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.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

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 MOST IMPORTANT GAME OF THE YEAR 

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. 

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