Saturday, December 1, 2018


Northwestern football has them all doing the one thing they don't want to be doing and that is talking about Northwestern football for an extra week.  The Wildcats did this by remaining standing atop a Big Ten West where every team poisoned itself, by playing a brand of ugly, unwatchable football, and scoring very close to the minimum number of points needed to do so.  They are 8-4, lost every single non-conference game including one to a four-win Akron team that had literally never beaten a Big Ten Opponent, and sported a losing record at home.  SBNation calls them the "lowest-rated power five team to ever win a division championship."  Pat Fizgerald has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year; they are sixty minutes away from winning the Big Ten and going to the Rose Bowl.
I had no idea the Big Ten West Champion got a trophy until this year

 Every advanced metric seems to cry out that the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats suck.  And yet, nobody wants to see their team play them.  This is partly because Northwestern plays aesthetically revolting football loved by punters and the punters who love punters.  Northwestern has a great punter who has also been kicking field goals because it is his turn to score some points and at Northwestern, the punter is king.

The Wildcats were bound to break through to Indianapolis at some point, and this is the platonic ideal of a Northwestern team to do so-- reviled, appearing seemingly by default, irritating the hell out of everyone especially Big Ten West teams whose own vile and inept outfits managed to fall short.  This is what Northwestern football looks like under Pat Fitzgerald-- not the Randy Walker squads that used the then-novel spread offense to try to beat teams 61-55, but a brutal, grinding, defense and punts machine that has sprung fully formed from the meaty forearms of a neckroll linebacker.  Northwestern hangs in against great teams and they rarely blow anyone out.  In the last five years of Fitzball in which Northwestern has had arguably its strongest run of the modern era including multiple ten-win seasons and heretofore unthinkable bowl victories, the 'Cats have made almost every clutch play they've needed-- they are probably a few dozen minutes from going like 3-9 every year.

For a long time, opposing teams would react to losing to Northwestern like frustrated cartoon supervillains, shaking their fists and perplexed that their plans had once again gone awry.  It was mildly infuriating that teams could lose again and again to the Wildcats and their fans would be incredulous because Northwestern had been really bad in the 1970s and 80s.  How could people not fathom that Northwestern is sort of good?  They put up a spirited fight in the Sun Bowl.  But not this year.  Everyone is infuriated they lost to Northwestern because Northwestern punted 75 times and then a wide receiver teleported into the endzone or they fumbled and the ball bounced into a roll and hit the pole, and knocked the ball in the rub-a-dub tub, which hit the man into the pan, the trap is set, Northwestern ball.
Northwestern Offensive Coordinator Mick McCall draws up the 
"Win The Game" play

The metrics and pundits have no way to quantify exactly good enough, and the Wildcats in Big Ten play have made pretty much exactly every play they needed to at the right time.  Maybe it's luck, maybe it is a conference gerrymandered for Wisconsin watching as Wisconsin realizes only too late that Ryan Field is inexplicably a Badger Death Trap, and maybe it is because the Wildcats have some sort of bizarre intangible toughness that allows them to grind out games like this while causing the S&P+ computers to overheat and become sentient, eventually going on an endless wave of destruction.  All I know is that the Wildcats are in Indianapolis, the bumbling jabronis of the Big Ten West are not, and I would not write them off.

If hideous, unwatchable victories characterize this Northwestern season, then the 24-16 victory over a malingering Illinois team was their masterpiece.  The Wildcats bludgeoned the Illini with Isaiah Bowser; the Illini run defense seemed mainly to consist of reasoned argument.  But then, Fitzgerald took everyone out.  The 'Cats already played the game with no starting defensive backs, no top receiver, and without a key defensive playmaker.  Early in the third quarter, Fitz benched Bowser, and by the fourth had benched Clayton Thorson.  The offense basically decided to kneel for the rest of the game, and Illinois inched back with a great game from quarterback A.J. Bush.  Fitzgerald decided to win the Hat with one head tied behind his back.

And once again Mystical Northwestern Bullshit struck again.  Part of it came from Illinois just being a woeful and sorry football team that couldn't stop committing doofus penalties; the game ended on a first down granted from a personal foul.  Part of it came from Lovie Smith stoically electing to kick field goals instead of raining touchdown hellfire in order to try to salvage some dignity by seizing the Hat from the division champs.  Even me, a person who has written thousands of words about retaining the Hat, was screaming at Lovie for kicking a field goal inside the five, a luxury I could enjoy because the game had no bearing on Northwestern's conference championship position, and a loss would only give them a another truly hideous and embarrassing defeat to drag into Indianapolis and theoretically make them even more powerful.
Using archival photos of Lovie as the head coach of the 
Bears, this blog has expertly recreated what would happen 
if Lovie shaved his mustache and grew a Lincoln Beard, 
perhaps the most effective way for him to win his first Hat

I like Lovie Smith a lot.  He was a great Bears coach and always struck me as a beacon of calm in the manic football coaching world.  I have no idea why Illinois has played so poorly under him and, it pains me to say this, but Tim Beckman would have absolutely won that game.  He would have won that game, he would have gotten the Hat, and then he probably would have spontaneously combusted while screaming at his players all the way back to Champaign-Urbana only because he understood the power of the Hat and it drove him into madness.

The last time Northwestern and Ohio State met on a stage this big, ESPN's College Football Gameday came to Evanston.  Northwestern was 4-0, coming off its first bowl win in the NATO era, and seemingly poised for a big run in the Legends Division that I still can't believe that multiple people saw that and said that was an acceptable name for a division, sure we'll put it on merchandise and trophies and everything.  Instead, Ohio State eked out the win and Northwestern fell into an unfathomable death spiral where they managed a single win the rest of the season.  This meeting is projected to be more bleak.
He got the First Down

This game has Playoff Implications.  Because the college football playoff is decided by an unaccountable committee that selects playoff participants from secret chambers with ghastly rites and unthinkable augurs, Ohio State may still qualify.  There is no objective way to determine whether, for example, it is better to have Oklahoma's defense where they try to tackle people and then fly back on wires like in kung fu movies or to have gotten annihilated from the face of the Earth by Purdue.  The Playoff Committee deals in conjecture, in ratings and money, and just plain old bullshit.  But Ohio State will only make the Playoff if they beat Northwestern, and they have every incentive to try to run it up as much as possible.  Unfortunately for them, Northwestern football this season is an inflatable clown that keeps popping up.

Conventional wisdom says that the Buckeyes will run away with this one.  But they do not fully understand the force they are dealing with.  Northwestern's 2018 football team was not designed to get blown out, clobbered, or run out of Lucas Oil Stadium.  It makes no sense.  It defies all logic, reason, and empirical ranking systems, and only exists to profoundly annoy and fuck up college football.  Ohio State has the best quarterback in the Big Ten and a high-powered offense.  Northwestern has the ability to show up to the Rose Bowl and get asked what the fuck are you doing here before a 25-minute phone conversation clears things up and the Tournament of Roses people react with Marc Maron levels of incredulity.  There can be nothing less likely or more ridiculous than Northwestern pulling this one out.  Tell the Buckeyes the Wildcats will see them in Indianapolis, they will see them in hell, and they will see them in Overtime.

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