Saturday, October 21, 2017

Undefeated All-Time Against Maryland

After back-to-back neck wringings at the hands of the Big Ten's top teams, Northwestern finally had a chance to test its mettle against a Big Ten team that will be scrapping around with them for a berth in the Yelling Fist Generic Flesh Colored Hulk Hands Bowl and they bulldozed through them with the assurance of a team that will get to six wins if they have to infiltrate Big Ten headquarters and rearrange the Big Ten's computerized punch cards.
A Big Ten technician adds the statistical
 data from last year's Northwestern-Michigan State 
game into the official database

Maryland seemed to have the Wildcats' number at first.  Star receiver D.J. Moore jetted through the Wildcats' defense, already depleted from injury and suspension for trying to tackle receivers through the inside of their chests.  But then the 'Cats came alive.  Maryland, down to a third-string quarterback named Bort Bortenschlagen could not move the ball, and Northwestern wore down their struggling defense by battering them with Justin Jackson.  What looked like another nail-biting game turned into a solid victory in the yet another chapter in this storied Big Ten football rivalry.

Jackson owned the day.  He broke the all-time school record for rushing, carried Northwestern to the win, and delivered impassioned French monologues about how the French word for touchdown is "touchdown."  Northwestern has had its share of great running backs in recent years, but Jackson may go down as the best.  Jackson is not a big back nor is he blindingly fast.  His specialty is poking and prodding through holes and shimmying away from contact.  Some of his most impressive runs have been in games where the offensive line has struggled against conference behemoths and he has had to dodge three or four tacklers just to get back to the line of scrimmage.  When he gets into the open field, he is shifty enough to bamboozle would-be tacklers into lunging at air.  Yet, Jackson's greatest attribute is probably his resilience.  There have been many games when the entire offensive game plan seems to have been to keep giving Jackson the ball against teams that have moved their entire defense into trenches surrounding the line of scrimmage and hope that it's enough to win the game.  It didn't always work-- that kind of thing can't work unless you're a Wisconsin team that has specifically engineered linemen from the largest and most virulent strains of locker room fungus available on the black market, but it takes a back like Jackson to make it a conceivable strategy.
That Pitt safety was absorbed into the grass of Yankee Stadium


One of the sad effects of the Big Ten's adoption of conferences has been to see the same teams every year.  In some ways it is a boon, especially since Northwestern plays in the blighted West, which reliably serves up the requisite three jabroni teams that keep Northwestern in low-tier bowl swag.  Conferences, though, have created six annual games, instead of the protected annual games that featured a mix of hated rivalries with trophies named for weaponry and farm implements and matchups generated more or less at random.  The conferences mean that Northwestern has to weather an irritating biennial Invasion of the Nebraska People and getting sat upon by Wisconsin every season.  It also means that the Wildcats are constantly playing Iowa.

I don't know what to make of Northwestern-Iowa matchups anymore.  Northwestern and Iowa should never be playing every year when they're both fighting for mid-tier bowl games.  They should appear like wraiths on the schedule in one of the years when one of the teams is good, waiting as a dangerous three-win team nonetheless hellbent on ruining their opponent's season.  Iowa or Northwestern should forget about each other's existence except when they're on an impossible Rose Bowl hunt and then fall into a trap door into filled with turnovers and overtimes and, to read on the internet the next day, a shameful bounty of uncalled holding penalties. 

Iowa lost CJ Beathard and talismanic cornerback Desmond King.  They still have their star linebacker, the comic book-named Josey Jewell.  And they still have Kirk Ferentz, their Forever Coach.  Ferentz has solidified his power by naming his eldest son Brian to the role of offensive coordinator.  He will supplement his coaching staff with other Ferentz from throughout the Spanish and Low Countries branches of the Ferentz family until college football is, like Europe in the early twentieth century, essentially a deteriorating mass of branches of the Ferentz weakened by generations of inbreeding until they all declare war on each other.
Guards come to escort Rolph Ferentz IV from the Sun Belt branch of 
the Ferentz Family to accept ULM's invitation to participate in the 2345 Belk Bowl

Is there a point to trying to predict an Iowa-Northwestern game?  Iowa sure looks like the better team. Northwestern is coming off its best performance of the year against an injury-ravaged Maryland team.  Iowa's only losses have been a near-upset of the same Penn State team that pulverized the Wildcats at Ryan Field and a narrow loss to a resurgent Michigan State.  The Hawkeyes will be looking for revenge after having their homecoming spoiled by Northwestern last year, but this game remains a big one for the Wildcats-- a loss keeps them scratching for three more wins against a putrid conference that might not be putrid enough.  A win might do what last year's game against Iowa did and wake them up from a disastrous non-conference performance that ended in the most famous Pin Stripe Bowl victory.  Either way, the unfortunately annual Iowa-Northwestern undoes the hoary maxim about familiarity breeding contempt.  Contempt grows best from rare meetings that end with recriminations and devastating quarterback injuries.


NBA analysis has changed from its original barebones boxscore to a cornucopia of fancy statistics, impressions gleaned from the numerous terminator cameras feeding biometric data to teams and to the per synergy sports bloggers, and, most importantly, running updates about the various feuds, social media kerfuffles, and free agency betrayals that pepper the NBA year-round and make it by far the most compelling sports league in this country.

There are, perhaps, basketball purists who sit around longing to root for crew-cutted ciphers who run pick-and-rolls and hoist jumpshots, for basketball broadcasts without allusions to a twitter war between opponents, or try to follow teams without learning which players’ embarrassing sexual peccadilloes have been instantaneously broadcast to a worldwide instagram audience.  For the rest of us, the NBA has become a glorious dunk-adjacent soap opera.

Every sports league has its outsized personalities, but the NBA sells them better than any league.  The NFL is dominated by its owners; every year, the major storylines involve some sort of rules conflict and the NFL meting out its own bizarre brand of football justice.  MLB's players remain in a weirdo Twilight Zone episode where overexuberance at doing things most normal people would find near-impossible is met by a hail of baseballs.  When I think of the culture of American baseball (if anything, the World Baseball Classic demonstrated that literally every other country seems to have way more fun playing baseball than the USA's square-jawed hall monitors), I think of John Lackey, a man who has taken his cues on manful stoicism from 80s action movies and speaks in a weird tough-guy argot that seems to be taken from a disastrous Stephen Seagal-penned Western.  

Imagine Seagal sitting atop a lifeless plastic horse in front of green 
screen wildly whipping the bridle around as he pretends to be chased
 by a ruthless gang of Bulgarian cattle rustlers

The NBA is rife with drama because players have been forming and reforming superteams and appearing to take things extremely personally.  Trust no NBA preview that doesn't feature a list of feuds boiled down like the incomprehensible What's Happening on Your Favorite Soaps columns that used to be in newspapers:

LeBron is feuding with former teammate Kyrie Iriving because Irving's inexplicable decision to wade unbidden into the waters of flat-Earth theories pre-empted LeBron's attempt to troll the media by earnestly speaking about the Mole People.  Chris Paul and Doc Rivers have been trading barbs in the media until they will finally reconcile years from now when they both simultaneously wheel and turn to belittle the same referee.  Tom Thibodeau is attempting to recreate his Bulls teams in Minnesota and is currently building his own Kirk Hinrich out of compression sleeves.  The Lakers drafted a player with a maniacal basketball stage dad who has already provoked a feud with LeBron.  LeBron, who is very busy, is also feuding with Comic Sans mortgage-goblin Dan Gilbert who is going around firing people like a mad emperor.  Carmelo Anthony finally accepted a trade after the Knicks' attempts to alienate him enough to waive his no-trade clause became increasingly indistinguishable from George Costanza's attempts to get fired from Play Now. 
Jackson torturing Anthony with his famous Zen koans such as "how 
shitty is Carmelo Anthony? Still here?"  Jackson left the Knicks to 
have several expensive surgeries that will transform him into a human triangle

At least the Three Alphas had an obvious tragic downfall.  The Bulls surrounded Jimmy Butler with combustible personalities with a poor fit on the court and the entire season was spent waiting for it to combust.  The collapse happened quickly-- Butler was shipped to Minnesota in a trade that immediately made living phrenology exhibit Gar Forman the laughingstock of the NBA, then the Bulls paid both Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo substantial sums of money to prevent them from playing for the Bulls again.
I don't think there will ever be a funnier self-inflicted sports
 nickname than the  Three Alphas

Last year's Bulls had infinitely more compelling drama of washed-up stars, a grotesque parody superteam scratching and clawing for the eight seed over the other shambling corpse teams in the Eastern Conference.  This year, they will be bad.  Barely anyone on this team is an NBA player; their best player is somehow still a guy recovering from knee surgery.  All of the Bulls' hopes lay in the spindly arms of Lauri Markkanen, a sweet-shooting Finnish beanpole who will spend the season being wrapped around the stanchion by bruising NBA forwards. The Bulls will likely be the worse team in the league, clobbered night in and night out, trying desperately to turn over a top-three draft pick to a front office so beleaguered that they have literally inspired a protest movement.

And yet!  This team, a team that featured players so anonymous that they were not issued their own jerseys on media day, that has been assembled to be the largest mass of humanity ever collectively dunked upon, is not content to get beaten by opponents.  They are instead beating upon each other.  Niko Mirotic, last seen being pulled from a rut five feet behind the three-point line, had his jaw broken in practice by Bobby Portis.  There is nothing funny about an altercation that lands someone in the hospital.  There is something vaguely amusing about thinking about Fred Hoiberg trying to stop this fight by repeatedly and ineffectively blowing a whistle.

The Bulls will be almost unwatchable this season, as abysmal as their post-Jordan unraveling that featured awful players like Dragan Tarlac, Marcus Fizer, and Fred Hoiberg.  The NBA's draft structure that rewards awful teams with the chance to draft superstars will change after this season to make it slightly harder for teams to guarantee high picks just for sucking.  This change has created a terrifying race to the bottom among the NBA's shittiest teams and has destroyed the entire point of basketball; bad teams are so desperate to be bad, especially this season, that any win that the Bulls get by running into a team ravaged by the flu or coming off a back-to-back or so distracted by Cam Payne repeatedly falling down that they actually start throwing the ball directly to him, will be potentially catastrophic.  It's no revelation that savvy fans should root against their own rebuilding teams-- this is, after all, what has sparked the rules changes.  But in a bleak year where even the Bulls know they have no chance one night, it deprives Bulls fans the ability to enjoy their greatest achievement of making another team's fans really really angry.

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