Saturday, October 30, 2021

Northwestern Football Makes Sense (In a Losing Effort)

After a miserable early season featuring embarrassing blowout losses where the defense appears to have spent much of its time responsibly socially distancing themselves from opposing running backs, Northwestern football finally makes sense to me after a 33-7 clobbering from the hated Michigan Wolverines. 
I don’t mean to be flippant and appeal to the tortured history of Northwestern by suggesting that getting wiped out by every non-Rutgers Big Ten team they have played Northwestern has finally returned to its rightful place as the doormat of the Big Ten; in fact they have been more or less fine and sometimes even great for nearly a quarter of a century, and the people who have direct experience with Northwestern’s most wretched years are getting fairly wizened at this point even if they remain the most visible parts of the fandom because they are a notable ESPN Mike. 
What I mean is that Northwestern finally looks like a normal Pat Fitzgerald Northwestern team having a down year and not an avant-garde art piece entitled “mispositioned linebackers.” On Saturday, the Wildcats did what we expected: they deployed a stingy bend-but-don’t-break defense that irritates the absolute shit out of a Big Ten opponent until the defense runs out of gas because Fizgerald’s ideal form of offense is cackling at a three and out because Northwestern gets to do linebacking again. For thirty minutes, Northwestern had the number six team in the country clinging to a 10-7 lead thanks to a 75-yard Touchdown-Wisconsin-Excuse-Me-Northwestern run from Evan Hull and a glorious Michigan fumble on the three yardline that had Michigan fans angrily attempting to ram their heads through their baseball caps in what appears to be a traditional folkway of Michigan Football Angst. 
A beautiful tradition passed down through generations of Michigan Men
I have not watched a lot of Fox's Big Noon Saturday broadcast this year so I had no idea what to expect from their broadcast.  I can't bear to spend a sunny autumn Saturday watching TV knowing that once October rolls around we could be looking at the Last Nice Weekend; I don't often watch Northwestern games live so I spend a lot of Saturday afternoons neurotically avoiding the internet and evenings anxiously fast forwarding through games to the point where sometimes if an opposing offense is mounting a particularly harrowing drive, I will pretty much zoom through it like I am hoping to get through a particularly grisly scene a horror film.  The Fox Sports crew treated Northwestern like a routine but boring exercise for Michigan and the halftime show-- I was so excited for Northwestern being within three at halftime that I actually watched a bit of the halftime show instead of gleefully fast fowarding through it-- the hair gel guys did not mention that Northwestern was playing at all, acting like the Wolverines were playing a practice game against some local toughs.  Unfortunately, their disregard was proven right.
The worst part for me about Northwestern's second-half collapse was the blocked punt.  We've seen bad turnovers and we've seen a defense that has been on the field for nearly the entire game get tired and start getting run over, but under Pat Fitzgerald Northwestern is first and foremost a punt-producing operation.  Fitzgerald wants to force punts, and he apparently wants to see Northwestern punt; he is a punt pervert, gleefully cackling every time that ball arcs high into the air and an opponent waves his hand around for a fair catch, and he receives magazines featuring photographs of classic punts that he tells people he reads just for the articles which are even more disturbing from their lurid descriptions of special teams coverage.
It is illegal to send this magazine to 13 states
It is not a surprise that Northwestern could not pull off the enormous upset at the Big House.  Perhaps, as the commentary suggests, Michigan just spent the first half in neutral sort of dicking around while they await their big game against the rival that they don't really want to admit is a rival.  Or maybe the first half of this game, combined with the exceptional defensive performance against Rutgers, shows that Northwestern has turned a corner on defense and can actually start to stay in games against slightly less tough competition by tackling and punting at them, the only way we expect and want them to do it.
The question is the extent to which Minnesota represents the standard Big Ten West team that Northwestern can frustrate and sometimes defeat.  The Gophers are 5-2 with one of those losses an impressive opening-night effort against Ohio State and one of them a baffling loss to a two-win Bowling Green team; they also have multiple close wins against not particularly great teams scattered around.  This seems to me like a game that can demonstrate whether the Wildcats' defensive turnaround is for real or whether Minnesota's collection of backup running backs will form a sixty minute conga line against the Northwestern defense. 

This is the first meeting between the teams since 2019, a year where a rising Minnesota team climbed to the top of the Big Ten West standings only to lose to arch-rival Wisconsin.  Last year's game was canceled after a Covid outbreak on the Minnesota team, which was part of a convoluted scenario where Northwestern fans had no idea whether they won the Big Ten West because of game cancellations. 

For P.J. Fleck and the Gophers, this game looms large.  The Gophers are still very much alive in the Big Ten West with a down year from Wisconsin and Iowa finally losing to Purdue, and Fleck desperately wants to get this team to Indianapolis.  It seems to me like the bloom is coming off the rose a bit for Fleck, who captured the nation's imagination by yelling "row the boat" a lot, but since coming to Minnesota, his team has largely been mired in the Big Ten West's aesthetic of pretty OK football; for a guy who looked like he was a rising star just two years ago bringing the Gophers to the precipice of a division championship, his hype train seems to have temporarily stalled in Minneapolis.  Fleck is still making nearly $5 million a year for a program with fairly limited ambition and he gets to spend all summer in a lakeside Acronym Studio, so I think he will be OK, but one of these days Fleck is going to need to actually win something if he wants to wage another legal battle to take his catchphrase to a higher-profile program.  This season is their best opportunity to prove 2019 was not a fluke and the Gophers have arrived as a force to reckon with in the West.  A loss to Northwestern would absolutely devastate their season, sending them crashing down from dreams of losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game to listening to a long-winded speech from the Vice President of Mortgages at the Music City Bowl. This is what Northwestern as a program is built for.

There's a lot riding on the line for Northwestern as well.  Fans hope that a defensive improvement coupled with the big play threats on offense could be enough to propel the Wildcats them out of the toilet with renewed hope of stealing three more wins to get to a bowl game.  Another blowout loss, particularly one where the opponent once again scores within the first 45 seconds, would end dreams of Boxing Day in Detroit and leave Northwestern fans clinging to their last potential trophy: The Hat.

Last week, Illinois and Penn State played one of the most chaotic and deranged football games in recent memory, a massive Illini upset.  The teams played to a standstill; Bielema devoured overtime periods like a Hungry Hungry Hippo until Illinois triumphed after the ninth and final frame, a feat of overtime-mongering so twisted that even Pat Fitzgerald whom I have suggested has turned Northwestern Football into a Cult of Overtime would blanche at it.  I have no idea what to expect from Illinois this year except that after this year we deserve the most hideous and stupefying Hat Game that any of us have ever seen.

For many years, I tried to stay up on new developments on baseball because in the early 2000s the concepts of getting on base and not bunting were so obvious and the arguments against them made by squinting baseball lifers and local newspaper columnists whose entire line of reasoning against mathematical proof was "shut up, basement" and "that's not how THE MICK would have done it" were so preposterously stupid that it was almost impossible to see a manager putting a guy with a .290 on-base percentage as the leadoff hitter because of speed on the basepaths and not fling up your hands.  So it pains me to admit that an age-related descent in to curmudgeondom and a general irritation with playoff baseball has led me finally to turn against science and rationality and declare: enough with the relief pitching.

Baseball, especially in its playoff form, has transformed over the last five or six years into a battle of bullpens and bullpen matchups-- starters almost never last past the fourth inning, and games slow to a crawl as they turn into a parade of semi-anonymous relievers one after in game after game.  Baseball teams and their army of Spreadsheet Guys have proven fairly conclusively that teams to hit far better against a pitcher the third time they've seen him.  Therefore, teams will do almost anything to prevent this from happening, even on days when starters seem to have dominant stuff.  This strategy naturally reached its apotheosis with the Rays, the ultramodern team seemingly run by an algorithm, when manager Kevin Cash removed Blake Snell from a one-hit performance in a pivotal World Series Game 6 and then the reliever immediately gave up the runs that led the Dodgers to a championship.  The frustrating thing is while the strategy seems wild and in fact even insane, it is not that surprising of a strategy (the Braves, for example, pulled starter Ian Anderson during a no-hitter in this year's Game 3 of the Series) and even though it blew up in the Rays' face it is probably actually by the numbers a justifiable if not optimal strategic move.  And doesn't that absolutely stink.
Every sport in the past two decades has abandoned itself to the numbers gurus but in no other major American sport have optimal strategies for winning games so devastatingly collided with the aesthetic enjoyment of the game.  Basketball, for example, has used rule changes and statistical models to lead to a free-flowing drive-and-kick game so inured to the three pointer that no lead appears to be safe.  You can grumble about the preeminence of shooting threes to the detriment of almost all other offense or get irritated at the extent that games turn on superstars hunting for foul calls by leaping into defenders and making extremely annoying anguished i got fouled faces, but even I, a person whose enjoyment of basketball peaked in the Jordan era, can admit it is a more pleasing product than watching Dale Davis elbow people.  The NFL has also altered rules and has shifted in strategy where teams just throw insane passes all over the place now unless they are the Bears whose decades long inability to pass the ball no matter who is playing or in charge would one of the most fascinating and baffling sports phenomena if it didn't make me so personally aggrieved.

Nearly every single one of baseball's strategic innovations this century has made the game absolutely a drag.  Pitchers are better than ever and teams have removed the stigma from striking out so now about a quarter of MLB plate appearances end with a K.  Batters now draw walks on agonizing at-bats that last ten minutes.  Defensive shifts based on computer models have made ground ball hits a rarity.  Here are all of the cool things from baseball that the Analytics Revolution revealed are extremely stupid and therefore taken from us: drag bunts, hitting an empty .310, crafty left-handed relievers that throw 85 miles per hour, weird-ass submarine pitchers, unironic mustaches, guys with curl mullets whose offseason conditioning regimen is mostly poker, reckless and reckless and ineffective base stealing.  
A side by side comparison of the 2021 Romine Brothers and the 1975 
Reuschel Brothers reminding us of the aesthetic disaster that ballplayers no 
longer look like they are about to explain to you that yep, what you've got there are termites

But the overarching problem for baseball is that pitching is too good.  Bullpens are stocked with guys who all throw at least 96 and feature an insane breaking ball, even the horseshit guy on your team who you hate because he walks guys constantly is throwing an assortment of pitches that would beguile hitters only twenty years ago.  Why risk tiring a starter when you can just deploy this anonymous arm army at the other team and if one of them lets one or two guys on base then replace him with the next one?  Pitchers now have access to software, video, and instruction far beyond what the pot-bellied relievers of yore had as well as access to a bunch of newly-developed glues and liniments to smear on the ball that baseball is pretending to crack down on, and there is no solution to making baseball a more enjoyable sport than somehow asking players to pitch worse for our entertainment.

Baseball players have never been more skilled, more athletic, and more capable of doing amazing things every game in the field, on the bases, and on the mound, and today's Big Leagues are filled with delightful, effervescent personalities that are now sometimes allowed to enjoy themselves instead of grimly spitting tobacco juice on the ground and ostentatiously adjusting their penis-protecting equipment.  And yet, the only way to win games is to turn every game into a four-hour slog featuring a dozen pitchers all of whom spend nearly a minute in intense contemplation before throwing a pitch.  It's a genuine conundrum, one with a solution that would elude even people who cared about the game, which is unfortunately not a group of people that overlaps with the people running Major League Baseball.  The solution, as best as I can tell, involves asking baseball teams to simply be stupider; fortunately this is the one league where that could possibly work.

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