receiver in the conference.  Carr has already tied Jeremy Ebert's single-season touchdown record, and he leads the Big Ten in every major receiving category.  Carr, along with an improving Thorson, has helped transform Northwestern's offense from a lurching tank designed to throw Justin Jackson at the defensive line long enough for the defense to rest and attain punting position to an actual threat to move the ball.  

Northwestern's 2015 offense practices its offensive system known as the "pre-punt"

The Gophers are favored, but these teams appear evenly-matched.  The Wildcats hope to head back to Evanston garlanded in Belks.

Northwestern's basketball season is here and so is heartbreak.  The 'Cats lost to a buzzer-beater against Butler, and suffered an early blow against the eternal and seemingly-impossible quest to actually make a postseason tournament.  Northwestern basketball exists in an endless continuum of buzzer-beaters, overtime losses, and last-second putbacks in every game that they play against an opponent that is not leaving Welsh-Ryan arena with a suitcase full of cash for getting violently dunked on for 40 minutes.

The Wildcats graduated stalwarts Tre Demps and Alex Olah who now play together as noted by the greatest sentence ever written about Northwestern basketball: "Olah joins his former Northwestern shooting guard Demps on Belfius Mons-Hainaut, which plays in the Belgium Scooore! League." (It should be noted that the Scooore! League is now known as the Euromillions Basketball League, which is slightly less delightful).

Belfius Mons-Hainaut's mascot, Le Renard Clip Art

This basketball season will be the final one at Welsh-Ryan arena before it undergoes renovations.  The team will move to the empty, desolate All State Arena for a year and move back into a disappointingly opulent arena, resplendent in video boards and actual seats and this is terrible.  Welsh-Ryan Arena is a gloriously dilapidated barn, and the only renovations allowed should be to add side backboards like an elementary school gymnasium and a cage from which spectators can hang and taunt the opponents like you'd find in any respectable thunderdome.  They should redecorate the arena only if Northwestern qualifies for the tournament and then the whole thing should be decorated with elaborate friezes depicting the team's glorious entry to the four-team quasi-Tournament by dint of winning a second game in the Big Ten Tournament forcing all of Indianapolis to cower before the might of its zone defense.

Northwestern's renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena includes a much-sought cage ticket and 
complimentary chainsaw check


Anyone who follows college sports does so with clenched teeth waiting for the inevitable scandal because college sports are an insanely corrupt enterprise propped up by a shocking gulf in compensation between the players and the institutions that profit from the spectacle.  The whole thing is orchestrated by the NCAA, which polices this tension by drawing up hundreds of pages of guidelines about the exact hours which maniacal coaches can text emojis at teenagers.  So it is inevitable that this system that remains a vestige of nineteenth-century mustache guys literally stomping each other to death on football fields leads to shit that can best be described as fucked up.

This week, former Northwestern basketball player Johnnie Vassar sued the school, alleging that basketball coach Chris Collins and the entire athletic department pressured and harassed him into leaving the team after the NCAA rules prevented him from transferring.  The complaint argues that Collins, who recruited Vassar, felt he was not good enough to play on the team and wanted him to give up his athletic scholarship and accept an academic scholarship so the school could use it on a different recruit.

The lawsuit alleges that Northwestern tried several ways to get get Vassar to relinquish the athletic scholarship: by replacing his practices with something called the "Wildcat Intern Program" that involved menial janitorial work at athletic facilities, by crudely doctoring his time cards to threaten him with dereliction of duties as a means to yanking the scholarship, and by informally offering a cash payment to "go away."

Northwestern has denied the allegations.

Vassar's lawsuit also attacks the NCAA's transfer rules, which prevented him from moving to a different school.  The Tribune's Teddy Greenstein explains the reasoning behind the NCAA's restrictive transfer policy at the end of the article [italics mine]: 
NCAA transfer rules exist to discourage schools from "poaching" players from other programs. Schools put in a considerable amount of time and money to recruit players, so the feeling has been that their investment should be protected.  Plus coaches believe that if a player can simply leave and immediately play elsewhere when he or she faces adversity or tough coaching, it promotes a bad life lesson.
This last part raises eyebrows considering that successful coaches often leave for more attractive jobs without warning on train cars specifically designed to ferry them out of the town that they have paid for with the giant canvas sacks full of money with which they are compensated.

The Vassar lawsuit's allegations are disturbing.  The legal process is ponderous, and we don't know if a court will find that Northwestern's pressure on Vassar to transfer was as grotesque as the methods listed in the complaint.  

Collins desperately wants to get Northwestern to the Tournament, and has method includes an aggressive approach to his roster.  His arrival saw the departure of numerous walk-ons and players recruited by Carmody to pave the way for players that fit his system.  But the Vassar lawsuit shows that, even ignoring the troubling allegations of payoffs and internship time card frameups, Collins is willing to move on from his own recruits just as easily if he doesn't feel they will get him to March Madness.

To me, the appeal of Northwestern athletics has always been its obscurity.  The stakes remain low: desperate attempts to qualify for low-rent bowls, a defining failure to make it to a tournament that allows an ever-increasing number of entrants, and the howling from opponents of far more historically successful teams shamed into losing to a team whose most visible fanbase is tarps.  I had thought that these low stakes could shield Northwestern from the worst of the NCAA's inherent bullshit not because Northwestern is any less corrupt any other school with major sports programs but because the ruthless recruiting and rostering shell games that are absurd enough in the quest for national championships become unabashedly ludicrous when they apply to a team whose greatest recent success involves disdainfully refusing to play in the CBI. 

Of course that is naive and stupid.  For Chris Collins and the athletic department, bowls, Hats, and downmarket basketball tournaments that weave perilously in and out of existence are not enough. Collins seems to think that his management of scholarships will help him win. As we've found from the fallout from the football union, the NCAA's byzantine restrictions infect every instance of big-money college sports.  Historical crappiness cannot save you. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Week 11: Extraneous Football

They were weeping in Madison on Saturday, fans hugging their older relatives and long-time supporters gathering outside Camp Randall Stadium as their Badgers finally managed to knock off the Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston for the first time since 1999, a streak that spans over four entire football games.  

The streets of Madison are red in celebration of the long-awaited twenty-
first-century win at Ryan Field

The Badgers dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball; their running backs galloped across the field and kept their rotating carousel of quarterbacks relatively unscathed, and their defense held Justin Jackson in check.  Still, Northwestern remained within striking distance largely because of Austin Carr's remarkable transformation into an unstoppable receiving force who was still hauling in balls long after it became apparent that he was the Wildcats' only option and the Badgers were draping defenders on him and hastily trying to build medieval fortifications around him and then hustle the guys with shovels and mortar and the field engineers with parchment blueprints off the field before suffering from an illegal substitution penalty.

Wisconsin's playbook shows its halftime adjustments for defending 
Austin Carr, who finished with 12 receptions for 132 yards, a touchdown, 
and a claim to the County of Rapperswil

After facing two top-ten teams in a row, Northwestern settles down to the task at hand: winning at least two of the three remaining games to qualify for a bowl game sponsored by a company that will be defunct within three years and, far more importantly, retaining the Hat from rookie head coach Lovie Smith, who has never coached in a game with higher stakes or more national attention.  This is after the Illini reportedly retreated from holding its home hat games at Soldier Field, terrified of playing Chicago's Big Ten Team in Chicago in front of last year's showing of dozens of fans.  The move also alleviates a concern that Smith would go into a Soldier Field-induced trance where he would continually attempt to send Rex Grossman into the game until an Illini quarterback would have to stuff his cheeks, throw on a number eight jersey, and huck the ball up into triple coverage enough times to prevent Smith from seeing a Brian Urlacher hair billboard and suffering a complete psychological collapse.


This week, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany announced that the Big Ten will move a selected slate of games to Friday evenings. The move is controversial; Fridays remain associated with high school football, as demonstrated by the television show where catalog models stare at each other, lips quivering, declaring “I ‘preciate that.”

The Big Ten will move to Friday nights as an imitation of the NFL’s strategy of putting football games on at bizarre, unnatural times and then being shocked that no one is watching a Rutgers/Purdue game that they would know was on only if Jim Delany pulled up the Big Ten’s official hot rod to their door and personally implored them to watch it. Northwestern will play in all of these games.

The August Michigan Wolverines will not play on Friday nights because they would never stand for that; you would have a mitchum-scented mob seizing Ann Arbor printing presses to flood the city with strongly-worded open letters and pamphlets entitled “It’s Simply Not Done.” No, Friday night is for the Wildcats and the unwanted East Coast Big Ten arrivistes and will be played only for desperate, grasping attempts to qualify for the Ornamental Truck Testicle Bowl played at the immediate conclusion of the participants’ final game to get it over with as quickly as possible.

The solution, then, is to lean into the change and declare the Northwestern Nightmen the official team of Friday football.  The Wildcats, traveling to away games in a purple hearse with blackout windows to keep out the 11:00 AM sun, bursting forth from coffins during pregame introductions by Chicago  horror movie personality Svengoolie, all to an endless soundtrack of Dio and haunting monster mashes, will hijack the trucks that contain the stadium lights that the school will now need for all of its games and involve it in arcane Night Rituals.  Delany can announce this to Pat Fitzgerald personally, assuming he can locate him in the attic of the disused gothic church where he now lives.

The Vincent Priceman prepare for Friday Night Football


The Northwestern-Purdue game is always a favorite to preview because it’s close to the platonic ideal of a shitty, 11:00 Big Ten game broadcast onto television reluctantly like a terrible sitcom on air only because of the CBC’s Canadian content laws. This game has no meaning, will attract no attention outside of these small fanbases, and by 2:30 pm it might as well not have existed. You could send a fake box score from West Lafayette to any national media outlet in the country and they would print it without scrutiny, even if it said that the Northwestern Wildebeests were led by Claybon Thrognoggin and scored most of their points via incantation. This game rules.

Exciting football action from last year's game  

This year, Purdue actually has intrigue. Darrell Hazell was fired for leading his Boilermarkers into an abyss of football futility, and now the Purdue athletic department looks for its next coach by waiting for a clack to echo through the night, for a track that appears through town that no one knew was there, and for a solitary steam engine to pull up with its new savior who arrives with a spread offense and a blond mustache so resplendent that it cascades down from his mouth and turns into an all-weather Purdue parka.

Purdue should just hire Kyle Orton and let him live on a houseboat on the 
Wabash River

For most people, even the most degenerate college football fans, this game, as it exists at all, takes place as two numbers at the very bottom of a scroll through a college football scores app.  Maybe Minnesota and Illinois fans take a glance and recalibrate their own chances against Northwestern. But this game will take place.  With uniforms and everything.  As we talk, coaching staffs are gathered in their elaborate cargo shorts conclaves and watching film on the flesh and blood humans who are about to play football at Ross Ade stadium.  And I'll be watching to see if Justin Jackson can rebound and continue his climb up Northwestern's all-time rushing list, if Austin Carr can continue to blight defensive backs, and if the Wildcats' secondary can contain Big Ten yardage leader and Purdue Institute of Scrappy Quarterbacking graduate David Blough.  

For Northwestern, a win in the first Big Ten game in which they are favored will set them up to potentially qualify for a bowl with another win or potentially by taking advantage of unchecked bowl proliferation to sneak in as a 5-7 team, which is something so Northwestern that I can't believe it has not already happened.  For Purdue, a win alleviates somewhat the general atmosphere of football malaise hanging around the program, which has not seen more than three wins in a season during the Hazell era.  These are the stakes for a Northwestern-Purdue game, which is less played than inflicted upon people to the point that the teams should play for a trophy called the Big Ten Network Contractual Obligation Oh Wait It's The Big Ten, This Is Now William Henry Harrison's Snuff Box.

The outcomes of sporting events remain profoundly trivial.  But even in our insane world where sporting operations suck in unfathomable gobs of money and attention, where taxpayers subsidize massive arenas for billionaire owners and universities have somehow become bolted onto sports leagues that protect the athletes' links to the schools by enforcing ludicrously elaborate text message codes and assign grim-faced investigators to allegations of selling game-worn pants and where the Cubs can win a baseball game and send people sprawled teary-eyed into the arms of their relatives and to consecrate graveyards with officially-licensed World Series merchandise, it is hard to explain why anyone should care about the upcoming Northwestern-Purdue game.  It has no bearing on The Title Picture or the Playoff Rankings or the Big Ten West or take place at a Stadium With People In It.  It is extraneous football.  And I'll be watching every minute. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Week 10: Streaks

Northwestern headed into Ohio State with an overwhelming losing streak in Columbus.  The last time the Wildcats won in Columbus was 1971, when Woody Hayes was at the height of his terrifying powers, able to infiltrate his players' subconscious and force them to do hamburger drills in their dreams.  Since then, Ohio State has remained on a more or less continuous rampage through the Big Ten while Northwestern's football team spent the late 70s and 80s aerating their and their opponents' fields by getting repeatedly pile-driven through them.

Northwestern's success in 1971 came from the 
unorthodox tactic of punting enormous, blimp-sized 
footballs at opponents and then tackling them in the 
ensuing confusion

The Wildcats came into the game as heavy underdogs, but this is not the same team that got the Fatal Doink from Illinois State.  Clayton Thorson seems to grow by leaps and bounds each week.  Justin Jackson remains one of the Big Ten's best backs, and what we get to see each week from Austin Carr is nothing short of astonishing.  They gave the Buckeyes all they could handle and managed to pull level.  Unfortunately, they could not topple Ohio State.  A holding penalty took away an opportunity to tie the game and Fitz settled for a field goal.  I did not watch the game live, so instead I followed the end of the game on the ESPN GameCenter website where I then watched little arrows representing JT Barrett gallivant across my phone over Northwestern's digital defenders while the clock ran down to nothing on every clumsy refresh.  It was an impressive effort, but it was not enough.  The streak was not broken.

A loss is a loss to Ohio State by four or by forty; that’s what it goes by in the books no matter how close the Wildcats came to unleashing a dejected Horseshoe full of Buckeyes unable to fathom what has just happened and a million unhinged message board demands to fire at least one coordinator and send photographic breakdowns of uncalled holding penalties on the next Pioneer satellite so that aliens would have clear understanding of how illegal it is for the guy to have his hand right up in that jersey jesus christ throw the goddamn flag.


The Wisconsin Badgers have not won in Evanston since 1999.  They have not.  They have they have won Big Ten Championships, they have sent waves of running backs and beefy tackles over the prone bodies of Big Ten opponents and they have garlanded themselves in roses and every single time this this century that they have come to Ryan Field they have lost the football game and this is the funniest and strangest streak in all of college sports.

The streak is misleading because Northwestern and Wisconsin have only played four games in Evanston since 1999.  Still, pretty much every year they've played the Badgers have come in ranked higher than Northwestern and with a retinue of red-clad fans streaming in from the city and down I-94 to take over the stadium and with AP rankings and they still manage to lose close games and it is way more fun to crow about sparsely-played win streaks such as a two-game streak over Notre Dame that dates back to 1995 or a dominant streak over the University of Chicago that dates to 1926 although that was the last time they played and since then Chicago disbanded their football program and left the Big Ten and then revived it as a DIII program. You never know if there is an aged Maroon football player so incensed at Northwestern's Chicago's Big Ten Team billboards that he launches a coup against the Chicago administration and secretly brings the team back to Big Ten contention with an army of cloned Maroon greats like Andy "Polyphemus" Wyatt.

"Polyphemus" Wyatt Mk. VII, his mustache now even 
larger and more resplendent, burrows up from the 
earth outside Ryan Field with an army of leather-helmeted 
clones and a crew of painters stationed at key billboard 
locations on the Tri-State Tollway

Wisconsin comes in ranked eight in the country and desperate for revenge after last year's insane game where the Wildcats benefited from delightfully ludicrous officiating.  Paul Chryst, I am sure, would like to win decisively enough where a referee that accidentally ingests psilocybin mushrooms and then fancies himself Crimson Ump, the Taker of Touchdowns will have minimal effect.

Northwestern is somehow a far better team than they were at the beginning of the season. Though Wisconsin is favored, they will still have to figure out how to deal with Thorson and Austin Carr. Still, Wisconsin is an excellent team with designs still on the Western Division. The home win streak, as delightfully bizarre as it is, can't hold out forever, especially now that they play in Evanston every other year.  But, the Wildcats certainly have the team to upset Wisconsin again, and one more win is more than enough to declare some sort of contrived bullshit curse over the whole enterprise.


It is fitting that last night’s game took place under the watch of Joe Buck, baseball’s Grim Reaper, determined to remind everyone about the cavalcade of people these flailing teams had seen to the grave during their long championship droughts. A robed Joe Buck presided over Fox’s organ music, over graphics about milk prices and historical events, over an army of grasping, rotted skeletons as his face melted into a flaming skull, his unearthly cackling interrupted only by a quick primer on Jon Lester’s inability to throw to first.
Fox loads another jittering newsreel from Olden Times as Joe Buck cackles 
maniacally over B-roll of coffins, crypts, and cemeteries 

The Cubs had spent the entire playoffs manhandled by Cleveland’s pitching, particularly Corey Kluber, Cody Allen, and Andrew Miller, the loose-limbed lefty who had been so unhittable in the playoffs that the announcers had begun to allude to him like he was some dread scourge from over the hills even though he looks like a scruffy human muppet. Miller and Allen lurked in every game like the monsters from medieval maps, and every team knew that as soon as the Indians had the lead, their bullpen arms would come in and slowly squeeze the outs out of them in the most demoralizing way possible.

The Map of Cubs Playoff Baseball Pitching Creatures includes Kluber, Miller, Allen, Bumgarner, 
Matt Moore, Rich Hall, and Theoretically Clayton Kershaw 

In Game Seven, the Cubs finally got to them: they hammered Kluber, and when the Dread Scourge Andrew Miller came in, the Cubs’ grizzled Mendoza Line catcher who had been violently head-bonked by an errant Lester cutter in the top half of the inning launched a dinger to straight away center. There's something about playoff baseball that does not only involve hitting, pitching, and bullying a nebbishy fan into going into witness protection; if it does not, as we as rational people know, involve communion with some sort of unholy forces, the pressure packed games do everything they can to simulate that feeling. And with these two miserable, exhausted catastrophist fanbases, the forces swirling over Progressive Field appeared to be the baseball equivalent of the green mist from the DeMille Ten Commandments. 

The Cubs, who had seized control of the game from the Cleveland Arm Hydra, seemed about to cruise to victory. Then, things took a turnJoe Posnanski once referred to Tony La Russa as "the Mozart of overmanagers," but Maddon's bullpen theatrics rated at least a Salieri.  He quickly pulled Kyle Hendricks for Lester and then put an overworked Aroldis Chapman on the mound.  Chapman,  shaky and gumby-armed, gave up a dramatic two-run homer to that base-stealing slap hitter Rajai Davis that flew over the fence in left field and then split into subatomic baseball particles to lodge themselves in the panic center of Cubs fans' guts. This was it. The Pandora's Box of Cub Playoff Failures had opened and there were goats and cats and Alex S. Gonzalezes rampaging all over the field preparing to drag the greatest Cubs team we are likely to ever see down out of Progressive Field and into Fox Baseball Tragedy B Roll for future playoff appearances. 

And then it was Cleveland's turn to knot their stomachs and clutch at their Omar Vizquel autobiography, The Institgation of Vigilante Beanballism, and watch the Cubs snag two more runs in the inning. But it was World Series Hero Rajai Davis coming up with another RBI to halve the lead, and the giant rat mascot from the 1908 World Series burrowed up from center field, spitting poison on the thousands of Cubs fans in the stands. Finally, Mike Montgomery induced a ground ball, the Contrived Curse of Someone Named Rocky Covalito We're Really Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel Here roared and the Cubs won the goddamned World Series in an amazing game designed to kill remaining fans of the Cubs and Indians that had not already died of natural causes during their championship droughts.

I can't believe it either 

The result of this ludicrous baseball ordeal is that the Cubs finally won a World Series. Whatever miserable mumbo-jumboism fueled the hysterical Cubs pessimism is gone, the dread accompanying every playoff appearance no longer exists, and the morbid misery accompanying every strikeout and double play grounder and awful only the Cubs could do this error has been banished for at least the next 25 years. Now they are merely a wealthy, well-run team set up to contend for the near future and almost certainly become widely loathed in the process. Thank goodness.