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
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.
HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT
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.
HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT
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.
HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT
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.