Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Spread

UMASS, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. U-MASS. The lips taking two steps to bleat out and hiss on the second syllable U MASS.

Imagine Orson Welles saying the word UMASS in the middle of a dyspeptic ad read for the university over the typical college commercial of eager kids staring at beakers through safety goggles, sketching things, and high-fiving the school mascot which in the case of UMASS is a guy with cartoon lockjaw in a tricorner hat who looks like Purdue Pete's cousin who drives a trans-am.
I don't know who the first person was to render a macot that 
is a person into a plush cartoon nightmare person, but they 
probably belong to an Ancient Society

Northwestern played UMASS in football and absolutely flattened them. After toggling between heartbreaking last-second field goal losses and losses where Northwestern’s broad football strategy mirrored the guy who breaks a beer bottle on a bar and tries to menace Steven Seagal with it, the Wildcats found a win against a profoundly bad football team.

The win did not come easy. For much of the first quarter, Northwestern struggled to move the ball and allowed UMASS to drive into range to kick field goals or ineptly turn the ball over in the a classic commedia dell’arte tradition. Northwestern went down 6-0 before scoring on of all things a blocked field goal return before subsequent UMASS drives ended with punts, turnovers on downs, and a broad misunderstanding involving the Barone’s precious scrolls, the underhanded machinations of the Visconte and his flunkies who mistook the young Gianni for the famed highwayman The Blue Skull of Umbria and a complicated mess involving counterfeit scrolls that required several minutes of explanation from the stock “referee” character.
Crossing route

The most compelling subplot of this game involved delving into the seedy underbelly of sports gambling. I am not by nature a gambler because I dislike losing money, because the only way to come out marginally ahead requires the mastery of tedious math or some other system that takes all of the visceral thrill of extravagantly losing money on roulette or craps or baccarat, and because the most fun thing for me to do in gambling and any other situation is do to a bunch of really stupid shtick that is a lot less fun if you are losing more than the price of a Heath bar, but the implications of gambling and people rooting for dumb things in otherwise meaningless games can occasionally transcend the game and enter the realm of the sublime. This is what happens when some bookmaker has decided to give 40 points to the 2019 Northwestern Wildcats.

In the second half, Northwestern’s offensive line had realized that even if the team is struggling this season they are still anthropomorphic trucks and could easily shove the UMASS defenders around enough for a freshman running back named Evan Hull to zip past them, and the Wildcats began approaching the Gambling Number.  At one point, late in the fourth quarter and with a commanding lead, Northwestern somehow accidentally sort of onside kicked it and recovered; at this point anyone who had bet on UMASS would begin sweating in an incredibly funny situation that they can only admit they had brought upon themselves by betting money on this obscure and wretched football game.  I know that it is 2019, that sports gambling is legal in many places, and the internet will allow you to bet on almost anything from the comfort of one's own home, but I am also sure that spiritually you should not be allowed to gamble on a Northwestern-UMASS game without going through a dungenous basement with one of those heavy doors that have a sliding peephole mechanism and speaking to a bookie with a name like "Todd the Dentist." 

At any rate, Northwestern won by 39 against a 40 point spread, the funniest possible outcome to this profoundly stupid game.

Well, the maniac did it.  P.J. Fleck, the psychotically energetic sloganeer who has never managed to express a thought without turning it into a tortuous backronym that requires a five minute explainer video, has broken through.  The Golden Gophers are legitimate contenders.  They upset an excellent Penn State team, managed to stay undefeated until last week, and lead a satisfyingly insane West division where Wisconsin has already lost to what appears to be a very good Illinois team.  Fleck is driving his team towards a de facto West Division Paul Bunyan Championship Game and all that stands in the way is Northwestern. As Fleck himself might say: S.H.I.T.

I've made fun of Fleck a lot at this blog because he cuts a somewhat ridiculous figure.  To be fair to him, his job requires an embrace of absurdity.  Every college football coach is some combination of huckster and rage maniac or harbors some other sort of insane anti-social behavior that comes from the fact that the job asks its practitioners to spend their time alternately huddled in tape caves mastering a bizarre strategic argot and charismatically selling themselves to recruits, boosters, and television personalities-- it's like asking someone to be a general, chessmaster, and televangelist at the same time while being allowed to do as much unhinged screaming as possible.  All college football coaches are insane because only an insane person would want to do a job where they get fired every two years and are subject to the machinations of boosters named "Bale" Cronston the Feed King of the Greater Mump Junction Area and a hail of nonstop criticism from angry fans.  It is a job completely bereft of dignity. It probably should not exist.

Fleck's goofy Harold Hill routine was funny when Minnesota was mediocre.  Fleck swept into town with his Row the Boat catchphrase that he brought over from Western Michigan only after a legal settlement, came up with a bunch of dopey catchphrases, and sort of floundered around the Big Ten West like most Big Ten West teams.  He appeared in the conference doing a bunch of flashy sword swinging techniques and the Big Ten just sort of lazily shot him.  But Fleck obviously knows what he is doing.  He loaded the Gophers with talented players and bided his time before turning them into a powerhouse.  It is genuinely enjoyable to see any Big Ten team from the fraternity of ass-kicked cellar-dwellers to rise up and challenge for an opportunity to get mowed down by Ohio State in Indianapolis.  Northwestern has a chance to see a team that, like them, does not often get a chance to shine in the conference and implode their season like the Metrodome.

This is where Northwestern is right now: their chances to play in the "Big Boy" Bob's Lasertag and Go Kart Franchises of Northwest Pensacola Bowl have evaporated, they have yet to defeat a Big Ten team, they have only recently started scoring touchdowns.  Their main goals now are to be so bad that merely hanging close to a Big Ten opponent could cause them to plummet in the rankings-- an upset over Minnesota would force the Gophers to forfeit their final games to just think about what has happened for awhile until another Big Ten West team goes to find them a few years from now for one last job.  That and the battle to keep the Hat that looks so improbable that it is too depressing to think about, Lovie raising the Hat to the heavens as his beard transfers to the trophy before engulfing the entire Chicago area in triumphant beard for an entire year in an event known as The Hattening.
As much as Illinois is the Hated Rival of Northwestern and the Hat must 
not be lost at any cost, who doesn't like Lovie Smith?  Please sign my 
petition The Illini Must Hire a Lunatic Doofus Specifically For Blogging Purposes

Meanwhile, Northwestern, despite the Wildcats' famous victory over the University of Mass, seems to be in more trouble than ever.  The injuries continue to pile up for the 'Cats, and they appear to be running out of available quarterbacks to the point where they need to start running out of obsolete formations like the Kaiser's Wedge or the Gruntback Option that require the entire team to grow mustaches.  Minnesota are heavy favorites and it seems unlikely that Northwestern will be able to score the massive upset and go out on a positive note from an otherwise wretched season on senior day. 

On the other hand, never tell me the odds-- unless Northwestern is favored by 40 points, then I absolutely need to know about those odds.     


Anonymous said...

The Hattening is the culmination of Hatternalia, celebrated on the darkest Saturday of the year.

Anonymous said...

Normal year : "HAT! HAT! HAT!"

This year : "hat...whatever"