Friday, November 3, 2017


Maybe they should just skip straight to overtime, the pulse-pounding, heart-stopping, thrust and riposte style of maniac football instead of requiring us to sit through an entire Northwestern football game to get there.  Once again, Northwestern played a Big Ten opponent in a Festival of Stereotypical Big Ten Football, an ugly punts-and-fumbles act that exists in a universe where it is impossible to score more than 17 points.  And once again, that game yielded to a lunatic touchdown spree that ended on the world's least necessary hail mary, delivered a fifth win to the 'Cats, dethroned a ranked opponent, and led to all-out delirium among the 58 people at Ryan Field rooting for Northwestern.

In 2004, Northwestern played an unfathomable four overtime games, including the program's only win against Ohio State in the Cenzoic Era and somehow overtime wins against both Indiana and Illinois.  The Wildcats celebrated by unleashing the greatest piece of Northwestern football-related art we've ever seen, a poster where Wildcats players pretend to hold various construction implements like miniature chain saws and toilet plungers.

This is also the box art to the world's grisliest Clue knockoff

Northwestern managed to hang on through solid run defense and through some lucky breaks-- the Spartans turned the ball over, fumbling once deep in Northwestern territory, and their kicker had two bounce off the crossbar as the Spartans learned of Ryan Field's true home advantage, the disguising of Northwestern fans as human goal posts that swat their kicks back onto the field with a resounding thunk.  Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, meanwhile, caused problems all day, setting a Michigan State record for single-game passing yardage and leading the Spartans on a last minute game, tying drive that involved him somehow evading all of the traps in the Raiders of the Lost Ark temple and heaving the ball downfield to a wide open receiver before falling in overtime by trying to do that again then getting simultaneously getting crushed by the a giant ball, getting impaled by 800,000 poison darts, and watching Alfred Molina scamper away with the rope.

Northwestern salutes Big Ten Special Teams Player of 
the Week An Inanimate Carbon Rod

The Michigan State game provided the Wildcats' third consecutive Big Ten win and has changed the trajectory of the season from despair at the type of bowl game that could happen to them to elation at the quality of crappy bowl game that awaits against the largely crappy teams left on the schedule.  Given Northwestern's dedication to reviving the Cardiac Cats this season and winning in heart-stopping overtime periods. anything is possible.


Nebraska is reeling.  They're 4-4, they just barely eked out a comeback win over surprisingly feisty Purdue, and Nebraska fans are already tracking the flight patterns of coveted Central Florida coach Scott Frost.  They go into a game against a Northwestern team that is streaking through the Big Ten West the way that a loose-wheeled shopping cart can be described as streaking through the produce aisle.  The result should be absolute chaos. 

A screenshot from Nebraska football's official website shows scant information about the upcoming game against the Wildcats

Nebraska and Northwestern have been more or less alternating road victories (Nebraska's lone home win in this series came on a hail mary) and grimly menacing each other.  This is not what Nebraska signed up for.  They came to the Big Ten to meet Wisconsin every year in an unwatchable sumo wrestling match to determine who gets to get annihilated by Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game and not grit their teeth against a Northwestern team that few of them had probably recognized as an actual football program before joining the conference.  

Nebraska may be having a down year, but it still represents a tough matchup.  Only fools and monomaniacs should try to run on Northwestern, a team that has Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall ready to knock over any running back that tries to sneak his way undetected past Tyler Lancaster.  But Nebraska can't really run the ball anyway and have heralded quarterback Tanner Lee and star receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. to torture the Wildcats' injury-riddled secondary.  On defense, Northwestern will be relying on Justin Jackson, who is basically a load-bearing pillar supporting the offense, and hoping that Thorson's overtime heroics and the emergence of receivers like Riley Lees and superback Cameron Green can continue against a defense that should not be as rough as the non-Maryland Big Ten units the Wildcats have faced.

Nebraska is favored but barely.  Nevertheless, I am pretty sure that no Nebraska fan has contemplated for a moment that the Huskers could possibly lose to Northwestern. Based on my own diligent and frankly insane and disappointing life choice to occasionally venture into websites maintained by rival fans, only two Big Ten teams exist whose supporters will ever believe it is possible to lose to Northwestern: Illinois and Purdue (Northwestern has yet to play Rutgers; if you are a Rutgers fan, please feel free to write in or leave a comment and let me know whether you think your team can ever lose to Northwestern).  For every other fanbase, Northwestern lost a bunch of games in the 1970s and 80s and therefore they can never win a Big Ten game again.  I am reasonably confident that nearly every Big Ten team could be destroyed by the NCAA Death Penalty for extremely Big Ten infractions like wooing fullbacks by promising agricultural sabotage that is exposed when a number of Midwestern corn mazes become poisoned and easily solved by disappointed nine-year-olds, fans of the resulting teams now made of frail walk-ons who have been training by practicing cowering will be certain that they will nevertheless crush the full-strength Wildcats and if they lose it will be because the offensive coordinator needs to get fired or because of all the uncalled holding penalties.


There's a small crisis brewing in sports that has nothing to do with work stoppages, sports leagues deciding to embrace broad investigative powers, the endless stadium war between those who want us to clap clap clap clap our hands or for everybody to clap ya hands clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap.  It's a division between the naked eye and the camera's eye, the widening gap between observed physical phenomena and sports rules, the unmooring of objective, empirical truth from the authority of sports officials.  It's video replay, and it is making everyone a maniac.

In football, video replay has reduced everything to pixel.  We no longer know what a catch is-- when the Michigan State receiver came down with the ball in the waning seconds of the game, I held onto a fraction of hope because even though he clearly caught the ball in any reasonable definition of the term, football fans have by now trained ourselves to wait for an Official Explanation to celebrate, for some beef-armed referee to come out and get on a microphone and explain in the stilted institutional argot that every person with any modicum of authority now uses whenever addressing more than three people to explain that the receiver did not properly secure the ball through the process of the catch or the League will not at this time comment on the ongoing investigation as per policy or the Team and its sponsors will be reviewing its safety policy in light of the incident in question when the Jacksonville Jaguar drove its pyrotechnic motorcycle device into three or four individuals.

The League understands fans' concern over the expansion of seating 
into the Meineke Wheelie Zone Fan Area and Play Zone and will be 
reviewing its safety policy, pending a full investigation of the incident 
in question

But baseball is the most vulnerable because every single play depends on the judgement call of a single person.  Umpires' strike zones are not perfect-- we know that since the first person bellowed at them you flat brain-panned hog-fellow, that was a striked-pitch and threatened them with nineteenth-century fisticuffs-- and an entire branch of baseball analysis has discovered that the a catchers' most valuable defensive skill may well be his or her ability to fool umpires with various chicaneries in order to bamboozle them into calling more strikes.  Now, though, every single pitch is run through a computer processor to determine the calls' accuracy, pitch tracking technology tracks each pitch, and entire twitter accounts show how often a pitch is called a ball or strike and exist specifically to be quote tweeted with a caption about how that anthropomorphic wattle Cowboy Joe is fucking us over again.

In this way, the "K Zone" or whatever the broadcaster is calling it has quietly undermined the entirety of baseball.  Baseball now exists in a tense battle between parallel realities, between the empirical location of the pitch as determined by technology and presented on an ever-present Umpire Tattling Graphic and the umpire's decision on whether the pitch is or is not a strike.  MLB has long insisted on accepting the umpire's word as law on balls and strikes largely because of baseball's traditional love for postmodern literary theories that accept reality as constructed by the vagaries of language shaped by power structures.  And fans have always protested calls throughout the history of baseball by suggesting that umpires need pince-nez, monocles, glasses, and prescription rec-specs.

Baseball broadcasts have dedicated themselves to unraveling the umpires' already suspect authority by presenting viewers with an alternate reality that runs counter to officials' pronouncements for the entire game.  To watch baseball now is to be asked to parse two simultaneous realities, one of which technology has been telling us is objective fact and one of which is the interpretation of a beleaguered, masked functionary.  Either the strike zone is a term of art subject to interpretation with a flexible structure that smart pitchers and catchers work around or it is a rigid zone established firmly in physical space, but it is odd and disconcerting that baseball presents us with both simultaneously in a way that is designed only to confuse and frustrate viewers and enrage players and managers whose only recourse is to waddle out of the dugout and theatrically yell at the umpires in an unhinged way that is bereft of the dignity we expect from septuagenarians bursting out of their baseball pajamas.

Here, this is what you look like doing a Karloff impression look at me 
look at me I'm the shitty mummy 

Replay has changed baseball's rules.  Now, every close play at a base ends with a three-minute headphone conference.  In the Cubs-Nationals NLDS Game Five fever dream, replay officials provoked the Baseball Online into a frenzy when they ruled that José Lobatón had strayed off of first for a millisecond while still in the clutches of Anthony Rizzo's tag.  That play offered three competing truths-- the evidently veritable physical fact that Lobatón had left the bag for some quantifiable segment of time, the question of whether baseball's slow-motion, high-definition replay cameras injected a bizarre pedantry into rules that originated from a time when it was legal to slide into a base while menacing fielders with a blade concealed in the runner's side-whiskers, and the spiritual truth of the Nationals' propensity to shit themselves in playoff games paired with Dusty Baker's seemingly cosmic attraction to impossible baseball mishap.

Sports leagues have implemented video replay, they say, in order to get calls correct, in order to prevent them from perpetuating egregious sports injustices, but replay has also ushered in an epistemological crisis.  Video replay has undermined and complicated fundamental and basic sports activities: What is a catch? What is a strike?  Was that foul a level one technical or a level two technical with malice and forethought?  What we have now has not necessarily clarified the rules but brought to bear on them competing rules discourses one of which depends on the subjective judgement of people who have chosen to go into a line of work that involves them getting screamed at more or less constantly and one that depends on physical phenomena all but invisible to the human eye without technology and thrown them against each other for fans to argue about.  I don't know what the solution is other than if it involves repeatedly taking touchdowns away from Wisconsin for no apparent reason then it should be allowed because that is extremely funny, to me.     

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