Saturday, October 2, 2021

The Unfathomable Sadness of the Possibility That Northwestern Could Lose to Nebraska

It saddens me to come to understand that Northwestern can clobber a struggling MAC team, to shut them out until a meaningless touchdown on the final play of the game against an empty bench, and to run them over like eleven bulldozed Ricardos Montelb├ín and my reaction has been the wrinkled forehead of concern. This is what multiple bowl victories and two Big Ten West Division Championships in three years can do to you even though we have watched even very good Northwestern teams lose to teams like the 2021 Ohio Bobcats because games played at Ryan Field in September are controlled by cackling football deities who love it when a bad MAC team or even an FCS team celebrates on the field and leaves Pat Fitzgerald sputtering about how “we weren’t good enough today but all credit to the Mid Central Illinois Barn Owls” while the message boards attack him for wearing shorts.  Winning a game like this does not always seem like enough.
Pat Fitzgerald and his coaching staff planned to win the game and not prove any points about what the Wildcats may or may not be capable of against a Big Ten team, so they when they found out that Ohio's defense would offer little resistance against the running game, they decided to just batter them like besiegeing medieval army and save the question of Ryan Hilinsky's role in the passing game largely a mystery for the next opponent.  It was fun to see Evan Hull loosed against this defense; it was less fun when the Big Ten Network unveiled its novel Visceral Vomit Cam. 
I was going to make fun of BTN's faded postindustrial midwestern Tim Riggins 
J Leman who is exactly the person the Big Ten Network sends to a Northwestern 
vs. Ohio game that involves prominent vomiting, but sometime in the fourth 
quarter he flawlessly rattled off the Litany of Twenty-First-Century Northwestern 
Quarterbacks and I don't think there is anyone else in college sports media who 
could remember C.J. Bacher without hesitation 
Northwestern fans are on edge because after two listless performances against Michigan State and Duke, the 'Cats are out of lower-division opponents and its time to figure out of Fitz can hit the October Button and start irritating conference teams or if the season is going to plummet into ignominy, and this is something I suspect that Northwestern fans would like to figure out before they play Nebraska.
Sports, especially college sports, are an incredibly dumb place to look for anything resembling justice.  The satisfaction that fans get when a team or coach or someone else does something dumb and the only way anyone knows to make this person feel bad is to hope the team loses remains hollow.  In the case of Nebraska and Scott Frost's bellicose demands to play football right this fucking minute in the midst of a canceled Big Ten season and then in the face of a game called because the opponent had a covid outbreak so they tried to illegally barnstorm through the Sun Belt Conference, their irresponsibility in the larger context of American sports was one of degree, not kind.  Every league did that, just not as oafishly.  Northwestern took that money.  No one is a hero.  But we all can admit that even though it did nothing to make sports less cynical or dangerous in 2020, watching Nebraska take the field every week and just get absolutely upon whaled after insisting on playing football was one of the funniest subplots of the season.

The fact of the matter is that Nebraska under Scott Frost has somehow become the funniest team in the Big Ten.  It is not that they are bad, although they have been very bad.  It is that Nebraska entered the conference doing all sorts of fancy sword moves in the market and then has been lazily shot by every shitscraping Big Ten West team we can throw at them.  Frost represents Nebraska's golden years in the 1990s when they remorselessly clobbered everyone and were a national power and now he is leading them to humiliating losses to an Illinois team that I believe Bret Bielema is coaching while wearing flip-flops.  

I think all reasonable people outside of Lincoln can agree that Scott Frost has reached a level of operatic buffoonery that must be punished by losing to what so far appears to be an unimpressive Northwestern team.  But despite the losses, Nebraska has a lot going for it-- a fearsome defense that played well against an Oklahoma team that Frost reportedly attempted to wriggle out of after last year demanding to take on all comers, an elusive mobile quarterback, and the fact that they dominated Michigan State in terms of yardage but then kept doing dumb things in an exact sequence of events that made them lose.  Unfortunately, the Huskers do not appear to be as bad as their record.  They are heavily favored at home, and the biggest advantage Northwestern has is the tendency for Northwestern/Nebraska games to turn into preposterous sludge matches that end on an impossibly stupid play.  If Northwestern wants to get into the win column in the Big Ten, it just might take this baffling, snake-bitten Nebraska team to get them there.

Win or lose, Northwestern won't prove anything by beating Nebraska.  In fact, a loss may drive Frost further into football derangement, attempting to schedule more games, possibly multiple games at the same time.  At the same time, Nebraska will not do anything by rolling over Northwestern other than bumming me out; I doubt that panicking Husker fans will be placated by a win over Northwestern.  They are trying to do anything to let the crown of the funniest Big Ten team revert to its rightful place with Rutgers.  Nothing could worse than losing to Rutgers.  Let's take a look at who is next on Northwestern's schedule.  Oh no.


Northwestern Athletics pay pig Patrick Ryan has once again come through with an enormous $480 million donation to the school, a large portion of which will go towards renovating his eponymous stadium.  The renovation follows a similar face-lift that turned the decrepit Welsh-Ryan arena into a modern facility along with the practice facility Xanadu on the Lake.  To me this is kind of a bummer.

There is no plan yet for the renovations, but we can be sure that a refurbished Ryan Field will drain the charm out of playing in a dump.  After Welsh-Ryan reopend, I wrote about how the new arena had taken the illusion of Northwestern standing slightly outside the cesspool of college sports because the teams lost a lot and played in what appeared to be the arena that Snake Plissken fights the beard guy in but once they start playing in high-dollar facilities it is impossible to even pretend.  

I also believe that playing in a wind-swept, tarp-strewn slab of concrete will separate Northwestern football from its essence, which is annoying visiting fans.  The fact of the matter is that no Northwestern game against an even reasonably decent opponent will ever involve Wildcat fans not being completely outnumbered.  Given the fact that Northwestern football is essentially in the business of hosting away games for the benefit of Chicago-area Big Ten fans, it behooves the team to play in an ass-murdering sleet box that is probably going to run out of buns by the third quarter and sell cut up hot dogs in a paper cup.  If you want to see your team romp on the Wildcats then at the very least your should be uncomfortable and your train back to the city should be stuck at Argyle for "signals."  Also there's a chance that Northwestern will punt 55 consecutive times and then win, that should be printed on the ticket the way baseball teams warn you about foul balls.  I fail to see the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make Michigan fans complain slightly less about the stadium when they send a strongly-worded letter to the Provost, but then again I might be a hypocrite because when I got to a game I often will decadently spring for seatbacks.

On the last Northwestern broadcast, they interviewed new athletic director Derrick Gragg about the project and he was waxing rhapsodically about field-level suites like they have in the fancy new NFL stadiums.  The plan is to decrease seating and put in more luxury boxes; personally I think that anyone who would watch Northwestern sports from a luxury box is an absolute maniac while at the same time acknowledging that watching young people smash into each other while decadently guzzling fancy cheese cubes and doing Deals is in fact extremely Northwestern. 

Dyche stadium opened in 1926, and has gone through several renovations already, most recently the 1997 one that restored natural grass, added a new press box, and other bathrooms, and most controversially renamed the stadium to Ryan Field in direct contradiction to the original naming agreement.  It opened with no endzone seating surrounded by pastures.  It is cool that Northwestern has not yet demolished the stadium and continues to play in its cozy Jazz Age venue.  The stadium will be a nicer and more pleasant place to watch a game on the inside.  The 11AM kickoffs, the droves of visiting fans, and likely the sour punting will remain integral to the Northwestern experience.  But, much like how odd it felt to go to Welsh-Ryan Arena and be greeted with fancy scoreboards and space age seating and not watching the teams have to mince their way past people buying nachos, the renovations won't feel quite like Northwestern football to me.

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