Friday, November 26, 2021

Sad Cat Hat Chat

The last Illinois coach to win the fabled Hat trophy was literally Tim Beckman, the state's most prominent doofus-coach.  Beckman did a heroic service to this particular blog as the first person I am aware of who went all-in unironically on the woeful rivalry between these two programs by printing what many prominent archaeologists recognize as the only anti-Northwestern rivalry merchandise ever produced, referred to Northwestern as "that school upstate" presumably because he was not quite able to wrap his head around Northwestern's northern and slightly eastern distance from Champaign, and, as we later learned from documents related to the lawsuit that led to his dismissal, made his injured players wear purple in order to show that they are weak.  


Former Illinois coach Tim Beckman dramatically demands The Hat

Beckman won in 2014 in the greatest game ever played between Northwestern and Illinois, a game between two five-win teams for a spot in the Heart of Dallas Bowl held in the dilapidated husk of the old Cotton Bowl.  Illinois fired Beckman a week before the season began the next season.  They've lost every Hat Game since.  Northwestern beat interim coach Bill Cubit in an extremely depressing game played at Soldier Field, and Lovie Smith went winless against the 'Cats in five tries.  For six years, the Hat has not graced the head of a single Illini.  The longest streak of wins in this series is seven, both done by Illinois; they beat Northwestern from 1979-1985 and in all contests between 1913-1927 that paused for the First World War with no games from 1916-1921 and for a reason that I have unable been able to discover between 1924 and 1926.  A Northwestern win here would also even the all-time record as Illinois currently leads 55-54-5.  These stakes are silly and sort of meaningless but they are important that, given Northwestern's dire reputation due to a few decades of being extremely bad, they would at least be as bad if not slightly less bad than perhaps the Big Ten's historically second-worst team.

But Evanston's emergency Potential Hat Loss sirens are flashing because Northwestern was once again throttled, this time at the hands of Purdue in a showdown at Wrigley Field that football experts have described as "extraordinarily silly."  The 'Cats held their own in the first half and looked like they could keep it close until Purdue discovered the One Simple Trick to defeating Northwestern by throwing a sideline route to Milton Wright (defensive coordinators hate it!) and the game turned into another boring rout.

The star of the game was not Wright or Aiden O'Connell or any Purdue player, but it was Wrigley Field, which was put into Football Mode by hastily constructing a slip 'n slide over the infield dirt.  Players lost their footing on almost every play in the Chaos Grass. On two occasions, the Purdue kicker lined up for a kickoff and completely ate shit; the sight of a Purdue player flying in the air like he has slipped on a cartoon banana peel was a very Purdue sight at the game, and the fact that his accidental onside kick bounced off a Wildcat and let the Boilermakers recover the ball can only be described as "brutally Northwestern."

 


Northwestern is scheduled to play at least two more games at this wretched baseball diamond so hopefully they will either figure out how to install a surface that can be used for something other than the escape scene from a silent movie about bumbling art thieves or they just lean into it and just leave the infield dirt and pitchers' mound and bases on the field and let the players try to avoid them as the announcers say things like "well the bags are loaded" as players writhe around and grab their ankles near first, second, and third base.

In 2010, the Wrigley game was a college football event.  This was the only time I could possibly imagine ESPN's College Gameday, then at its peak as the official capital of college football, visiting a game between Illinois and Northwestern.  The game itself was a one-endzone debacle, featuring a miserable Northwestern team without an injured Dan Persa that gave up 300 yards rushing to Illinois's Mikel LeShoure.  By 20201, games at baseball stadiums have proliferated across college football.  This time the game was not nationally televised but featured on Big Ten Network Regional Action.  While the broadcast was unbearably hamfisted with baseball references, I did enjoy some of the shtick such as putting up the out of town Big Ten scores and playing Take Me Out to the Ballgame between the third and fourth quarter.  I doubt the game drew any additional curious onlookers. and those who did were treated to yet another desultory Northwestern loss on a sloppy field.  

There is only one game left for Northwestern to play before the season mercifully ends, and I can hardly bear the thought of it.

HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT

The 2019 Hat Game, where a woeful two-win Northwestern team marched to what seemed to be certain doom against a frisky Illinois team that had upset Wisconsin earlier in that season, stands as one of the funniest and most satisfying Northwestern wins I have ever seen. The Hat was practically there on Lovie Smith's head, and Northwestern took it away by completely abandoning the passing game and just letting quarterback Andrew Marty run them over again and again in a truly disgusting, muddy, rain-filled slop in front of 29 people.  

To this day, I am not sure what happened with Lovie Smith.  Smith is the best Bears coach of my lifetime, and I am not sure how you go from getting a team with Rex Grossman as the quarterback to the Super Bowl to getting outfoxed by Mick McCall.  My theory is that Smith was not deranged enough for college football, where the coaching duties include becoming a complete maniac and abandoning oneself to madness.  Even as Smith tried to lean into lunacy by growing a legitimately insane-looking beard and losing to Northwestern five years in a row, he could not quite do it, especially in a rivalry game that I believe can be won only by the biggest Football Oaf on the field.


I believe that Smith would have been able to succeed if he didn't stop at the beard but added an additional Grizzled Accessory to his repertoire each season such as an eyepatch or a snake. 

Illinois has countered with college football's preeminent oaf, Bret Bielema.  Bielema, who traded a successful stint in Madison into a maddening run with Arkanas in the SEC and some NFL time with the Patriots and Giants, has returned to the Big Ten.  Bielema is not as splashy of a hire as Lovie Smith was, but he's an identifiable commodity, knows the Midwest and Big Ten, and is probably the exact type of coach who can get the Illini back to some bowl games once he recruits enough rectangular guys to run his preferred type of football.  


We're coming to you live from Bret Bielema's Car

But I am not interested in Bielema as a football coach.  I need to know that Illinois football is back in the hands of a Football Character that at least makes these games funny and interesting to write about.  He at least looks the part, somehow resembling a drawing of John Madden done by Gary Larson, and the internet is dying to show you pictures of his bare torso.  The SEC network found him to be so fascinating that they gave him a reality show in 2016 entitled "Being Bret Bielema," which consists mainly of people telling you how interesting Bielema is while watching him mumble quips into the camera and it is a grim reminder that Bielema's roguishly jolly uncle who is really into his Trans-Am affect is what counts as being a character in college football's grim ecosystem of joyless hardasses, scolds, and people who are shown on television every week screaming in a way that would be the most embarrassing public meltdown anyone reading this has ever had.  

There is no way a college football coach could ever come across as interesting in that sort of controlled media environment because the profession exclusively recruits personalities incapable of self-reflection or doubt.  Football coaches are almost always funniest when in the throes of their madness than in any canned press conference or documentary series.  Pat Fitzgerald is way funnier when he is seriously fuming about why he was upset about the disrespect shown to his program because Joey Galloway called his team a bunch of "Rece Davises" than Bret Bielema boomhauerishly muttering a tight five about why they don't serve egg nog all year into an SEC network camera because Fitzgerald has left his corporeal being and is vibrating at a pitch of indignation impossible for a normal non-football-brained human to comprehend.  I can think of nothing a football coach could do that would be funnier than asking Bob Diaco to patiently explain to the trophy store guy the exact specifications of the Civil conFLiCT trophy. 

 The Civil conFLiCT trophy reappeared this year when UCF appeared to have it on the sidelines of their game this season, the plot has thickened where UCF appears to have commissioned an imposter "ringer" trophy specifically to mock UCONN as the original trophy appears to remain missing. Every single thing about exemplifies the very best of college football.

While Bret Bielema is a Television-Certified Football Character, he is unfortunately lacking in the most important department, an insane obsession with antagonizing the Northwestern football team.  Bielema and Fitzgerald are good friends, and Bielema seems more concerned about returning to the sidelines after missing Illinois's last game with Covid and seeing off his seniors than about winning the Hat.  Beckman's anti-Northwestern signs remain gathering dust in some forgotten supply closet.  

Illinois has had an up and down year, with four wins including upsets over Penn State and Minnesota as well as a loss to Rutgers.  A fifth win would put Illinois on the Bowl Standby List and cap a successful season as they return to respectability.  A Northwestern win would tie all of the records mentioned above and bring this lousy season to end on a good note, with Northwestern players jubilantly clutching the Hat and showing that when it comes to rivalry games you can Throw Out The Records.  

A road loss to a better Illinois team is not in and of itself disastrous in this slog of a season.  I don't know if this game will ever regain the heights it did in the heyday of the Beck Man, when his frenzied desire to possess the Hat gave every single game an irresistible subplot that culminated in him finally holding the Hat aloft triumphantly in Ryan Field cackling with a mad glee blissfully unaware that he was about to be catapulted out of college athletics for the foreseeable future.  Bielema, frankly, and to my eternal disappointment, does not really seem that into The Hat.  Perhaps the only way to get some more juice into this rivalry short of one of the programs hiring a person who is at least willing to act like a buffoonish Football Maniac for my amusement would be if these two teams were sort of good at the same time.  That appears to be less likely.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Somehow A Northwestern-Purdue Game is the Least Embarrassing Wrigley Field Sports Event in 2021

 At this point, I think it is fair to say that there is significant overlap between this blog and Northwestern’s football season in that the first question anyone would ask when encountering it is “why are they still doing this.”  The Wildcats are in a brutal tailspin where they lose in horrid and predictable ways on as they finish what could be their worst season in the twenty-first century; with only two games left and the hope of a bowl game evaporated, there is little hope of any turnaround.

The Wisconsin game unfolded along predictable lines: with the exception of a shocking early drive that ended with an endzone interception, the Wildcat offense did virtually nothing and the defense was overwhelmed by the Wisconsin running game.  The game was also marred by uncharacteristic penalties including the second consecutive week with a sideline interference penalty.  This week, Northwestern football hit a new low by succumbing to the dreaded Beckman Penalty, where a coach runs into an official on the sideline, named for the classic moment where Tim Beckman, in the middle of screaming about an interception, got completely leveled by a referee who then disdainfully dropped a flag on his prone body without even looking at him.  I don’t believe that the broadcast showed which Northwestern coach perpetrated the bump so I am choosing to believe that it happened because Pat Fitzgerald got so angry that he swelled to two to three times his normal girth and while he was spinning around with steam blasting from his nostrils he inadvertently smacked into a line judge.

 

Once again, Northwestern was left searching for answers at quarterback.  The Wildcats have vacillated among Hunter Johnson, Ryan Hillinski, and Andrew Marty.  I have not yet been able to determine who they will go to for the next game either because Pat Fitzgerald hilariously continues to guard his roster information like it is a Cold War nuclear submarine design or because the coaching staff genuinely doesn’t know.  One thing they have not tried is using two or possibly three quarterbacks at the same time, bamboozling the opposing defense by having quarterbacks hand off to each other, pass to each other, lateral to each other, or kick field goals.  Another use for a spare quarterback is to have one of them put on a Pudue uniform and attempt to enter the game as a linebacker to enact sabotage, which I guess is technically illegal under all sorts of NCAA by-laws but would be incredibly funny.

I just did a brief google search to see if anyone had actually tried this because it seems like something a guy named "Crankshaft" Harold Van Gruntte would have attempted in 1923 when the rules of college football involved things like "try not to get caught biting someone" but the only thing I found was the story of the Belgian league soccer player shown here showing up to his team's training ground wearing a rival team's jersey in order to force a transfer and then desperately pulling on the doors when no one would let him in, so if anyone out there has a verified story about an American football player at any level trying to sneak onto the field in an opponents' jersey in order to secretly do a shitty hold for a kicker please let me know.

NOW I HAVE TWO ENDZONES HO HO HO

The last time Northwestern played at Wrigley Field was all the way back in 2010 in the zenith of the Age of Zook.  That time, there was an issue with the facilities; one of the endzones backed up right into the brick wall in center field, and the NCAA decided at the last minute that it was potentially unsafe for football players to be turned into unsuccessful Kool Aid Men and declared that both teams would only be able to use one endzone, a delightfully stupid development that gave the entire game the type of ridiculous gloss required for a nationally televised Northwestern football game.


Northwestern celebrates a touchdown scored in the Forbidden Endzone after Brian Peters returned an interception during the 2010 game, as you can read about in my screenplay entitled Crossing the Line where a dogged NCAA investigator hunts down each of the players shown in this picture who had illegally crossed the line for five years after the play before confronting them on a dangerous skyscraper roof to tell them that they are suspended from playing in any more NCAA games even though they all have jobs


When Northwestern made its deal with the Cubs to hold more games at Wrigley (they were scheduled to play Wisconsin there last year before the pandemic), the Cubs said they had made changes to make the endzone further away from the wall allowing the Wildcats and their opponents to use up to two (2) endzones.  As Rodger Sherman points out, it sure doesn’t look like there is that much more space beyond the endzone, but I am sure an NCAA official showed up with a tape measure to determine how many inches a wall is from the back of the endzone before putting away his or her stamp that says Unyielding Hazardous Wall to Officially Safe.

 

In 2010, the game stood out as a delightful novelty featuring the first football game at Wrigley Field since the Bears departed in 1970.  Since then, the novelty of football games in other sports stadiums has worn off; the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium began that winter, and since then bowl games have proliferated in ballparks; we’ve also seen a football game at Bristol Speedway and basketball games on aircraft carriers.  The novelty of a Wrigley game in 2021 is to watch Northwestern play football in a stadium even less suited for football than Ryan Field while hoping that Chicago area fans turn out to see football in the historic park where Frank Schwindel plays.  

There have been enough of these alternate venue games to know that, once the game starts, it pretty much looks like a football game.  The only way to restore the luster is to infuse the game with dumb baseball shtick.  For example, the teams should be allowed to keep quarterbacks in the bullpen so that Fitzgerald inevitably decides to make yet another mid-game quarterback change he can slowly stroll to the middle of the field wearing cleats and goofy satin jacket, take the football from the QB, and gesture for a relief quarterback while the organist plays a jaunty rendition of Head East’s rock classic “Never Been Any Reason.”  This can also be done with kickers. I also think that the quarterback should also be allowed to throw the ball out of bounds if he doesn’t like how the defense is lining up with no penalty other than the fans getting increasingly agitated and booing the shit out of him.

 

Pat Fitzgerald calling for a righty from the pen

I don’t have the heart to tell you that the oddsmakers for this game are once again forecasting doom for the Wildcats.  Purdue is good this year.  They’re are 6-4, with their only losses coming against tough ranked teams, and twice this year the unranked Boilers have summoned a Purdue Pete from whatever hell he slumbers in to rise from the bowels of the Earth and bring his hammer down on an undefeated, ranked team, smiting Iowa and tearing the heart out of Michigan State.  Wide receiver David Bell is unstoppable.  Northwestern’s best hope is that they have played so crappily that the entire Purdue team becomes deranged by dreams of defeating their suffering rival Indiana and plays the game in a bucket-crazed frenzy until it is too late and the Wildcats have scored more than one touchdown.  

In 2019, a dismal Northwestern team had a crummier Purdue team on the ropes.  Kyric McGowan ran 79 yards to score the first Northwestern touchdown in more than a calendar month, and Northwestern clung to a lead late until a barrage of maddening pass interference penalties allowed Purdue to kick a last-second field goal for the win.  At this point, I would take that, I'd enjoy a heartbreaking loss over another steamrolling that is over before the third quarter.


If anything, this game serves one extremely important function and that is giving us another week where do not have the think about Bret Bielema ordering a special tool called an embulbouser to widen the hole in the bottom of the Hat for the purpose of fitting it over his head.  It is too grim to contemplate.

Friday, November 12, 2021

The Wretched Agony of Watching Northwestern Games When You Can Just Google the Score

 

If you, like me, consume most of your football via DVR, there comes a time when you are watching your team slowly lose in a game that appears to have been projectile vomited by Matt Millen onto the Big Ten Network and now you need to make the decision whether to keep watching or to google “northwestern football” and see the final score. Most of the time this is a prudent decision, such as deciding to pull the ripcord sometime in the dreary third quarter of the Minnesota game and realizing that somehow the Gophers put up another 21 horrendous points. Sometimes doing this means missing out on an improbable comeback, the upsetting price for being able to fast forward through a coach’s challenge and at least 35 minutes of commercials for boner pills and extra large men’s pants by giving in to the overwhelmingly temptation to just know what happens.


The DVR was made for this Iowa-Northwestern game, a contest that seemed on paper like one that should have been banned from television altogether featuring two offenses that are doing everything short of pulling out their phones and killing time before punts. Iowa’s passing offense was so atrocious to begin with that it seemed like their major receiving target was the ground. They went 2-14 on third down. Northwestern, on its third quarterback, continued to run aground on offense, adding three interceptions to the mix. The teams combined for fifteen punts. Play stopped, mercifully, for a protest. Pat Fitzgerald got flagged for doing a Charlton Heston You Maniacs gesture on the sideline where his dramatic momentum carried him onto the field. I believe that if Fitz is going to get flagged, his entire head should blast off of his neck like a space shuttle and then at the post-game press conference Fitzgerald should be forced to sheepishly hold his head like the Washington Irving horseman and say things like “That can't happen. I am a passionate person but I'm also a disciplined person, so I can't lose my cool, I can't have my head flying off my shoulders and spinning into the air before it comes to rest on top of a gatorade bucket and everyone is freaking out and screaming oh my god his head.”


"It was the right call and obviously I can't have my head bursting off my shoulders and the referee tweeting his whistle saying hey fella go get your head, so I'm disappointed in myself first."
 

There was no more satisfying feeling in the world than fast forwarding through a lot of that, the football equivalent of watching three people ineffectively try to move a sedan through a snow covered alley for three hours while Matt Millen screams from an open window about how the the sleet is really doing a great job at being slippery and how that’s his kind of ice.


But skipping through a dreadful game before succumbing to the temptation to look at the final score robbed me of hoping that when the Wildcats scored their late touchdown they would have a chance to come back and win. Football games are long and tedious, but that just means that there is more time for tension to build and excitement and anxiety and a recording gives me access to an immediate Fuck It button that allows me to instantly skip to the end even knowing that I will be extremely annoyed if it turns out the game results in a comeback.  Yet something strange happens while watching it after looking up the final; there is still a part of me insane enough to believe that somehow they will manage to pull it out even though my phone has given me empirical proof that the comeback is in vain (in this case, Northwestern's attempt at a game-winning drive ended on an interception on the first play that happened so quickly that it was almost vaudevillian).


On Monday night, well into the third quarter with the Bears down 20-3 against the Steelers and it getting dangerously close bedtime, I decided to hit the Fuck It button and discovered that I had ruined a ludicrous Bears comeback with Justin Fields turning into a star, a series of truly unfathomable penalties including one on a Bears player I have never heard of who looks like one of the twin henchmen in the second Matrix movie got flagged for a “the fuck you looking at” penalty and Matt Nagy ending the game on one of the most pointless and doomed field goals ever attempted in the history of football. At at one point on the final drive I had shifted from doing the constant mental math of trying to figure out how the score got from what I was seeing to what my phone was telling me to actually believing that the Bears were going to win.


Nagy's camouflage makes him look like a haunted officer who has been deranged into doing weird kicker shit. On a related note, NFL Coaches' increasingly elaborate army cosplay has gotten so ridiculous that I desperately want to see Nagy coaching from the sidelines in a full ghillie suit with only his visor peeking out of his fake shrubbery.  He wouldn't even have to cover his mouth with a play sheet.


Every person who knows anything about football thinks Northwestern is going to be utterly destroyed by Wisconsin up at Camp Randall. The Badgers seemed to have caught their stride in the Big Ten and are ready to start thrashing teams like Northwestern to try to retake their usual throne atop the Big Ten West. The fact that they have one of the top defenses in the country does not worry me at all. Northwestern’s offense has been crawling so ineffectively that it is almost impossible to imagine that a team can stop them worse than they have already been stopped in virtually all of their Big Ten games already and what can Wisconsin do: sack the quarterback? Intercept passes? Violently lineback at them? Make them punt?  Northwestern's offense was born punting.  


(bane voice)


What Northwestern has, at this point, is absolutely nothing to lose, a running back that can jet for a touchdown, one of the best wide receivers I have seen in a Northwestern uniform, and a history of annoying Wisconsin and Wisconsin fans although usually that happens at Ryan Field in front of an overwhelmingly red crowd in one of the funniest and least-explicable exercises of home field advantage. A Northwestern win here would be a titanic upset, one that could send the reeling Big Ten West into further chaos. The Wildcats’ best chance to win would involve somehow scoring on a fumble and then having the referees immediately call the game because an extremely wealthy person with a private railcar and one of those fancy old-timey phones has bribed them. But I hope the game is close and excruciating, even in a possible Northwestern loss because it is supposed to be crappy out and I will probably watch this game live, unable to skip toward the final score.


ONLY THE BULLS


A certain species of blogger and now, unfortunately, podcaster has taken over how people read about the NBA on the internet that obsesses over contracts and the salary cap and ASSETS and these green-visored, punctilious numbers-mongers have blasted the Bulls for spending too much money on the DeMar DeRozan contract so it is incredibly satisfying to have watched the Bulls shove every single one of them into a toilet during this early phase of the NBA season. After watching the Bulls try to perform a version of the famed 76ers Process except in a way done by stupid people with oddly-shaped heads, the new front office headed by Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley shaped their offseason with a new philosophy proclaiming that draft picks are bullshit, ASSETS are bullshit, and the only things that are real are Buckets.


Every single player picked by Gar Forman and John Paxson is gone except for Zach LaVine and Coby White, who is injured and has not played this season. In its place is a new team that actually tries to score points. The Bulls for the past several years were made from a collection of generic replacement parts from thinly disguised Amazon house brands, and in retrospect it was absolutely insane watching a a team depending on Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple where the only person who could reliably pass the ball was a grizzled Thaddeus Young. The Bulls traded both Sato and Temple to the Pelicans and then they played this year and the Bulls absolutely blew them off the court because those dudes who did absolutely nothing wrong in a Bulls uniform kind of stink. Now they have Lonzo Ball feeding LaVine on fast breaks, Alex Caruso flying around stealing the ball from people, and Nikola Vucevic, who fills the primal need that Midwestern sports fans have to root for a guy with an "OOO" sound in his name.


The player who has been a revelation for me has been DeRozan. DeRozan exists as a relic in 2021, a guy who does not really shoot threes and has the maddening arsenal of fadeaway jumpers and post moves that every shooting guard copied from Michael Jordan and then did only moderately effectively for the next 20 years which resulted in the NBA turning into the basketball equivalent of skateboarding teenagers unsuccessfully trying to do kickflips in a Jewel parking lot for 48 minutes. But DeRozan is not some clumsy oaf, but an artist who has mastered a technique that is no longer in fashion. DeRozan has been fine in lineups with the starters, but what I love is when Billy Donovan puts him back in with the second unit that is made entirely of hustling energy guys and then lets DeRozan barbecue the opponents’ backups with his unstoppable arsenal of midrange pullup jumpers from the early 2000s; it is as beguiling as watching Scott Stapp win over the crowd of drunken Lollapalooza teenagers there to see [tk naming a musical act that I’ve vague heard of that I think teenagers in 2021 like in a way that will not be utterly mortifying] by hummmer dunger darging them into a fistpumping reverie except it is not aesthetically repulsive.


The Bulls have been good and fun to watch, but they are also a triumphant repudiation of every sort of garbage tanking strategy that NBA fans suffer through because someone with an MBA made a powerpoint. They assembled the best team they could while jettisoning every player they did not want and by scattering draft picks like a Dickensian count throwing coins off his carriage. Instead of waiting to see if one of the charming but ultimately disappointing teenagers drafted in the dregs of the lottery somehow turns into a superstar, I can watch someone who already knows how to play in the NBA play basketball. The smarmy counter to all of this enthusiasm is to point out that these Bulls will not likely win a title and will be eviscerated in a playoff season against one of the superstars they were too cowardly to tank for. But it is very difficult for me to care about this. For years, the Bulls were run by a deranged cabal that seemed more interested in proving some strange point than actually winning games that germinated in the bizarre roiling feuds from their Thibodeau-era heyday and reached its apotheosis with every single thing that Jim Boylen said and did in his brief and ludicrous tenure. The Bulls are not just good again, but they are normal. How refreshing.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Northwestern Enters its Werner Herzog Documentary Phase

Last week, this blog had suggested that Northwestern had improved its defensive woes enough to stick close enough to Big Ten West team and then spent sixty minutes getting thrown in a trash compactor by Minnesota, and it is becoming very clear that a miraculous turnaround or even a very funny upset may not be in the cards for the guys in purple.  The parallels to the 2019 debacle season are pervasive involving a quarterback carousel and a series of embarrassingly crushing conference losses.

In 2019, at least, fans got a convenient scapegoat in Mick McCall, who his critics would argue did not know how to design and implement a functioning passing game or to get ESPN to refer to him by his correct name.  But now McCall's replacement Mike Bajakian is falling into the same trap; the only difference is the quarterback he is using as the bridge from Hunter Johnson to Andrew Marty.  Bajakian, however, seems to be avoiding criticism because fans seem to be angrier at Jim O'Neil, the new defensive coordinator who has been unable to scheme around the graduation of several critical players and is watching his unit get carved up week after week by teams sick of punting.  And Pat Fitzgerald has remained rather muted on all of this when at the very least we deserve a ridiculous jeremiad against cell phones or him trying to pretend he doesn't know what tik tok is even though his job is to recruit and interact with young people who are essentially living extensions of the internet at all times-- I bet Pat Fitzgerald is also extremely online except in a weird and disturbing way that none of us can fathom like he is going on the dark web and looking at banned linebacking videos from 1977.


Pat Fitzgerald looks at pictures of illegal neck rolls

It is not particularly fun to write about Northwestern football right now.  The most compelling question is to diagnose what is going wrong or to engage with the most important principle of college football writing and demand that the coordinators get fired or even kidnapped by brigands.  The team's losses are not even particularly interesting-- previous lousy seasons involved Northwestern getting its heart broken on weird plays and sudden collapses where there are all sorts of interesting turning points, but in most losses this year the Wildcats have gotten so comprehensively defeated from the very beginning of the game that the most pressing strategic question involves whether to play the entire fourth quarter. 

Northwestern plays Iowa at home tonight under the lights in one of the most depressing evening games I can remember.  There was a time just a few weeks ago when Iowa looked unbeatable with an impregnable defense and an offense managing to do just enough to win, they were undefeated and nationally ranked, and then they crashed into Purdue and got bludgeoned by Wisconsin, and now here they are ready to take that out on a reeling Wildcats team that does not look particularly interested in stopping anyone.  

The one thing Northwestern has going for it is a delightfully cruel anti-Iowa mojo where the Wildcats have been able to endlessly frustrate the Ferentz family for more than a decade.  Unfortunately, I do not see the conditions as being ripe for an upset as the Hawkeyes have feasted on blowing out Northwestern in down years.  Neither one of these teams is interested in presenting a watchable football game.  The Northwestern and Iowa ethos is to strain the excitement out of football, refuse to turn it over, attempt passes where the ball ends up on the sidelines, and tediously run into defensive tackles until somebody asks them politely to stop.  This game will either be a boring Iowa rampage where the Iowa offense finds an opponent that will let it work or it will be a game where both teams combine for less than 500 yards of offense and the coaches end up jutting out their jaws while ordering out the punt teams.  Usually, the Big Ten likes to have marquee matchups in the evenings, but this game is occurring under the cover of darkness.  I am already giddy at how disgusting this game can be.  I have talked myself into a Wildcat upset that causes a temporary internet outage across the state of Iowa from people complaining about uncalled holding penalties. 

AARON RODGERS SHOULD FREE THINK UNTIL HE IS A MORE INTERESTING CRACKPOT

Anyone following the National Football League had a bit of a day on Friday when Aaron Rodgers went on the Tank Top Punter's podcast after entering the league's Covid-19 protocol.  Earlier in the season, Rodgers had told a reporter that he was "immunized" from the disease, but after coming down with the covid, he revealed that he was actually playing a clever mind game because when he said "immunized" instead of referring to a vaccine like any normal person would assume, he had actually underwent a mysterious and still-unexplained homeopathic therapy that did not immunize him from anything while he appeared to be following many of the rules the league had put into place vaccinated players.  

Rodgers, appearing in a beanie with a piece of paper for his talking points and speaking in a bizarre drawl, then unleashed one of the funniest statements that has ever come out of a football player: "I realize I’m in the crosshairs of the woke mob right now. So, before my final nail gets put in my cancel culture casket, I think I would like to set the record straight on so many of the blatant lies that are out there about myself."


This entire spectacle appears to be airing on a show only available in the Biff Tannen Universe

This is a spectacularly overwrought denunciation of his critics, one that immediately put me in mind of a 2011 Newt Gingrich press release that began "The literati sent out their minions to do their bidding. Washington cannot tolerate threats from outsiders who might disrupt their comfortable world."  Rodgers would then outline his treatment plan he got in consultation with cagefighting podcast host Joe Rogan who has become a font of bizarre medical information developed on bodybuilding messageboards and is now somehow one of the most influential media figures in the country.  He claimed he submitted a 500-page report to the NFL that would prove that his alternative healing methods were as effective as a vaccine that I would like to read.  He has done his own research,  He began a sentence with "as the great MLK once said."  It was a sublime performance.

But the thing that stands out to me from this statement more than anything is how directly Rodgers's freethinking mantra came ripped straight out of the internet; the buzzwords from that sentence would be completely unrecognizable three years ago and now they have become the mantra of every famous person who has faced sustained criticism to the point of tedium.  

I think there is a tendency for media people to ascribe every sort of weird trend to the internet not least because the vocation of someone in media, as far as I can tell, involves spending all of their time on the internet.  There has always been misinformation, powerful crackpots, and maniacs surrounding any issue that one cares to look for.  The thing that to me is interesting about the proliferation of the internet and social media is the fact that giving a sort of broadcast license to millions of people whose musings would have been limited to their own social circles a few decades ago has in my not led to all sorts of interesting and strange ideas but flattened everything into homogenized ideas and turns of phrase.  

To me, at least, it seems that the way people have talked online has gone from a secret vocabulary of words you would use to flame other users on a message board based on mods for Diablo II that you probably didn't want anyone to know about to a lingo that has penetrated the online sphere and moved into how people speak in general.  Maybe it is just me and the places I find myself, but it is rare that I overhear a conversation among young people that is not about online spaces or inflected with language people use specifically online that was clearly not how people spoke five years ago.  I'm not claiming to be immune.  Hell, if you were insane enough you could go back far into this blog and discover based on certain phrases when I started using twitter.  

One of the great disappointments of the Aaron Rodgers interview was how rote it all was.  You would hope that a celebrity who has claimed to do all of his own research to support his unorthodox and unfounded medical views would at least manifest in something new and interesting.  Rodgers could squint at the podcast doofuses and, for example, smugly explain that they have never heard of Galenic Humours while explaining how he balances them by using an app and a device that goes into all of his openings.  Unfortunately, Rodgers came across with the exact same anti-vaccination rhetoric that one might see in a twitter reply by DavePatriot2897874.  Rodgers had the opportunity spew previously unheard of deranged medical theories, ones that would blow our mind and maybe even allow him start his own conspiracy-based cult, but, like his performances in NFC championship games, he has come up short.

It is unlikely after all of this furor that Rodgers will suffer any ill-effects from this.  He is still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and he will not be meaningfully punished by the league for lying because the NFL's "protocols" are a meaningless cover-our-ass policy for an issue the league does not care about nor will his rhetoric stop teams from clamoring for his services if he decides to become a free agent, and even if he is no longer appearing in 35 insurance commercials in every game, he will be free to spend the offseason getting the opportunity to go on podcasts with millions of listeners to monotonously explain how no one is letting him speak.  Instead, I think it is fine to cackle at Rodgers getting caught in an extremely stupid lie and then going on what appears to me to be an oaf-based lifestyle podcast to wildly explain how he had put together an enormous medical report with no training while appearing on Jeopardy and on vacations while turgidly denouncing his critics as a mob who want to destroy him while he could have gotten all of this out of his system by anonymously talking about some mods for Diablo II. 

EXCERPT FROM HILARY MANTEL'S HALAS HALL

Summer 2020 

He wipes off sweat from the fields surrounding Halas Hall, the humidity gathering under his summer weight executive vest and gathering into his armpits and at the contours of his mask.  The court traditionally moves to its summer home in Bourbonnais, but chose to stay at Halas Hall to shelter from the coughing plague.  The precautions they have taken has also kept him, Ryan Pace, from keeping tabs on his coach and assistants though his teams monitor their communications for any attacks on ownership or overtures to the NFC North.

He is taken to the owner's office where George McCaskey is being fitted into his finest gameday Ditka sweater.  The angry spring had taken a toll.  George's eyes droop with heavy baggage.  His mustache, once a resplendent mustache that was the pride of the Greater Chicagoland Metropolitan Area is drooping, gray, and sparse.  

"I have heard they are writing rude poems about him again." 

They are.  His assistants carefully monitor the radio waves to understand what sorts of rhymes and insults might radiate from 670 The Score, particularly from an odious caller named Stan from Glen Ellyn who is allowed daily attacks on the quarterback.  "Trubinsky" they call him.  Yesterday, this Stan from Glen Ellyn suggested that they should scale back the playbook to flashcards allowing Mitch to pick whether he was looking at the color of the Bears' or their opponents' jerseys.  What George does not know is that it is worse than that, that this Stan had also called George a "living potato" and demanded that he sell the team and move to Canada along with "that Trestman jagoff," and he does not want to mention it or else George will fly into a purpling rage that will take his entire afternoon while he is still trying to scour the waiver wire for castoffs to invite to camp.

"They are running out of extraneous consonants to throw in there," he says.  George should only know what they say about him, Ryan Pace, on the radio but that, too, is not something George needs to know about.

"And how is our coach this afternoon?"

"I am told he is delighted at new concepts he is installing in the passing game," he says.

He has no idea what the coach, whom he and his assistants have been referring to as "Call-Me-Naygee" could be up to with his passing game, but he needed to find something this year.  The beleaguered coach had not yet found him a Franchise Quarterback and George was growing impatient.

He remembers the look on John Fox's face, the sour old bastard, when he fired him.  Those radio stations were useful then with his aids and assistants calling up as Jimbos from Mayfair and Big Eddies from Grayslake lambasting Fox's archaic style of play and making sure this chatter and newspaper columns laden with Sources Close to Halas Hall found their way to the owner's box.  But Nagy had reneged on his promise.  Nagy had sworn to revamp the offense but, when they won, the Bears had done so the same way they always had and time was running out.  

"Perhaps we need to think about whether the roster is the right one in place for this system," George said while leafing through Dick Butkus's Linebacking Recipes. He had brought in Nick Foles, a champion and the coach's favorite.  Mitch, who seemed to blissfully ignore the increasing calls for his head, was starting to look haunted.  The songs about Foles were as ubiquitous as they were bawdy, emphasizing a different part of the body than the anthems blaring from the streets about the earlier quarterback Mike Glennon whose prodigious neck inspired some of the callers' greatest soliloquies. 

"Mitch has looked sharp out there, I think Foles will really push him," he said.  Mitch has not looked sharp.  He has never looked sharp.  It was an a disastrous miscalculation, and he had spend the last two years scrambling to recover from it.  He had already decided that, barring some sort of miracle, he would push Mitch out and find someone else at the end of the season, but George had not fully turned on him yet and still looked at the young quarterback like a son.  But George also knew that every season without a franchise quarterback put him in peril and it was also dangerous for his coach and for the executive who could not bring one."

He turned on the radio in his office.  It was Stan from Glen Ellyn, and he was calling for his head.

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.
 
FINALLY NORTHWESTERN AND MINNESOTA PLAY AGAIN
 
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.
 
 AN EXTREMELY GRUMPY WORLD SERIES OPINION

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.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Northwestern Triumphs in Perverse Game Broadcast From Mars

Years of cable market-cobbling and conference-mongering got us here: an 11AM game between Rutgers and Northwestern in front of 85 people that featured 16 punts and two missed field goals that transformed an otherwise fine autumn day into a grim football puntscape.

The Big Ten Network seemed to understand what they were serving up to the twisted maniacs choosing to tune into this game and gave us a chaotic broadcast fit for the criminally insane. My DVR recorded the entire game as a series of digital fits and starts, with the picture and sound cutting out every few minutes, occasionally leaving me to piece together what had happened. I assumed this was a recording issue, but one person, at least, told me that this is how the game went out live, as a herky jerky Paul Verhoeven broadcast from a base on a distant planet that was seconds away from being blown up. They also unleashed Matt Millen, the reigning Prince of Midwestern Shit Football to explain to viewers which of the football players they were watching were Football Players in a manner best described as mustachedly. It was awful, stupid, and glorious, and exactly what we deserved.
 
BTN releases a broadcast where Millen and J Leman scream the word
“Football” at each other in an otherwise bare room until they are too exhausted to continue

Last week’s post was full of foreboding about a potential loss to Rutgers after a dispiriting shellacking at the hands of Nebraska, but fortunately Rutgers football managed to assume the general shape of Rutgers football. There may be a time in the near future when Rutgers manages to right itself and the Scarlet Knights become respectably mediocre and boring, but right now they can be counted on put on a top hat and fall down a manhole or get chased down the stairs by a piano that is somehow falling in a pattern that plays a Hungarian Rhapsody in perfect rhythm on its way down, or somehow dodge a thrown pie, smirk, and then immediately having the World’s Largest Pie fall off its display and engulf it. As Jeff Goldblum might ah hem her haw about them: Rutgers finds a way.

At least for one week, Northwestern managed to shore up its maligned run defense against a conference opponent, stymieing the Rutgers attack on the ground. Adetomiwa Adebawore lived in the Rutgers backfield. On offense, Northwestern’s receivers flashed the big play ability they’ve been hinting at all season, including a juggling sideline catch by Stephon Robinson that is one of the best catches I’ve seen from a Wildcat in quite some time and a Malik Washington touchdown where a Rutgers tackler seemed to fly away from him like a weightless CGI protagonist in one of those superhero movies that all end with people being flung into buildings for 35 minutes to no apparent effect.

But you turned on the game to watch a Rutgers/Northwestern game, so you also got Pat Fitzgerald dialing up one of the most ludicrous fake punt plays I’ve ever seen where the punter received the ball and was told to just run into the line of scrimmage like he was going over the top at Gallipoli. We also witnessed a near-disastrous Northwestern flea flicker run in a way where Wildcats appeared to be throwing the football the wrong way down the field in exactly the same way that Big Daddy says "there's a saying down on the ol' bayou-- BLEH" then throws Ralph Wiggum at Skinner and Chief Wiggum before leaping out the window to gradually get away.

And there was a Rutgers coach who managed to get hit with the Beckman Penalty for getting in an official’s way on the sidelines. I was crushed it was not Schiano himself.  This was my first taste of Schiano as a Northwestern opponent and he lived up to the billing as a Dour Football Dipshit, even by Big Ten standards. He spent the game seething on the sidelines, occasionally hopping up and down and grinding his teeth when Rutgers hit with yet another penalty. He spent the week leading up to Rutgers’ game against Michigan State in a snit alleging that Spartans coach Mel Tucker stole his “keep chopping” slogan, one of the funniest demonstrations of a warped football-brained cosmology that apparently assumes that the phrase “keep chopping” conjures up some sort of magical football acumen that one associates with Greg Schiano that differs from every other extraordinarily stupid motivational slogan used by every football team on every level.
 
P.J. Fleck needed a legal settlement to use Row the Boat at 
Minnesota, but since then he has come up with a foolproof 
way to prevent other coaches from stealing his slogans by 
making acronyms so clumsy and hare-brained that no one else 
can even comprehend them

The central question for Northwestern is whether they have turned a corner defensively or whether they have encountered an inept and moribund Big Ten team and are due to get shoved around again. Fortunately, they can ease back into the schedule with oh no.

THE BIGGEST NOON THEY'VE GOT

I have no idea what arcane contract language has forced Fox’s to televise a Northwestern football game to the entire country but surely there is a lawyer somewhere that can find an obscure provision that will allow Gus Johnson to pull a lever and put on a Sun Belt game or three and a half hours of that strongman competition where they wear a Volkswagen like a vest and stagger around for awhile. Despite Northwestern’s comfortable win over Rutgers, the Wolverines are heavily favored; the only way that gambling sites could get a respectable amount of action on Northwestern was to ask the most degenerate bettors whether Northwestern could finish within 23.5 points of Michigan and the only way Northwestern stands a chance is to turn the game into an unwatchable festival of garbage so obscenely riddled with punts, turnovers, and penalties that it causes college football to be banned from public airwaves.

Michigan fans want to be seen as underdogs because they get their asses destroyed by Ohio State every year but the fact of the matter is that outside of that they tend to be a pretty good team, and this dual identity of being the schoolyard bullies who get to cosplay as Charlie Brown for one weekend a year is something I believe to be kind of annoying. I understand life is more difficult in the Big Ten East, and Northwestern has gotten to take its medicine from the Buckeyes in the glitz and glamor of Indianapolis, but the ‘Cats have never beaten Michigan under Jim Harbaugh or even the maligned Brady Hoke. They haven’t won since 2008, against a 3-9 Michigan team in the death throes of the Rich Rodriguez era, so I am not particularly sympathetic to angst about whether Harbaugh can win The Big Game or whatever they call it or if they got bonked around in the Outback Bowl. Not my problem.

Unfortunately, this year Michigan is extremely good. They’re undefeated and currently ranked #6 in the country (below a one-loss Ohio State in the AP Poll, naturally) and rolling. Unlike Rutgers, they do not have several converted defensive lineman and maybe one or two husky guys from the cafeteria attempting to play offensive line, they have two excellent running backs to test Northwestern's maligned rush defense, and depending on your beliefs about Michigan State, they are the toughest team Northwestern has faced this season. It can be a very long afternoon in Ann Arbor.

Michigan football fans, from what I have seen from reading about them because the program is so ubiquitous in college football media, seem to me to have become somewhat fatalistic and are bracing at all times for a shocking heartbreak. This year, that could come from an also-unbeaten Michigan State team that features just below Ohio State on the ability to cause Michigan fans tsuris, or from a perceived lesser team that could humiliate the Wolverines in this, their year of destiny. I would very much like that team to be the Northwestern Wildcats, a team that has come back from even more shocking lows than these early season buttkickings to Big Ten competence but has been atrocious enough in the early season that a win against Michigan would be genuinely funny.

Imagine, for example, Jim Harbaugh, that dean of sideline histrionics, getting so angry that he throws his cap-- in fact he is wearing a giant stack of hats like the children’s book Caps For Sale-- and he is throwing each and every one of them onto the field in disgust because of a dubious Neutral Zone Infraction that gives Northwestern a fresh set of downs which is enough time for Hilinski to hit Stephon Robinson with a bomb in the endzone as time expires and 100,000 stunned Michigan fans reenact the expression that the audience has to the play in The Producers and the outcome leaves Pat Fitzgerald needing to get experimental fist surgery after pumping too hard so he spends the rest of his career coaching with an iron claw that he uses to angrily point at referees while making dying goldfish faces when they call unjust holding penalties. That would surely be more entertaining than a desultory Michigan win.

Despite Northwestern's struggles, I still believe they have it in them to harness their power and absolutely wreck a team's season.  It probably will not be Michigan this weekend, but I hope the apex of the season is not convincing Rutgers fans that their team still stinks.

USA BASKETBALL UPDATE

As the NBA started its first normal-length regular season with fans in attendance, there was one piece of basketball new on everyone’s mind: USA basketball has chosen a coach for its regional qualifying tournament for the FIBA World Cup. That coach is Jim Boylen.

For the past year, I have sarcastically suggested Jim Boylen for every sports-related job opening I could think of, including a very stupid twitter bit that only I think is funny where I change my name to NBA Coaching Insider and jump into the replies to any big account tweeting about coach searches to weigh in that My Sources have told me that the front office has only one name in mind, and it’s Jim Boylen (I believed I had the most success doing this with Philadelphia because Sixers fans’ exposure to years of Process Discourse have made them the most deranged sports fans on the internet. Still though I want us all to participate in a thought experiment where Jim Boylen was the coach of the 76ers right now and attempting to heal that team by chasing after Ben Simmons and angrily tooting his whistle). This was self-evidently a joke because Jim Boylen could not possibly be in charge of anything after his disastrous run as the Bulls coach. I don’t want to talk out of school here, but he came across as a real boob. I can’t imagine any team wanting a round bald man who loves ineffectively screaming at accomplished professional athletes and then asking reporters if they have seen the movie where Whoopi Goldberg is a police officer who teams up with a Tyrannosaurus.

One of the strangest bits of Boylen lore is when Zach LaVine 
went on Zach Lowe's podcast and told him that Jim Boylen 
referred to him as a "Cephalapoid" which is the alien that Will Smith 
chases down in the beginning of Men in Black, an absolutely stunning 
revelation of how deep Boylen went into Men in Black Lore in order to 
make a profoundly stupid point

The United States does not send its NBA Superstars to the FIBA Americas qualifying tournament, but they will send an unheralded melange of G-Leaguers and NCAA Tournament Guys. Readers of this blog might remember the last time the USA was in this tournament because Wildcat basketball legend Reggie Hearn hit some buzzer beaters and was named USA Men's Basketball Player of the Year. That team was coached by professional Grumpy Announcer Jeff Van Gundy and now it is in the hands of professional Bald Asshole Jim Boylen.
 

I love international basketball, and I enjoy rooting for Team USA, but at the same time it would be extremely funny if the United States did not get to play in the World Cup because Jim Boylen decided to have a bunch of two-a-days hours before tipoff of every game and then told the media that he was losing games but winning the Toughness Battle and that his strategy was based on the time Jean-Claude Van Damme got that crotch powder thrown in his eyes by Chong Li in Bloodsport. Or if every American player defected to the Cuban national team because Boylen insisted on making them listen to a poem he wrote called “The Winner’s Edge.”

Sports exist as a bizarre sort of projection of a nation onto the rest of the world. In that case, maybe there is no better representative of the United States in 2021 than Jim Boylen.