Friday, September 29, 2017

Northwestern Reduces MAC Team to Subatomic Football Particles

Northwestern faced down a nailbiter against Nevada and suffered a humiliating blowout against their equally historically inept ACC Doppelgangers Duke, and then in the middle of the first quarter the Bowling Green Falcons scored a touchdown, the lights dimmed, the representatives for Viscount Claw's Imitation Imitation Crab Meat Bowl got on the next train to West Lafeyette, and the icy hand of football terror throttled the crowd.

Then Northwestern responded with a bomb to Bennett Skowronek and more or less annihilated Bowling Green from the face of the Earth with a display of football brutality rarely seen except against the FCS teams that don't beat them.  They defeated the Falcons for the first time ever and finally shut up the Bowling Green fans who been assailing Northwestern with signs, parades, and continuous aggressive skywriting to crow about the famous Motor City Bowl upset in 2003 for fourteen years.
One of the many monuments to that famous Motor City Bowl victory 
that dots the Bowling Green campus

In this early going, it remains nearly impossible to tell what kind of team to expect every week.  The Wildcats looked bedraggled and listless in two of their three games.  The bye week has helped give them an opportunity to prepare for upcoming games against juggernauts Wisconsin and Penn State and time to build cornerbacks out of wire and straw after hemorrhaging them in these early weeks.


Every five or six years the Wisconsin badgers send a non-conference cornerback down an elevator shaft in a sweatshirt upon which is written in blood "Now I have a quarterback. Ho ho ho."  Wisconsin doesn't traditionally need a quarterback because the Badgers' preferred method on offense is to assemble a literal ton of offensive linemen and have them carry their opponents around for an hour in their dank armpits.  The Wisconsin quarterback's usual job is to bark incomprehensible football jargon in the huddle, hand it off to the running back, throw it around every once in awhile to make sure everyone's paying attention, and then play for 10-15 years in the NFL as a backup to a hall-of-famer. 

The Badgers may have a more dangerous option under center with a person who is somehow, impossibly named Alex Hornibrook.  Hornibrook has looked great as the Badgers have spent their non-conference schedule on a merciless rampage through the state of Utah.  They too have had a bye week to try to solve Northwestern's confoundingly inconsistent attack and for their linemen to absorb the bodies of lesser linemen.

Wisconsin's passing firepower will test Northwestern's bruised and battered secondary.  In addition to Hornibrook, the Badgers will send out star tight end Troy Fumigali, Jazz Peavy, and freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who looks terrifyingly capable of zooming all over the field while opposing defenders recover from grisly steamroller injuries.  The Badgers return a typically stout defense; we can all rest easy that they appear to have finally exhausted their supply of Watt brothers, although even as we speak, Wisconsin scientists are somehow hoping to roll out an even larger, stronger Watt with a squarer haircut and a even more monomaniacal devotion to football that will cause him to break out of the research area and go on a horrifying fundamentally-sound tackling spree across the greater Dane County area while he is hunted down by the only people who can stop him: the Watt Brothers but don't worry they are also watching film while they are hunting down their evil clone and carrying tires around with them the whole time because training never stops.
Scientists publicly claim that the Fourth Watt Brother remains theoretical


My favorite moment in Mistaken for Strangers, the 2013 Rock and Roll/Sibling Resentment Documentary is when Tom Berninger, the film's director and The National frontman Matt Berninger's brother who has joined the band's tour as a charmingly incompetent roadie, has evidently misplaced the guest list for an LA show.

It's the presence of the "Lost Cast Members" and Matt Berninger's perfect bug-eyed Looney Tunes take that sells the whole thing to me.  Werner Herzog would later have his revenge on The National by threatening them with elaborate music video setups.  “I want to put the whole band on a live volcano, very close to the lava. I want it to be very dangerous for you, and I want to see you try to play your instruments while the lava  is all around you,” is what Matt Berninger claimed Herzog told him in an interview.
HERZOG: I would like to film the National playing their songs while 
rancid pies fly into their face with expired whipped cream exploding 
into their mouths and nostrils. I would like to see The National run 
through an album while wearing helmet-beakers and trying to fill it 
with fluid from water balloons.  I would like to film the National taking 
on the Aggro Crag.

The story of Mistaken for Strangers is this: Matt (I'd like to think that the Berninger Boys would be ok going through the rest of this review on a first-name basis), invites his brother, an aspiring filmmaker with a back catalog of homicidal maniac movies, to join the band on tour to bond and get him out of his parents' house.  Tom brings a camera and films himself asking band members inane questions ("do you bring your wallet onstage?") and irritating the band's tour manager by filming, pilfering booze, and genially breaking things.

Tom, who has prepared himself for rock and roll debauchery, is stuck with The National, a band whose greatest excesses may involve indulging on designer neckware and who write sad dad songs about how sometimes it is sad to be a dad.

Somehow, this is not the only unconventional documentary about the National, which is good because a normal talking head documentary where, for example, every baby boomer band talks about listening to the Beatles before they cut to that same clip of Ed Sullivan saying Ladies and Gentleman the Beatles like it's enshrined on a fucking code of Hammurabi before spending the rest of the film talking about how they turned all of their money into cocaine and mustaches and then spent the 1980s assembling legal teams to send threats about karate chopping each other until they run out of money and reunite, the National would probably talk about how they fought for months about a mix and also one time Interpol was in their practice space and Spin Magazine took pictures of them in their suits.  A Skin, A Night, Vincent Moon's earlier film about their Boxer album, mainly involves impressionistic slow pans across bus windows, recording equipment, and intense, flaring nostrils and contains zero Lost cast members.

Mistaken for Strangers is not about rock music or touring or hanging out backstage with a group of extremely 2010-era sitcom stars but about aging past creative dreams while your droll, persnickety brother somehow becomes a global rock star.  The film works as an origin story for itself as Tom gradually figures out that this is what is film is and manages to transcend himself while continuing to fall into reliably oafsih fuckups (according to this interview, for example, the first thing Tom did on tour was to ram a truck into an awning in front of an awning store.  This is not in the movie).  The most affecting part of the film, to me, is occurs when the brothers are able to bond over The National's early failure to attract any audience for years.  There's an anecdote that Matt Berninger tells about The National rehearsing in the same building as Interpol watch their neighboring band posing in their sharp suits for Spin while The National remain unable to get a gig.  Berninger has told this story in so many interviews that I have started to think about it like a Charles Atlas cartoon that involves the National getting revenge by walking into a Brooks Brothers.

Last time Northwestern played in Madison resulted in one of the most insane football games I've witnessed.  They played in a the aftermath of a snowstorm, in freezing cold and it ended with the referees taking away a game-winning Badger touchdown in a hail of angry snowballs.  Last year, the Badgers managed their first win at Ryan Field in the twenty-first century despite being favored against Northwestern, I would assume, in literally every single one of those games.  Both teams are entering Big Ten play to resolve questions: Wisconsin on whether Hornibrook will finally be the element to lead them to the Playoff, Northwestern on whether they have managed to overcome another early-season disappointment and find the offense that they managed against a wretched and miserable Bowling Green team far removed from their Motor City Bowl glory days.  The Wildcats face two very good teams and we'll see if they can regain some bowl traction or limp through the season trying to salvage whatever bowl and hat they can muster.

Friday, September 15, 2017


Northwestern survived a shaky opening game and went to Durham to prove that they would not repeat last year's out of conference nightmare that changed season from one where they hoped to compete for a division title to one that involved scrapping for bowl contention.  Instead, they went to Duke and got run over by trucks.

Foiled once again by the Duke Boys

The 42-17 bludgeoning at the hands of Duke promises a repeat of last year's season where a disastrous start to the season somehow turned into a feisty run through the dregs of the Big Ten to a Pinstripe Bowl Championship.  The revamped schedule only has one more non-conference game that could turn into white knuckle terror before the 'Cats have to face the two most terrifying games on their schedule.  Meanwhile, Illinois has shown alarming signs of football competence and Purdue has thrown away its staid old playbook of painting tunnels on the side of a cliff and then running into it to a series of plays where Purdue runs triple-reverse flea flickers at all times and distributes propaganda leaflets to opposing defenses that sow confusion and dissent while the Purdue quarterback strolls towards the endzone.  P.J. Fleck now coaches Minnesota with the insane stare of a man who has literally paid $100,000 to continue yelling at people to row the boat; I don't know what Fleck means by Row the Boat, but there are few things more dangerous than a football coach with a monomaniacal mantra that is now his intellectual property.

Fleck explains that part two in the Row the Boat Process is The Boat

The Big Ten West looks far more dangerous than it did a year ago, and after two games Northwestern's path to its most important goal, a berth in the Go Ahead and Bite It Attack Dog Arm Protector Bowl has become fraught.


Pat Fitzgerald shouldered past the dial-a-down. Planning on taking it one game at a time. Sound practice advocated by such diverse football tacticians as George Halas, Bum Phillips, Dr M.H.H. Rarritt advertising on the back pages of Football Man's Advocate PO Box 412. One game at a time makes sense, temporally; no madman could possibly play two games at the same time, two fields, two quarterbacks, two head coaches and replay officials, all jumbled in the same corner of space-time, unfathomable. If that happened, Pat, you'd have a much larger problem than the Wisconsin Badgers is what the professor professed at him when he pulled him aside and very quietly inquired about the physics of taking it two or even three games at a time. You can't do that, young men, he told them every day at camp, halfglassesed, chalksmeared. He suspected Mick McCall thought otherwise, but the two had decided not to discuss theoretical physics, not again.

DURHAM-- The blue-clad spectators indulged in their joyous Satanic rituals as they watched their Blue Devils make minced-meats upon the hapless Wild Cat of Northwestern.  They rejoiced as their heftiest Dukemen tossed aside Northwestern's line men, sacked their quartered-backs, and browbeat them with a variety of approved touchdown dances.

The grisly rampage took place in front of a group of Duke notables: the Vice Chancellor, the Bursar, the Acting Bursar, the Landlord Shelden Williams, Three Cameron Crazies, A Duplicate Krzyzewski-- one of many deployed against the numerous attempts to kidnap or poison him upon the Tobacco Road, an Eminent Professor of Semiotics, a Slightly Less Eminent Professor of Semiotics who is preparing a devastating attack upon his colleague in Fightnote: The Journal of Learned Insults, the Committee for the Ducolax Opiod Related Constipation Bowl.

(Grabs his wrist, his face in strained gutshot pantomime.) Held. Held. Armpinioned and engulfed.

(Stonefaced. Staring at the dial-a-down.)

(Makes a series of pained referee gestures). Rough-tackled. Illegally celebrated. Persecuted for false targeting. 

(A gargoyle.)

(Its tongue lolling, its eyebrows arched. inflated by some sort of sulphurous gas as it sways side to side). HISS HISS

(Logs on.) Unacceptable. Horrifying. Fire him. Siege his office and take his memorabilia.

(Also logs on.) Fire him. Roast him. Slash him with an iron claw.

(Shimmers through carbon fiber.) Disgraceful. Unimaginable. An appalling and low moment to the program, that this Pat Fitzgerald would present himself in front of America and his God in short pants.

(Whips computer mouse around in a threatening nunchuk pattern). Scratch him. Fight him.

(Breaks keyboard in half with his forehead). Claw him. Bite him.

The shorts are not only the sartorial choice of a languorous child, they present numerous tactical disadvantages vis. exposure of the knee to the elements.

(Rides through the Canyon of Heroes brandishing his Pinstripe Bowl trophy.)

(Throws newspapers. Strains to get a glimpse, dangerously halfway through a window, beckons to a coworker to hold on so he does not go plummeting into the Canyon of Heroes himself.)

(Sells bootleg Pinstripe Bowl merchandise that contains the misprint Pinstripe Bowel to throngs of fans shaking money.)

(Bestows on FITZGERALD  the key to New York, awarded for winning the city's most prestigious Sports Championship.)

(On the dais, sweating, howling as a MIKE GOLIC buds off of him.) Mike?

(Coming into being.) Thanks, Mike.

I have read that Nick Saban often wears two pairs of pants. Even if, during the course of a game, his pants become ripped, soiled, or otherwise damaged, he has with him an entire extra set of pants.

(Waterskis through the Canyon of Heroes). Trousers? Slacks? Hot pants? This isn't haberdashery. This isn't fine Italian silks. This isn't monocle accessories. You go and you get the dang ball. This is football, gentlemen. Page 27, from Gentleman, Comma by Ron Zook.




Knute Rockne never wore regular pants, but had surplus US Army tents cut down and made into specialty Coaching Pants. For it was a different game back then, when spectators would lunge, attempting to take the opposing coach's pants as a trophy. Vincent Lombardi sewed his pants into his legs, and they could only be changed via a painful surgical procedure.

We will take it one more game at a time I promise.

(Assembles unwieldy mound of charts and books.) R. Deborah Pwy, "Football Time, Football Space," the Journal of Coaching Science; J.A. Shermanesque, "A Theoretical Construct of Two Games at a Time," International Review of Time-Game Literature; Chasen Mantis, "What If They Play No Games at a Time Did I Just Blow Your Mind," No Way/Way. 

It is the sound conclusion of the scientific community.


Here's an interesting and reassuring fact about Northwestern's UNDER THE LIGHTS clash against the Bowling Green Falcons: Northwestern has never beaten them.  They have only played twice-- once in a November shootout that they lost 43-42, and another in the ill-fated 2003 Motor City Bowl, at that point the lowest ebb of Northwestern's bowl loss streak that wasted a 237-yard day from running back Jason Wright.  I expect to see an intimidating flock of Falcons fans descending upon Ryan Field with numerous reproductions of the Motor City Bowl trophy.

There are dedicated football wonks who have film and two-deeps and sophisticated computer rankings about Bowling Green, but these types of games represent opportunities to project the hopes and fears for the coming Big Ten season.  I don't know whether Bowling Green has a good defense, but I do know that if Northwestern continues to struggle running the ball against them it bodes ill for a coming clash with the literal tons of Wisconsin linemen.  I have no idea what Bowling Green's offense looks like, but it will be encouraging if the limping, wounded remnant of Northwestern's flight-suited Sky Team manages to match up with their receivers before Trace McSorley comes to town.  I have no idea if Northwestern can get over psychological mind games that the Falcons will certainly use from the 14-year-old bowl humiliation, but that sort of thing is crucial when it comes to overcoming Fleck's boat taunts not to mention the crucial contest for The Hat. 

Northwestern remains, for some reason, heavily favored once again, when the lights and the cameras of Big Ten Network Regional Coverage will be on them once again as they attempt to defeat the Bowling Green Falcons for the first time.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Northwestern and Duke Face Off Again, I Guess

Football returned to Ryan Field in a fanfare of bands, pyrotechnics, parachutists, and the one red firework they shoot off when they get to the rocket's red glare part of the anthem that always looks like it's going to hit one of the parachutists in a grisly act of errant patriotism. Then the Northwestern Wildcats went out there heavily favored against Nevada and won a football game to a concerned, grim-faced crowd.

Northwestern fends off the Wolf Pack

Nevada frustrated the Wildcats all afternoon.  They took a lead into halftime and the game remained tense until Northwestern sniffed out the last remnants of a Nevada comeback by smothering the quarterback on a fourth-and-one.  The Wildcats won, but had issues up front on both sides and continued to hemorrhage defensive backs.  Marcus McShepard and Brian Bullock both left the game, and the team announced that Keith Watkins will miss the whole season again. Northwestern remained determined to stick with its vague, hockeyish injury reports in the tradition of coaches waging asymmetrical information wars.  Last week, for example, John Harbaugh and Jim McElwain engaged in a ridiculous, petty battle about naming the actual players on their football teams, with Harbaugh suggesting that he might send buses full of dummy players that have never played football before to stand around in terror in kickoff formation before the actual Michigan players who have been living in Arlington Stadium for months building a subterranean tunnel society would burst from the ground, dragging the Gators into a hollowed out cavern because Harbuagh believed his team had the advantage closer to the Earth's Core.

Harbaugh and McElwain continue their mind games, 
with McElwain refusing to look at Harbaugh and 
Harbaugh using a fake hand so that Florida can't use the 
contours of his palm print to divine any information about 
defensive formations

There is no such thing as a disappointing win at Northwestern.  The Committee will not be looking for style points, betting lines, or body clocks when they select the participants for the DoubleWide Extra Large Men's Pant Bowl.  Northwestern's preseason hopes did not instantaneously evaporate like last year in a slow motion football bouncing off a goalpost in a cacophony of FCS cackling.  Northwestern won.  In a sport where wins and losses often turn on a kick here, a pick there, or a quarterback attempting to run for a two-point conversion instead but then opting for a two-cheek conversion when he falls upon his butt, there is no reason not to hoard every win.  Let the pollsters and the committees and the BCS computers that are still in a basement threatening each other with modem noises worry about all of that.  The Northwestern Wildcats are undefeated.


Duke is probably the closest thing to a non-conference rival the Wildcats can muster.  The teams have played eighteen times since  1985, with the woeful 1980s Northwestern teams supplying an easy W for Steve Spurrier and Northwestern grabbing crucial, Royal George Gout Balm Bowl-qualifying wins over a nominal power five opponent this century.  Despite the frequency of play and the schools similar enough to provoke the narcissism of small differences that fuels college football hatred, the teams have not really built up a decent amount of enmity.  Perhaps it is because the teams remain preoccupied by their own conference rivalries. Perhaps it is because both schools await the appearance of a heroic Beckman figure to inexplicably to come out of the mist with clocks and signs of the team's logo with a slash through it.  Most likely, it is because the entire sports energy of Duke University involves bracing themselves against the endless onslaught of people despising the basketball team more or less continuously for decades, for standing in ad-hoc tent cities to get tickets to an ACC game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and for working on a serum to make sure Coach K's face does not freeze like that.

Northwestern and Duke football don't have much a rivalry because Duke fans don't seem to care much about their football team and Northwestern fans know deep down that the conditions are ripe for any lasting sports success to provoke to type of ire felt by Duke basketball.  Northwestern got a small taste of it last year; their foray into the NCAA tournament sparked in some quarters an almost immediate backlash, not least because of a homeopathic amount of Dukery in the basketball team.  

Duke will not inspire parade floats, memes, or shrieking mania at Wallace Wade stadium this Saturday.  What it will do, though, is determine the course Northwestern's season.  The Wildcats have ambitions to compete at the top of the Big Ten West this season.  A win at Duke and then in an inexplicable night game against Bowling Green will have them at 3-0 heading into games against Big Ten colossi Wisconsin and Penn State.  A win against either of those teams could set the Wildcats up for another run.  A loss at Duke probably means the 'Cats should settle in for another season heroically scrapping their way to bowl contention and clinging to the Hat, the glorious default position of twenty-first-century Northwestern football.


We all thought we could sleep safely at night from the malcontents that have now turned baseball from a bucolic national pastime into a terrifying den of cybercrimes ever since the Cardinals guy got caught for doing elite hacks like remembering that the password was Eckstein123.  But every day baseball's cybercriminals are jacking themselves into mainframes, banging on keyboards, and yelling I'M IN, which is exactly what all of the crusty old sports columnists who are wearing a men's hat in their photos taken in 1987 tried to warn us all about when they got really irate about spreadsheets.

This week, the New York Yankees accused the Boston Red Sox of stealing their signs by wearing a post-human cyber-watch device.  It remains unclear exactly how they processed the signals, but studies show that the most likely thing that happened is that Red Sox manager John Farrell immediately saw the entire field exactly like how we all assumed computers would see things in the 1980s, and he used the gridlines and blocky text to decode the Yankees' complex baseball stratagems.  The Red Sox  countered with allegations that the Yankees had developed nanobots capable of living within Red Sox players and coaches for the entire season, transmitting all of their biometric data to a supercomputer that could determine what pitch they would throw before they even threw it, before the pitcher and catcher and pitching coach had met on the mound and talked gravely into their mitts about Pitch Selection.  As we speak, every major league team has interns talking to sophisticated AI programs that can at any moment turn sentient and develop opinions on bat flips.

This is what baseball looks like now 

Baseball players have been cheating from time immemorial.  Baseball's cybercheating is easily the best kind because it riles up the sport's stodgerati who have spent more than a century imbuing a goofy spitting sport with all sorts of bogus moral frippery so hoary that they probably use the word "manful" and perpetuating the myth of fake baseball player "Mickey Mantle," who was originally drawn on a cocktail napkin by Bob Costas in 1987. Decades from now, our crusty baseball columnists will look back with nostalgia at how the Red Sox used a smart watch with the sort of rogueish √©lan that we associate with baseball teams that used binoculars or electric boxes or staged elaborate train robberies as a distraction to steal crucial early baseball information technology such as tobacco covered notebooks that said an opposing player probably had a wicked curved-ball based on the way his brow ridges demonstrated a most unsavory propensity towards deceit and guile and also we heard he has a mustache. 


There are a million articles now on the internet on the grim, foreboding death march of the NFL. It is difficult to tell how much of that is the columnist's solipsism or if the decline of the NFL also fits with larger trends in sports- and television-watching habits and has nothing to do with the league itself.  It is overwhelmingly tempting to point to issues with the NFL, though, because the NFL is the most insane sports league on the planet.  There’s a case to be made that all professional sports resemble a corporate retreats department accidentally showered with billions of dollars; the NFL is the only league that wants to subsume the entire sport into the corporation itself with its dress codes and constant injection of staid legalism and the way everyone involved with it speaks in an incomprehensible business-violence jargon. The league is controlled by 32 men who all demand to be referred to as “Mister” with all of them yelling at everyone at all times that they were sent here by Mitch and Murray.  The NFL is the only sports league in the world that is constantly investigating.

The NFL is rife with problems: the sobering reality of the damage the sport causes to players and the sickening way the league has tried to cover it up, the unending, replay-ridden games, the attacks on anything fun or expressive to the point where a league document has, without further explanation, specifically banned "incredible hulk," and alliance with the absolute dumbest shit imaginable at all times.  All of this has been the problem with the NFL forever.  The major issue now is that your team is almost certainly dogshit because there are like eight guys in the world capable of playing quarterback and without one of them the team you like descends into a stark exhibition of Bortleism.

A solemn Goodell steps to the podium, for another 
press conference about the latest NFL imbroglio. 
"You may not incredible hulk," he says.  "No questions." 

The Bears engineered a ridiculous quarterback controversy by spending a princely sum on shitty backup quarterback Mike Glennon and then, without informing him, traded up in the draft to select Mitch Trubisky as the Quarterback of the Future. Glennon already had a tough road in Chicago; Glennon is the apotheosis of shitty backup quarterbacking not only because he is stiff, inaccurate, and saddled with a remainder pile receiving corps but also because he looks like a gangly doofus. It is not Mike Glennon’s fault that he was put in this situation, paid an enormous and unfathomable sum of money and then more or less instantaneously replaced by someone who has not lurched around the NFL for several years ineffectively, nor is it his fault that he looks to me like the long-necked monster from the little-seen movie Big Man Japan about a guy whose duty it is to step into an enormous set of underpants and get shocked into turning into a giant superhero tasked with battling a bunch of grotesque monsters attacking Tokyo.

Glennon did not help his cause by entering the preseason and immediately performing a Medley of Historical Bears Quarterbacking while Trubisky looked great.  All season long, Glennon and dead-end coach John Fox will hear a nonstop nasal bray about playing that Trubinsky kid (Trubinsky is his Chicago Sports Talk Radio Caller Name, it's in his football contract) every time Glennon comes in and does the type of football fuckup that everyone expects from Mike Glennon.  No one is happier than Chicago's sports columnists, a cottage industry with a job description that is literally complaining about the Bears' quarterback; this has kept them employed long past the existence of newspapers.  At some point Trubisky will get his chance, whether from pressure or from Glennon accidentally wrapping himself around the field goal pole.  Who knows if Trubisky represents an actual Bears quarterback or if he will be, like the dozens of and dozens of men before him swept into the giant dustbin of Bears quarterbacks.  My prediction is that he will be great, amazing for one season before football is immediately and probably rightly banned and we all go around ashamed we ever watched it and him, that Trumbinskly Kid, maybe could have gone to the Super Bowl, if we all didn't immediately decide to stop watching a horrifying bacchanalia of violence designed to sell trucks.


Finally, here is your college football internet posting hype video for 2017.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Portents and Signs

There is no shortage of radio callers and message board maniacs that would take a 7-6 football season and berth in the NCAA Men’s Tournament as an invitation to launch an entire wing of prop planes with increasingly unhinged demands to fire a Gary Oldmanish everyone at their school. This is the Golden Age of Northwestern sports.

Northwestern returns with all the pomp one would expect from the Pin Striped-Bowl Champions, with a life-size replica of Justin Jackson erected in Monument Park and Pat Fitzgerald appearing at Pittsburgh, as bowl tradition dictates, to dress like an umpire and scream YER OUTTA HERE (IN REFERENCE TO THE PINSTRIPE BOWL) at the Panthers while doing burnouts on their practice field in a custom-built Pinstripe Champion bullpen car.

Pat Fitzgerald engages in the traditional spoils of the Pinstripe Bowl 

Northwestern’s triumphant sports mediocrity has not happened in isolation but from an attempt to operate like a major athletic conference sports school instead of a program for wayward youth to build character through getting run over and dunked upon. Scaffolding has sprung up across the campus watered by a money hose. Northwestern is building a ludicrous quarter-billion-dollar luxury sports fortress along the lake. The basketball team has been forced to a suburban arena for monster trucks, wrestling, and people dressed as monster trucks who wrestle at each other in a production of Grave Digger: The Grave Musical to make room for renovations so they can renovate Welsh-Ryan with things like chairs while sacrificing the crucial home advantage that comes from forcing opposing teams to get onto the court by shouldering past the hot dog line.

Welsh-Ryan Arena, shown before renovations began just before a 
Big Ten contest

Northwestern football has been at least consistently decent for nearly a quarter century.  The basketball team appears to be moving in the same direction.  An entire generation of visiting fans may be growing up seeing Northwestern win bowl games and play in a basketball arena without cigarette machines and in a football stadium with gleaming, gilded tarps and actually believe that their team could lose.  At that moment, it is possible that Northwestern will have lost its way, that the entire mission of sports at the university could have faded from its highest ideal, which is treading on its shitty sports history of crappiness to make opposing fans really, really mad.


They are supposed to be good.  SBNation has them raked #23.  The AP Poll has them just outside the Top 25.  They return a promising quarterback, a stout secondary, and one of the greatest running backs in school history.  They miss Ohio State and Michigan and the Big Ten West remains the province of dreams where anything is possible.  Illinois has been cowed back to Memorial Stadium after their last attempt to play at Soldier Field, embarrassed by a legion of dozens of Chicago's Big Ten fans in mewling purple showed up to take up several rows.  This is dangerous territory.

If you are like me and prefer to take something as frivolously enjoyable as sports fandom and inject it with doom and dread, then it is not hard to see problems on the horizon.  Northwestern has more often than not sputtered after putting together big seasons. Last year, the Wildcats followed up a ten-win season with an inexplicable 9-7 loss to an Illinois State team clawing at the coffin lid of the Missouri Valley Conference.  The last ten-win season spawned a preseason ranking and ESPN College Gameday matchup with Ohio State  that turned into a horrifying death spiral; the Wildcats lost that game and literally every other game until they managed to walk off with a consolation Hat.
A person with a sign saying that "the Exaltation of Mercury shows that 
Northwestern won't even go to the Meineke Car Care Bowl" was 
escorted from the Gameday set, the warning unheeded

College football remains unpredictable game by game.  Northwestern's disastrous five-win 2013 season involved a three game stretch where they lost in overtime, in triple overtime, and on a hail mary pass by a quarterback named Ron Kellogg III who earned that suffix as Nebraska's third-choice signal caller.  The 2015 ten-win campaign involved close wins from a failed two-point conversion, James Franklin's avant-garde time management style, and referees simply refusing to award points to Wisconsin that incited the Badger crowd into attacking them with a barrage of snowballs.  There's an entire school of analytical thought dedicating to pooh-poohing the results of individual games that are determined by small sample freak events like fumble recoveries, missed field goals, and players falling down and clutching at their hamstrings over the hushed, lilting tones of Fox's injured player version of the Football Robot Murder March before playing a bunch of commercials for truck boner dorito pills.  The entirety of college football is an epistemological project proving that human beings cannot actually determine whether football teams are better than each other.

After a long and fruitful discussion, two college football fans agree on 
the importance of Conference Championships in the Playoff Picture

In this uncertain sports environment, it is silly to try to make predictions.  Northwestern's star linebacker Anthony Walker has gone to the NFL, picked by the Colts through the inscrutable whim of an orangutan.  Clayton Thorson will face a challenge in the passing game without Austin Carr, a receiver who was always open, caught everything, and drew the attention of defenses who by the end of the season were covering him the way Illinois law enforcement covered the Blues Brothers.  These are not cause for panic-- the Wildcats have stalwarts returning like all-everything safety Godwin Igwebuike and exciting up and comers like Montre Hartage and Joe Gaziano, the Scourge of East Lansing.  They still have Justin Jackson The Ball Carrier who has spent the summer attempting to track down wayward Pittsburgh players who have been wandering Eastern Seaboard after becoming too confused by his juking maneuvers to find their way out of Yankee Stadium.

I haven't run the numbers.  I haven't analyzed the schedule.  I have not pored over depth charts, watched filmed, attended practice sessions, disguised myself as Skip Myslanski and attempted to gain intelligence on the team by pretending I am writing an iambic pentameter poem about field goal holding techniques. There is no insight here beyond an irrational sports pessimism.  That is counterproductive.  There's no point attempting to shield oneself from disappointment when it comes to college football, where the worst outcome is have an Iowa fan sneer at you triumphantly in the parking lot.  It is time to be equally irrationally positive.  So here's the season preview.  Wisconsin? Divided in two and run blocked into Lakes Mendota and Menona.  Penn State? Remember when Vanderbilt sort of abruptly canceled a game with Northwestern when the SEC schedule changed and everyone was upset about that for some reason?  Well, the mighty Wildcat will not forget, as Northwestern players burst from the tunnel crying for vengeance, specifically in reference to football scheduling procedures for the 201 and 2014 seasons.  Nebraska?  We will see how the Cornhuskers play under the pressure of playing in front of their fans as opposed to at Ryan field where they also play in front of slightly fewer of their fans.  

The Wildcats will, according to my proprietary HOKUM model, run roughshod all over the Big Ten, leave the Hat safely ensconced in its guarded, climate-controlled Hat Chamber, and be good enough to force irritated college football pundits to have to get yelled at about them when they start inexplicably releasing meaningless Playoff Rankings because the college football media is entirely dependent on yelling about meaningless rankings for weeks at a time and so will I, traveling through American cities with a bullhorn demanding that the Playoff Committee take note of Opponent Schedule, Second-Half Hot Dog Shortages, and Body Clocks.


Prohibition lives on in the popular imagination as a time of rum-running, bootlegging, speakeasies, and gangsters who all talk like Edward G. Robinson all the time, just a mass of hardened criminals in pinstripe suits all staring at each other through sliding peepholes with hot jazz inaudible under the din of guys saying myaah.  This is a romanticized version of it, but people do get the general sense of the problem of trying to ban alcohol through the rule of law, of trying to enforce it through officials who may like to drink themselves, of creating an entire class of casual criminals who have probably already been punished by drinking corn mash fermented in an old sock.  

The Soviet Union tried to curtail drinking in the 1980s.  Stephen White's 1996 monograph Russia Goes Dry examines the Soviet anti-alcohol campaign with an academic flourish of figures and numbers.  White remains concerned with studying the anti-alcohol campaign as a critique of Soviet campaigns against social ills.  He susses out patterns, examines difficulties of enforcing campaigns over sprawling localities, and looks at societies, journals, and posters.  

Posters from London's Pushkin House exhibition on 
anti-alcohol campaign posters

White and the Russian sources he cites struggle to identify consumption statistics.  Soviet statisticians included alcohol in broad categories such as "other foodstuffs" during the 1960s; White cites scholars that surveyed emigres or extrapolating from earlier categories of expenditures.  The Soviet government found that alcohol had a twin problem-- White estimates that in the 1960s and 1970s, alcohol taxes provided about a third of all government revenues but meted out a staggering cost in lost productivity, health, and even security. For example, White describes a Soviet crew in Czechoslovakia that bartered its tank for several cases of vodka, pickles, and herring; the bar owner then sold the tank to a recycling plant.

The Politburo announced an anti-alcohol campaign in 1985.  White stresses that the Politburo remained divided.  Mikahil Gorbachev came on board.  The most zealous anti-alcohol crusader was Yegor Ligachev, a teetotaler who had long desired to curb drunkenness.  The campaign was met with internal opposition from other officials who felt that the campaign was misguided or ill-planned-- one minister resigned, and Boris Yeltsin later wrote that the campaign was "amazingly ill-conceived and ridiculous" and that he "could not reconcile [himself] to [Ligachev's] obstinacy and dilettantism."

The campaign limited the supply of alcohol in stores, cracked down on homebrewing, and released a large number of posters involving bottles being crushed by hammers.  White claims that initially, the campaign did discourage drinking and manage to change some public attitudes.  But, within a few years, the campaign began to wane.  Homebrewing increased and led to vast quantities of sugar bought or even stolen.  Local Party officials varied wildly in enforcement.  In one Ukranian Village, local officials housed their own elaborate brewing apparatus described by Pravda as "45-degree first-grade hooch." The sober lifestyle had not caught on in Novosibirsk, where White notes that fewer than three percent of of Party members abstained; "A Communist is also a human being" was the local slogan.

The campaign faltered after several years.  Like in the United States, the attempt to reduce availability of alcohol sparked an enormous trade in illicit brewing.  The campaign also hurt revenue.  White notes that the government had planned to offset decreased spending on alcohol with increased spending on other goods, but the supply of these goods never materialized, and profits from alcohol sales ended up in the hands of private, illegal brewing concerns.  By 1988, one official critical of the policy had, according to White, referred to it as "a blunder unequaled since the time of the Sumerians."

Nevada comes off an uninspiring 5-7 season with new coach Jay Norvell and a new Air Raid-style scheme led by Matt Mumme, son of legendary Air Raid innovator Hal Mumme.  Northwestern is somehow favored by 24.5 points, although I should note that betting lines are meant to encourage betting on all sides and in this particular case to entrap people with gambling problems who would actually wager on a Northwestern vs. Nevada game.  The sun should be out.  The tarps will be gleaming.  Northwestern will be dressed head to toe in purple in a sponsorship arrangement with Dimetapp.  The videoboard is set to show us hundreds of images of Pat Fitzgerald's jaw jutting against an American flag.  It is football season again with all of the joy and disappointment and yelling and complete absurdity that entails.