Friday, November 28, 2014

HATURDAY HATPOCALYPSE HAT GAME BOWL GAME HAT

It is here.

Which team will qualify for a virtually non-existent bowl game in Detroit or somewhere spiritually aligned with the concept of a Detroit bowl game ? Which team can persevere in the face of intense media scrutiny?  Which team has what it takes to be the second-best team in the state?  Which team has a better back-up quarterback?  Who's cuisine will reign supreme?  Who wants The Hat, the universally-recognized symbol of the greatest rivalry in the history of college football?
 
Hat

It's Hat Saturday.  Haturday.  Win or go home.  The most important game between Northwestern and Illinois in the history of the rivalry and it's to punch a golden ticket to a Siberian bowl wasteland or be forever cast into the dustbin of forgotten teams that don't play in bowls even though the difference between playing in a crappy bowl game or not playing in one is for all intents and purposes meaningless.  This game is no less than the climax of the Tim Beckman era, and a win or die showdown for watered-down, grade-inflation bowl eligibility; it is the platonic ideal of a Land of Lincoln game.  This game could be a glorious continuation of Tim Beckman-related Hat Invincibility or it could go down as one of the most ignominious defeats in Northwestern history which includes losses via multiple onside kick returns, allowing the greatest comeback in the history of college football, losing to an FCS opponent at home, losing 34 consecutive games as students threw the goal posts in Lake Michigan in mock triumph, and failing to defeat Brady Hoke.

DO BECK MEN DREAM OF ELECTRIC HATS

Tim Beckman is one of the best things to happen to Northwestern football.   Illinois and Northwestern shared Big Ten Cellar-Dweller Solidarity, occasionally rising to the top of the conference and serving as a welcome breath of fresh air against the ceaseless and boring domination by the Ohio States and Michigans.  Illinois's football past is only slightly less bleak than Northwestern's.  I can't sum up the Illinois football experience better than the lede from this article: "Illinois senior football players were asked to name their favorite memory during their time in the program for the team's website. For most of the 18, the best memory was the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl."

The rivalry game, first for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk and then vastly superior Hat, was a good way to end the season and usually seen as winnable.  Then Tim Beckman came to down, guns blazing, staring down piano players.

Beckman made no secret of what he wanted: state pride and its currency: Hats.  His introductory press conference was rife with references to destroying purple objects, referring to Northwestern as "that school up north," putting up that anti-Northwestern sign in the locker room, and probably getting angry at Kansas State and sending hate mail to the purple teletubby for what the producers of the that show would see as novel and unexpected reasons.  If you for whatever reason have read more than one entry of this blog, you've noticed that I think the War on Northwestern is an unending wellspring of hilarity.
 
Try to think of something funnier than this

But, in some ways, Tim Beckman has won.  Beckman, and the conversion of the trophy into a coveted Hat, has made the Illinois game a must-win.  It's more than just a win against an in-state rival (Beckman, who makes pronouncements with the understated, soft-spoken cadence of a desperate Depression-era carnival barker, declared this the "state championship," apparently oblivious to the existence of Northern Illinois).  The cosmic laws of the universe simply cannot allow a person who uses all of the ridiculous flopsweat-addled manufactured rivalry tricks on what is historically the worst program in the history of college football to prevail in that game.  Instead, Beckman functions best as a frustrated foil; Beck Man the Saturday morning cartoon villain whose plots are forever frustrated by his own incompetence.

If Tim Beckman had turned the Illini into a football juggernaut, his goofy Northwestern-baiting would be embraced as part of his motivational tactics.  But his Illini have not exactly set the world on fire.  Beckman has won a total of four Big Ten games since taking over in 2012.  His tenure has been marked by weird incidents on and off the field, including a public censure by the NCAA for chewing tobacco on the sideline, acquiring sideline interference penalties including the one linked above where he's simultaneously flagged and run over by a referee, and criticism for attempting to poach Penn State players seconds after sanctions came down.  I don't blame him for any of those things; there's no room for dignity in coaching college football and Beckman should be able to use whatever sideline substances he wants whether it's chaw or the chemicals that are constantly pumped into Ed Orgeron on gameday to prevent him from removing his shirt.  But it would also be fair to say that his position at Illinois is under siege, and he may well be coaching for his job on Saturday.

GET ON UP FOR THE HAT GAME YOU CHUMPS

What else can we say?  It's the Hat Game.  Northwestern is carrying a modest two-game win streak including a decisive 38-14 victory over a train accident Purdue team that was never really in doubt.  But the Wildcats suffered a massive blow on offense when Trevor Siemian injured his knee.  That means that the already-struggling Northwestern offense will turn to big-armed backup Zack Oliver.  Oliver looked good to close out the game.  It would not be surprising to see the 'Cats use their other quarterback in Alviti Packages because they sound like the Macguffin at the center of a heist movie.
 
Slide the briefcase across the floor.  Stay there.  I need to make a call.  If I don't call 
by precisely 2:30, we'll destroy the Alviti Packages.  You're not getting anything 
until my boss confirms he has the Colter Options

The Illini may also use their backup at quarterback.  Beckman replaced a rusty Wes Lunt with Riley O'Toole in their win against Penn State.  Northwestern fans may remember O'Toole from his cameo in the 2012 game, when he relieved Nathan Scheelaase in a Northwestern romp.  Lunt may also play.  Maybe the teams will switch quarterbacks at halftime just to mix things up.

The game will match one of the country's least productive offenses (playing with up to two quarterbacks, neither of which has ever started a game) against one of the worst defenses.  Northwestern plays defense better than anything the Illini do and are at home, albeit badly outnumbered by Illinois fans.  The 'Cats have beaten Wisconsin and Notre Dame while the Illini have felled mighty Minnesota.

Don't write off the Illini.  This game is for The Hat.  It is for a bowl.  It is for Tim Beckman's job, for continued irritation at the whole Chicago's Big Ten team thing, for a tiny crack of dawn in the darkness that has shrouded the Illinois football program since the Fall of the Zook Empire, and I expect the Illini to come out like maniacs to let that Hat radiate happiness around Champaign in the dismal winter months to come in The Greatest Rivalry in All of College Football.

COME OUT THIS SATURDAY.  It is the Hat Game.  It is going to be pleasant outside.  Are you prepared to sit idly by and ignore what will certainly be the hattest hat game of the century with a trip to Detroit at stake when you and your loved ones can be part of a braying purple throng ready to sweep Beck Man and the Illini down I-57, hatless and bowl-less, in the last opportunity to do so at Ryan Field this season, and with the only socially acceptable venue for yelling at college students who are running into each other for our amusement?  Don't let the Illini enact a Glorious Revolution and turn Ryan Field into a House of Orange.
 
Beckman's hatred for Northwestern is so intense, I 
can see him taking over another team and 
attempting to maneuver them into the Big Ten and 
use their resources to try to crush the Wildcats, like 
William III attempted to do against the Sun King, 
Louis XIV

HATURDAYS OF THUNDER


This is the greatest Hat Game in history.  A bowl is on the line in a win or go home thunderdome.  We might not have Tim Beckman to kick around anymore.  No one wants to see Beckman ever hold a Hat in triumph; the thought is sickening, appalling, disgusting.  At the same time, I want to see more on the line in this game.  Beckman's ridiculous, tone-deaf, absurd rivalry campaign has made this game relevant again and not even entirely ironically.  I hope he sticks around for many more Hats to come and for this game to be not about Detroit or whatever shitty bowl game the bowl gods conjure up but one day about Indianapolis or Pasadena.  

Even in a sport where wins and losses can swing the tenor of an entire season, this has been one of the most bizarre Northwestern seasons I can remember.  It featured at least three or four moments when all seemed lost.  It featured a heinous blowout at the hands of the hated Hawkeyes and a football game against Michigan so terrible that it was not played so much as perpetrated.  It continued the inexplicable and frustrating Northwesternings from last season, but also contained one of my favorite Northwestern games ever played when every single break Northwestern missed over the past two years came to their way in the service of ruining Notre Dame's day.  And it culminated in a knock-down drag-out fight to the death for a Hat, a crappy bowl game, and all that is worth rooting for in college football.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Notre-Dame: This is Northwestern Football


Turn up the Coolio, put up your Jud Buechler posters, and hang with Mr. Cooper.  Northwestern has gone back into South Bend and improbably beaten the Notre Dame Fighting Irish nineteen years after their last trip to Notre Dame Stadium convinced America that Northwestern football existed.  And they did so with a game only marginally more ridiculous than Northwestern's losses in the past two seasons, a game that unfolded like a diabolical Rube Goldberg machine designed to ruin Notre Dame football.  Look, I know anyone who has gone far enough down the Northwestern football rabbit hole to actually be reading this blog has probably watched the game and read all the articles and produced a 1920s silent film reel about it, but I can't think of anything more pleasurable than reviewing the stupefying chain of events that led to Northwestern victory.
 
Excerpt from silent film The Hiphooraysman.
The gif comes from @NUHighlights's spectacular collection of Fitzgifs, including one where 
Fitz temporarily vanishes from the Coaches' Review graphic box because he is reacting like a muppet

1. A botched hold on an extra points allows Nick VanHoose to return the ball some 98 yards for a two-point conversion.  You are not allowed to do this in the National Football League because only the kicking team can score National Football Points on a point-after attempt as mandated by the NFL's Committee of Guys With Folded Arms Slowly Shaking Their Heads.

2. A football bounces off an iconic Notre Dame Golden Helmet into the waiting arms of Anthony Walker for a rare Domeception.

3. The 2014 Northwestern Wildcats score multiple touchdowns in the same game.

3.Up 40-29, Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly decides to go for two, even though a PAT would force the Wildcats to score two touchdowns instead of a touchdown, two-point conversion, and field goal because it's called playing the percentages and it's what smart managers do to win ballgames.
 
"More points! More points!" screams Kelly, demanding the Irish go for two in the 
manner of a reprobate Roman Emperor

4. Northwestern scores a touchdown and converts for its 37th point. 

5.With 96 seconds remaining in the game and Northwestern out of timeouts the Fighting Irish have the ball.  Virtually any football action here such as running, passing, falling down, performing an elaborately choreographed Busby Berkeley dance number, snapping the ball and yelling I DECLARE A FOOTBALL, would have virtually ended the game.  Instead, the running back fumbled the ball right back to Trevor Siemian and the Wildcat offense.

6. Northwestern drives down the damn field.

7. Kicker Jack Mitchell (MITCHELL!), who did not hit a field goal longer than 29 yards all season, straight up stone colds a 41-yarder to send it to OT.  Then, after a Notre Dame miss in overtime, he blasts a 45-yarder to just end Notre Dame.

After enduring a two-year supply of fourth-quarter meltdowns, Fourth and Shorts, Ron Kelloggings, kicker-slidings, overtime debacles, Husky tauntings, two point conversion slips, and the entire case history of Universe v. Northwestern Football, it culminated in a game where everything short of the Red Sea parted for the Wildcats.  And they did it to Notre Dame in South Bend on the Notre Dame Television Station in front of thousands of Notre Dame fans and in front of you and me and America.

THIS IS NORTHWESTERN FOOTBALL

Northwestern football has been kind of bumming fans out lately.  No one expects the Wildcats to be a football juggernaut-- in fact Northwestern football had been defined by its decades-long stretch as a reverse-juggernaut that was better than any other team in this nation at getting trampled upon.  But the improbable way the Wildcats have lost football games has given fans the same kind of dour combination of disbelief and resignation that John McClane has in the first 25 minutes of any Die Hard movie when he learns he's at the center of another plot concocted by an as-yet undiscovered Gruber Brother. 

The advent of the playoff system (and its inevitable future expansion) and the Embrace Debate culture that permeates college football's nonsensical championship raises questions about the relevance of the rest of the teams.  What do you root for when your team is irrelevant to the playoff picture?  Why does the Big Ten bother to play football?
 
"Because it's there." George Mallory and this guy

Wildcat football is not likely to figure in the playoff most years.  They are not likely to contend for conference championships, although it's far from impossible in the Big Ten West: Division of Dreams.  But Northwestern, like 100 other teams in the FBS can have successful seasons.  There's the eternal quest for six wins and a golden ticket to one of dozens of Pizza City Bowls.  There's the Hat, the symbol of victory in America's Greatest College Football Rivalry.  And there is the possibility to just absolutely brutalize some other team's hopes and dreams.

This is the essence of Northwestern football.  If you cannot be a football powerhouse forever stressing about strength of schedule, transitive properties, shadowy playoff committees, and all of the other nonsense that goes into disguising the essentially arbitrary process that determines the national championship, you might as well be a team that infuriates other teams by beating them. 

Northwestern will beat a ranked team.   That team's fans will respond with apoplectic calls to fire their coach, their athletic director, their mascot, their band director, their chair in zoology.  They will write angry things on the internet about how the situation is unacceptable, despite the fact that the word unacceptable should only be by used be people like international observers monitoring elections in that fictional country ruled by Dr. Doom.  They will fail to acknowledge the existence of Northwestern except as a force to expose their team's flaws, like the Wildcats are an unexplained blight or pestilence.  No one ever gives credit to the sun for being really clutch at melting Icarus's wings.

College football has organized and commodified a process of demolishing expectations and crushing hope.  We know that all too well-- both seasons since 2000 that Northwestern entered with a preseason rankings ended as four- and five-win debacles.  I don't know how fans of powerhouse teams do that every year.  It does not seem fun to consider nine-win seasons and bowl victories as catastrophes or get genuinely upset when the team does not win by enough points.  It's great when Northwestern can rack up victories and contend for Big Ten Championships.  I sincerely believe the 'Cats will make it back to Pasadena at some point even as I've made peace with the fact that I will die without seeing the Cubs play in a World Series and all of their young talent is an elaborate cosmic taunt.  But, in those leaner years, Northwestern will remain an agent of chaos, spreading football discord and trampling upon the hopes of other fans, and chaos wins in college football more than anything. 

HAVING SAID THAT, LET'S HAVE UNREASONABLE BOWL EXPECTATIONS

The Notre Dame victory did more than satisfyingly infuriate Notre Dame people.  It also kept bowl hopes alive for Northwestern.  Should the Wildcats win out against Purdue and Illinois, they are going to Detroit or Dallas or the back room of a chicken slaughtering facility.  Neither team opponent is a world-beater, and Northwestern may well be favored in both.

The Wildcats are coming off their best offensive performance of the season.  The 40 points they scored in regulation is the exact number of points they scored in their last three games. Trevor Siemian threw for 284 yards, but could have had more if receivers could have come down with some few well-thrown bombs that bounced off their hands. He also ran for 32 yards and a touchdown, although he probably could have moonwalked into the endzone.  Justin Jackson has already rushed for 910 yards despite not beginning the season as a starter.  Jackson's not overwhelmingly big or blindingly fast-- instead, he has an innate sense that allows him to find cracks in the line and an apparent disdain for opposing tacklers that are forced to leave messages for him about tackling because he is too busy running the ball.
 
A late tackle attempt

The biggest story of the Notre Dame game was Jack Mitchell.  HEY DID YOU KNOW JACK MITCHELL IS A BASEBALL PLAYER?  IT IS TRUE, HE LITERALLY PLAYS TWO SPORTS.  THAT'S MORE THAN ONE SPORT, DOUG. I don't know what it is about multi-sport athletes that makes announcers lose their fucking minds with dumb, unfunny references to batting averages and walk-offs and wRC+, but we all lived through the Greg Paulus Imbroglio and as happy as I am for Mitchell and the rest of the 'Cats, I would not wish that on any fan base, even Notre Dame.

I don't know anything about Purdue football.  They have three wins this season and the worst record in the Big Ten (powerhouse Northwestern boasts four wins).  Darrell Hazell, who took over from Danny Hope last year, inherited a program that had fallen far from its heights as a reliable generator of NFL quarterbacks including Drew Brees, The Pride of Buffalo Kyle Orton, and Curtis Painter.  The Boilermakers' quarterback is a person named Austin Appleby.  It's been a grim year in West Lafeyette and probably all other Lafeyettes.
 
Hazell may be forced to take extreme action to rally his 
Boilermakers

Purdue is the worst team in the Big Ten this season.  But there's no point in assuming anything with this Northwestern team.  Purdue will see the 'Cats as a potential win, the Wildcats are coming off an emotional victory over yet another ranked opponent, and I bet Austin Appleby is really scrappy.  Perhaps the Notre Dame victory has managed to reverse the demonic curse that has befallen Northwestern since the Ohio State game last year.  Perhaps Northwestern players will build on the win.  Perhaps nothing has changed at all and this game will end with Purdue temporarily winning a court injunction to suspend the out of bounds rules on the final play and will lateral the ball around the stadium and parking lots and on hastily constructed Mad Max dune buggies that will allow them to lose the Northwestern defense somewhere around the Tippecanoe battle site and then wind their way back down to score a secret touchdown in the dead of night.

But the even larger implications surround the Apocalyptic Northwestern-Illinois Showdown looming in Evanston on November 29.  I'm turning my back on the Greatest Rivalry in the History of American Quasi-Amateur Sports this weekend to root full bore for the Beck Men to beat Penn State.  Both NU and Illinois have four wins.  If Northwestern manages to win against Purdue and the Illini beat Penn State, the teams will be playing for more than a Hat.  The last, shittiest, Big Ten bowl berth will be at stake.

The Battle for the Sixth Win would be the greatest Illinois-Northwestern game of all time.  The two teams have only played once with bowl status on the line as far as I can tell: in 2008, the Wildcats knocked Ron Zook's Illini out of bowl eligibility.  This could be potentially the first knockdown bowl berth death bowl ever played, and the fact that it would be for a forgotten place in some far-flung nonsense bowl makes it the greatest possible game between these two hallowed squads.  Plus, the winner gets the damn Hat and the undisputed crown as the second-best football team in the state of Illinois.

WILDCAT FOOTBALL

Notre Dame football looms over Chicago like the ominous shadow of a rubber monster suit over a scale model of Tokyo.  It is inescapable.  Despite sitting nearly 100 miles away and in another state, Chicago's a Notre Dame town only because of some weird quirks like the Fighting Irish dominating college football for the vast majority of its existence.  Meanwhile, only a few miles up the road, Northwestern toils in front of braying Nebraska fans, tarps, and no one, even in winning seasons.  The last win was the beginning of a great Northwestern team announcing its presence; this was a greater upset as the sputtering 'Cats regained their mojo.  

Two wins for bowl, one win for Hat, and zero wins left for chaos to reign.   

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Season's Not Over Until You Pry a Hat From My Cold, Dead, Head

Well, shit.

If you, like me, measure the relative success of Northwestern seasons by a berth in a much-ridiculed and ignored bowl game, then the season is likely over.  If you enjoy college football as a living museum art piece dedicated to exploring every possible way to lose, then you may have this Northwestern football season framed and hanging on your wall in violation of everything you think you know about the physical laws of the universe.

Two weeks ago, the Wildcats were coming off two unexpected Big Ten wins and a competitive half against Nebraska.  They also had a close loss against Big Ten West powerhouse Minnesota that they could have won except it had been a couple of weeks so fans needed to be subjected to a Northwestern Ending.  It seemed like Wildcat football would center on defense and Justin Jackson barreling into people.  And then Northwestern went into Iowa City.  I've prepared an elaborate video filled with high-level football strategy talk to summarize every element of the Iowa game.
a
Gott dame it

After the Iowa stomping, Northwestern still clung to hopes of a bowl game with three games against a reeling Michigan team, Purdue, and the Tim Beckman's Hat Apocalypse as well as a tough road matchup with Notre Dame.   The 'Cats entered last week with everything left to play for: a crappy bowl game, a perfect Hat record against Illinois in the Greatest Rivalry in the History of College Football, and the remote possibility of knocking Notre Dame out of the playoff hunt and ruining their season.  Even though Northwestern had an up-and-down season, those three goals are pretty much the zenith of the Northwestern football experience.

LOOK ON OUR FOOTBALL, NON BIG-TEN PEOPLE, AND DESPAIR

Years from now, when millions of Americans that eagerly follow collegiate water polo or ultimate frisbee or competitive eating, someone will reflect on what happened to kill college football.  They'll point to the usual suspects: concerns about the long-term health consequences of the sport, the unsustainable avarice of the NCAA and its member universities, a rash of football-related tree poisonings, but most likely they'll point to November 8th, 2014 when Northwestern and Michigan reached the apotheosis of Big Ten-related football ineptitude.  Both teams threw out their play books and replaced them with animated gifs of stuntmen in fire suits flailing around.  For most of the game, both teams treated the endzone like Moses treated the Promised Land.
 The Apotheosis of Big Ten football (click for full size)

So when Northwestern improbably marched down the field and somehow managed to crack through the invisible forcefield surrounding the Ryan Field endzones, it is not surprising that Pat Fitzgerald decided that the moment was ripe for a Pat Fitzgerald Gutsy Moment.  It's not like going into overtime had worked that well against Michigan last year.  Unfortunately, the coaches decided to send Trevor Siemian on an ill-advised one-man Charge of the Light Brigade into the entire Michigan defense and then Siemian fell down.
 
Two more yards, two more yards,
Two more yards onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the one quarterback.
“Forward, the Siemian!
Charge for the deuce!” Fitz said.
Into the valley of Death
He sort of fell on his butt.

Miserable Michigan faced aghast Northwestern in the So It's Come To This Bowl.  Northwestern still hasn't come down from the highs of winning a Gator Bowl and getting enough hype to host ESPN College Gameday.  Since then, the 'Cats have turned into a well-funded art installation dedicated to losing football games in increasingly bizarre and unfathomable situations-- the Siemian slip is not even the most ridiculous way that Northwestern has lost to Michigan in the past two seasons.

Michigan, meanwhile, is having less of a bad season than an existential crisis.  Michigan is not just Big Ten bad, where a team beats up on other lumbering Big Ten teams enough to get ritually sacrificed in lopsided bowl game, it is regular football team bad.  And that is spectacular.

College football's spectacle depends on inequality: on titanic clashes between powerhouse teams and on the field-rushing jubilation from when one one of those mortal teams manages to beat them.  And while previous success tends to replenish teams into perpetual juggernauts, the landscape underneath them shifts tectonically; teams start losing recruits, teams hire bad coaches, teams join the Big Ten.  The descent of a traditional powerhouse program into another mediocre team scrapping their way into the galleryfurniture.com bowl like the rest of us is one of the most enjoyable aspects of college football.
 
Brady Hoke, along with recently-departed Athletic Director Dave Brandon has drawn the ire 
of the Michigan faithful.  Currently, a google's image search for Hoke has an entire category 
of pictures under the heading "Fred Flintstone."

Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth of Michigan Men, it's unlikely the program will remain in its dormant state forever.  I'd be surprised if Michigan didn't return to the Big Ten title picture sooner rather than later, although it remains to be seen if a good Big Ten team will have any relevance to the national championship picture as the conference plods itself into Rotel oblivion.  In the meantime, Michigan fans can enjoy baselessly speculating about NFL head coaches, install the standard creepy flight-tracking software, and start reinforcing the railroad pump cart they'll use to run Brady Hoke out of town as he claps forlornly.  

THE DAMNED DOME

Nineteen years ago, an unheralded Northwestern team marched into Notre Dame stadium and walked out with a football program.  There's no doubt that the 1995 victory was the most significant in Northwestern's modern history.  Northwestern and Notre Dame have not played football since.  During the interval, Northwestern won three Big Ten Championships and one bowl game.  Notre Dame plummeted into football mediocrity before storming back into a BCS championship game under Brian Kelly.  Modems stopped screeching at people.  A president was impeached but not convicted.  Humanity landed a probe on a comet.  The Big Ten expanded to 14 teams.  Notre Dame kind of joined the ACC much like how the Irish Free State was kind of in the Commonwealth during the √Čamon de Valera era. 
 
√Čamon de Valera's feuds with the British government over
 land annuity payments and references to the King in the
 Oath of Office led to a devastating mutual boycott.  This
 Punch cartoon lampoons his attempts to move the Irish 
Free State closer to a republic while remaining in the 
Commonwealth.  In reality, both de Valera and British 
government officials spent the 1930s complaining about each 
other undermining the Commonwealth while de Valera refused 
to leave and the British government refused to kick the Irish Free 
State out.  In the end, both parties maintained an uneasy 
membership by using the well-worn "no one knows what the 
hell the Commonwealth is or does" defense

In 1995, Northwestern came into South Bend in a Trojan Horse containing a Big Ten champion.  No one expected anything from the 'Cats.  According to Teddy Greenstein's oral history of the game (unfortunately locked behind the Tribune's paywall), Gary Barnett does not think Irish coach Lou Holz watched any film of NU quarterback Steve Schnur.  Barnett also suggests that Holz did not even know who he was.  This year, Northwestern's team resembles a trojan horse with no one inside, except maybe Pat Fitzgerald who has been living in it for nearly twenty years pumping his fists.   

It's a shame that Arizona State already robbed the Wildcats of the most important motivation for a win: to knock Notre Dame out of the playoff picture, destroy its season, and festively square dance across the season's ashes.  Congratulations to the Sun Devils for living the dream.  Instead, Northwestern will be scrapping for its bowl life as a Notre Dame win will knock them out of the postseason for a second consecutive year.  

If they are to have any shot at an upset, Northwestern needs to find a way to score points.  The Wildcats score fewer points per game than almost any other team in the country.  Last week, Fitzgerald and Mick McCall experimented with a two-quarterback system by using Matt Alviti to run the option.  I'm all for that, believing strongly in the old Northwestern chestnut "if you have one quarterback, then you have not enough quarterbacks" and a return to the is the running quarterback going to pass oh wait you think he's going to pass but really he's going to run just kidding here's a third quarterback who's playing wide receiver and now the offensive coordinator is wearing a cape plays from the Kain Colter era.  That strategy was not particularly effective (Alviti rushed 3 times for -2 yards), so we'll see if the coaching staff can think of any other wrinkles to move the ball other than giving it to Justin Jackson or strong rhetoric to convince the Irish that they have achieved first downs.  

HAT COUTURE 

Should Northwestern falter, they'll be down to one season goal, but it's the most important one of all: The Hat.  With two seasons filled with avant-garde losses and likely two seasons spent in a bowlless wilderness, only reasonable goal for Northwestern fans is hat-based monomania.  I hope Northwestern can keep its nineteen-year unbeaten streak going against Notre Dame and somehow claw its way to the Detroit Lions Pizza City Bowl.  But Northwestern cannot under any circumstances lose possession of The Hat.  It is the only thing keeping us going through this season.  

It's Hat Season.  The Beck Man is coming.  He's coming to your town.  He's coming for a Hat.  

Also, the basketball team has a guy on it named "Vic Law," which is an incredible basketball name. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Huskening now with BYCTOM NBA Preview

At halftime, Northwestern held a 17-14 edge.  The defense had managed to keep all-everything running back Ameer Abdullah largely in check.  Justin Jackson was slithering around defenders and smashing into people.  Those gothic uniforms were pretty sharp.  Northwestern was holding its own as part of a transformation into Bizarro Northwestern, relying on the defense and a power running game instead of desperately trying to outscore people.  Then the second half happened and Ryan Field turned into Peter Lorre's spooky sanitarium.

Northwestern failed to score or move the ball particularly effectively.  The defense eventually succumbed and Abdullah shook free.  And this all happened under the watchful eye of thousands of Husker fans staining the stands red, letting their "go big red" chants echo through Evanston like they did 14 years ago on the San Antonio Riverwalk and who are I am sure all wonderful people who happen to like a different football team than I do but irritatingly and predictably took over an alleged home game and one of them threw nacho cheese on me.
 
Literally a Northwestern home game

Being outnumbered at home is part of the Chicago's Big Ten Football Experience and has been since time immemorial, so it's no surprise area Nebraska fans and roaming Husker vagabonds took over the stadium.  But we can do better, and Bring Your Champions, They're Our Meat is a Web Log devoted to ideas, innovation, synergy, thinking outside the box, achieving buy-in, shooting you an e-mail about that.  Last week, I proposed some concrete ideas on twitter that I will lazily regurgitate here for filling the stands with purple:

1. Hire a nineteenth-century ward boss to fill the stands with Civil War veterans
2. Invent the machine from Multiplicty, fill the standswith thousands of Keatons (assuming the multiplicity machine only clones keatons)
3. Tupac holograms
4. Construct a fake Dyche stadium on campus, tell visiting fans to go there, conduct game in peace and quiet
5. Hire a snooty maitre'd, only admit people in purple attire, but allow guests to borrow a gigantic purple sport coat for the evening
 
Mr. Purdue Pete, I am going to have to ask you to remove your hard hat
One time, I had to attend a function at a London club that originated in the nineteenth
 century that was all plush red carpets and muttonchop portraits and ossified 
stodginess.  I didn't have a jacket and was prevented from entering the establishment 
by a tail-wearing doorman who looked like he had seen action at Sebastopol, but he 
was gracious enough to lend me the house sportcoat which was designed for an 
enormous plutocrat grown fat on the plunder of empire.  I then spent the rest of the 
evening absorbing elbows like a Karl Malone opponent as other guests were able to sense 
that the guy in David Byrne's Stop Making Sense jacket was not important enough to 
remain unjostled in a race to talk to an actual important person.   

In addition, I suggest the athletic department strongly look into covering opposing fans with tarps, making Ryan Field into a speakeasy with a password like "Steve Schnur," or demolishing the stadium and replacing it with a field that has only one bleacher where I am the only spectator and can freely support the team and heckle Kirk Ferentz. 

Northwestern was certainly an underdog in this game and demonstrated that its defense is not a fluke.  There are five more games and three more wins to a bowl.  Only Notre Dame is a powerhouse and anything is possible in the Big Ten, the conference for dreamers and mystics.  But first the Wildcats need to make it through hell.

IOWA WEEK Y'ALL

Iowa is 5-2.  Somehow.  The Hawkeyes have not looked like world-beaters, although by Big Ten standards they are they are at the very least world insulters.  To be honest, I can't tell you much about Iowa football this season.  We have a finite number of minutes in our lives and no one outside of the Hawkeye state lies on his deathbed regretting that he did not watch more Iowa football.  You might be disappointed that you came to a college football blog with virtually no pertinent information about football, but you probably should have closed the browser window when you read that sportcoat anecdote.

The Hawkeyes once again feature human battering ram Mark "Heisman" Weisman who will be long celebrated in Iowa City for his ability to play multiple years in the backfield with all of his ligaments.  Jake Rudock seems entrenched at quarterback, despite Kirk Ferentz teasing a Colter/Siemian style quarterback rotation earlier in the month.  One can imagine the staid Ferentz thinking about making that change with the same disdainful look he had on his face when he learned that the Big Ten legalized the forward pass in 2003.

The 2005 All-Big Ten football team featured many athletes who served against 
the Kaiser

At this point, it seems that the Wildcats can hang with any team in the division.  Both teams see this as a winnable game.  And given that Iowa-Northwestern has been a surprisingly fervent rivalry in the last few years, I'm going to say throw out the record books.  Throw them out and invent a hideous CatHawk trophy to hoard in victory and rule over ancient Egyptians if we ever meet them in some sort of Stargate scenario.


BYCTOM NBA PREVIEW

I am really excited for the return of professional basketball.  In that spirit, please peruse the ultimate and essential guide to every possible important scenario in professional basketball in question and answer format.

How long will the new-look Cavs take to lead the Eastern Conference?

There are two ways to look at this.  One is to balance the advanced statistics and likely strategies that the Cavaliers will employ since regaining the services of the greatest basketball player on earth and his superstar teammates.  This is for chumps who sit around watching basketball and printing out reams of paper on dot matrix printers while wearing orange basketball statistics visors.  The best way to determine anything involving the Cavaliers is to practice golfcartmancy, a method of reading the future by analyzing the patterns and attitudes of the people who patrol the James estate in golf carts, as popularized by the time reporters set up a tent city and besieged his Cleveland-area mansion until we as a species could determine where he would play basketball next season.  In the wake of the media circus, James has taken more measures to protect basketball secrets by hiring additional golf cart men, decoy golf cart men who are actually people dressed like golf carts, and submersible golf carts used to patrol his property’s water and check for scuba-diving reporters should he decide to opt out of his contract at the end of this season.  After meticulously observing the movements and patterns of his golf cart men, it appears that the CLEVELAND CAVALIERS will make the EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS.

Which Laker will die under mysterious circumstances during the season?

At some point, the Los Angeles Lakers are going to take a player out of the Staples Center in a body bag.  Maybe it’ll be Carlos Boozer, whose screams were never heard because he is pretty much always yelling and everyone who heard him yelling HEY HEY HEY HEY HEY HEY HEY HEY HEY ARRRRGHGHGHGHGHGH thought he was playing basketball.  Maybe it will be rookie Julius Randle, who vanishes after taking more than 10 shots.  Maybe it will be some other guy on the Lakers whose untimely death is notable because there was no prior evidence that played basketball professionally.  Maybe it will be Nick Young, whose Kobe-related obituary is already on file with the LA Times.  During the investigation, Byron Scott will refuse to use fingerprints, DNA, or any other modern techniques, arguing that if it was good enough for Allan Pinkerton, it's good enough for the Los Angeles Lakers. The murders would never be solved because they were all Speckled Banded by a mamba.

Will Derrick Rose regain his form and lead the Bulls to the Finals?

Derrick Rose will undergo an experimental Monkey's Paw procedure where he will wish for super strong knees.  His knees will indeed make him unstoppable but they will keep growing stronger and larger until he finds himself gradually turning into an anthropomorphic knee.  Derrick Rose's knee will lead the Bulls to the second round of the playoffs.

This is my most plausible prediction

Will the Phoenix Suns maintain their surprising rise?

The Phoenix Suns will be unstoppable this season because they added Zoran Dragic.  He and Goran will walk around off the court in matching shirtless vests as Double Dragic.  Mark Cuban will add Abobo from overseas to no avail.

What power plays does Jason Kidd have up his sleeve this season?
Kidd engineered a move to Milwaukee after attempting to seize control of player personnel from Billy King in Brooklyn.  Kidd had a tumultuous first year as head coach just a year after the end of his playing career.  He grew a comic book villain beard, oversaw a disappointing first half, orchestrated the first intentional beverage-related timeout, led the Nets to the second round of the playoffs, then feuded with his general manager, attempted to invade Silesia, invented the #trader hashtag, poisoned the Brooklyn Knight's jousting horse, and absconded to Milwaukee in the dead of night after vanishing from a Nets boardroom with a puff of smoke.  Once there, he made noises about letting the seven-foot Giannis Antetokounmpo run the point.  Jason Kidd may be capable of anything.  This season, he plans to coach with a goblet of wine in hand for emergency timeout situations, keep a bugout bag in his office, and deploy decoy Bango the Bucks spread throughout the arena to gather intelligence.

One has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because 
they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; 
therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one 
does not stand in fear of revenge

Where is Drew Gooden playing?  

Drew Gooden must play for every NBA team, and BYCTOM is a clearing house for Gooden movement.  Sadly, the Washington Wizards have retained his services for another season, but we can only hope he makes it to at least one other team by the end of the season.
 
The NBA is only 33.3% Goodened.  We can do better.

PIZZA CITY CALLS

Northwestern has two remaining home games, and both are winnable.  The 'Cats face a struggling Michigan team hellbent on defying road fields with stakes and climax with the possible ultimate showdown with Beck Man.  The possibly soon-to-be-erstwhile Illini coach may have helped salvage his job with a stunning win over West leader Minneosta.  The Illinois victory has thrown the West into further chaos.  Enjoy the last week of October because every football move must be evaluated not only in terms of bowl implications, but Hat consequences. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE SAFE FROM THE FOURTH QUARTER


This is Master of Horror Svengoolany bringing you to the depths of terror every Saturday with the most frightening programming imaginable: Big Ten Football.  Tremble at fumbles.  Cringe at special screams.  Try to sleep a full night after gazing into the grotesque dancing of man-sized gophers, badgers, wildcats, discarded rugs wearing a scarf, an anthropomorphic hammer-wielding chin made flesh.

Last week's feature left your mind boggled with fear as you gazed upon "Terrors from the Fourth Quarter 5: Another Quarter."  You watched as Northwestern fans walked into a creaky basement, stopping only to put their car keys in their most inaccessible pockets, separated individually, and turned off their flashlights.  But the rustling they heard was not a cat this time, it was Jalen Myrick leaping from the shadows, returning a kick 100 yards, and plunging a rusty farm implement into Northwestern's temporary control of the Big Ten West Division while cackling maniacally.

This week, we bring you night terrors.  A speed demon.  A town besieged by a scarlet horde taking over the stadium to their unspeakable ends.  An unfathomable head-bouncing avatar of corn's sinister possibilities.  And Ryan Field shrouded in darkness.

In the dead of night, when all is still and unnervingly quiet, in the distance you might be able to 
catch the faintest whisp of an unnatural mechanized yow yow sound echoing through the wind

GRAVE ROBBING

Northwestern fans can be both heartened and disheartened by the loss to Minnesota just like how nineteenth-century resurrectionists were heartened when they pried a heart from a freshly-buried corpse and then disheartened it when they sold it to a disreputable anatomist.

Hablot Knight Brown's Ressurectionists (l.) depicts body-snatchers at work in the late eighteenth
century.  The corpse dissection industry caught the public imagination in Britain in 1828, when 
William Burke and William Hare were implicated in a string of murders in order to obtain salable 
corpses.  They sold them to Robert Knox, an anatomy lecturer who was never prosecuted, but 
was publicly derided for purchasing the bodies and because according to this picture of him, he 
looks really mad-scientisty

Justin Jackson looks harder to bring down every week.  The defense held against the bruising David Cobb.  And, despite his murderous name, Gopher Head Coach Jerry Kill did not kill anyone during the game at all.  Minnesota now controls the West.  This is much more satisfying than saying that a team controls the Legends because it sounds like teams are medieval warlords rather than rogue anthropologists.  Despite the deflating loss, Northwestern still played well, and the occasional backbreaking kick return touchdown with little time remaining in the fourth quarter seems just a normal part of the Northwestern football experience.

GOTHIC HORRORS

Last year, Nebraska turned Northwestern into a House of Horrors when an impish spirit took possession of Ron Kellogg III and delivered a stomach turning hail mary as a contribution to the Block Museusm exhibit on shitty football losses.  The Wildcats' bowl hopes looked dead after two gutting losses to open the season; they have been galvanized back into life with two big wins over Penn State and Wisconsin and now they lurch about, terrorizing Big Ten West opponents who have no idea what to make of them.

Northwestern football scientists reanimated dead tissue into a 
creature learning what it means to be human although it knew 
innately to protest against an unjust defensive holding penalty

Some people say sequels have diminishing returns, but you will be glued to your seat with the third straight edition of "Terrifying Running Back Is Lurking in the Backfield."  This week, Northwestern defenders will be looking in their rear-view mirror at what is that movement, oh that must just be from a truck that passed by, but there it is again and then oh my god it's Ameer Abdullah and his hook hand. Abdullah surely will be the focal point of whatever fiendish concoctions are cooked up by Bo Pelini and his coaching staff.
Pelini tries to sell skeptical Nebraska fans on the Black Cloak defense

Northwestern will hope to play another close, low-scoring game inspired by their suddenly fearsome defense.  The offense may be hampered by a banged-up Siemian as InsideNU's Zapruder film analysis of his ankle tape reveals.  The game should be a raucous Homecoming affair, with alumni coming from far and wide to take up nearly 50% of available stadium space.

But who knows what horrors may lurk again in the fourth quarter?  If a football game is a spooky mansion (this is a common metaphor in high-level football analysis), then the first through third quarters are wandering around the house only occasionally startled by a creak or by a painting of a duke with shifty eyes and then the clock chimes fourth and the stairways turn into ramps and the shifty-eyed duke is made flesh into a vengeful ghost duke and Ron Kellogg III and in fact all of the Ron Kelloggs are bending the time-space continuum and scoring on hail mary passes in three decades simultaneously.  If that happened, it would be bad.

PRIMAL FEAR AND NIGHT GAMES

It has been a rollercoaster season.  If Northwestern football kills you on Saturday, make sure that you are guarded against Victorian grave robbers and anatomists, or better yet take preventative measures and remove your heart right now and transplant it into a rampaging monster that learns about human emotions by watching the Wildcats.

The moon will rise above Ryan Field.  And it will bring with it the return of long-deceased late-night hauntings from Carlos Hyde, Denard Robinson, and Matt McGloin, that flame-headed hobgoblin of Northwestern football.  But do not be afraid.  But don't be afraid of the stadium's haunted past.  The ghosts of past defeats don't really exist like Frankenstein monsters and werewolves and Big Ten spots in the College Football Playoff. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Invincible Fortress Evanston

As the clock approached midnight on December 31, 1999, there were three types of people: those celebrating the end of the twentieth century, those huffily refusing to celebrate for another year making a brave stand for joy-killing pedantry, and those who sat huddled with rifles waiting for our dial-up modems to rise up and tie us to railroad tracks.  All three of those types are now joining us in the twenty-first century, when we can illegally stream football from other continents, when we wait for our cable modems to murder us all, where Wisconsin has failed to win a football game at Ryan Field.

Chaos Week, certified by thousands of hash-tag notaries, was here!  A college football Carnival where top-ranked teams lost, unranked teams ruled the day, and goalposts were pillaged.  A day where, somehow, Northwestern sits atop the Big Ten West, with dreams of a crappy bowl game now dancing through our minds.
 
Current Big Ten West standings

After sputtering through two losses, Northwestern is now in the driver's seat in their division.  They will face off against Minnesota for first place this Saturday.  And, this week, they revealed they will be playing a homecoming night game against Nebraska while dressed like the Castle of Otranto.
 
Here's a Wikipedia Sentence that describes the plot of Horace Walpole's gothic novel
"Shortly before the wedding, however, Conrad is crushed to death by a gigantic 
helmet that falls on him from above."  In case you were wondering what makes 
this a Wikipedia Sentence rather than a regular sentence, it is the specific detail 
that the helmet falls on him from above instead of crushing him from below or 
from the sides, from the other other gigantic helmets you didn't even know were there

It's been an exciting week for Wildcat football.

NO ESCAPE FROM RYAN FIELD

Ryan Field is a picturesque place to watch a football game.  It has grass and towers and a tarp.  It is located near Chicago's Big Ten public transportation.  It is probably the worst home field advantage in the country.  Opposing fans invariably swarm the stadium, debase the stands with their reds and yellows and maizes and oranges, and occasionally force the offense to use a silent snap count.  Yet, for whatever reason, Wisconsin has lost its last four games against Northwestern in Evanston.  A rational person would note that the Wildcats notched three close victories (including the spectacular 51-48 Tyrell Sutton breakout game in 2005 where both teams refused to play defense) while getting blown out repeatedly in Madison.  But if you were a rational person, you would certainly not be wasting your time reading this blog, so it's clear that Wisconsin players are intimidated by fist claws, by the yow yow wildcat sound they play over the PA system, by the Foster-Walker complex.

Everyone expected the Badgers to run all over the Wildcat defense.  Wisconsin coaches climb beanstalks to recruit their offensive linemen, and Melvin Gordon is a human locomotive.  He rushed for a career-high 259 yards and seemed poised to explode for a 50-yard gain every time he touched the ball.  Yet, it was the Northwestern defense that carried the day by seizing four interceptions, including three by freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike in his first start.  It was the second consecutive breakout game from a freshman defender after Anthony Walker's debut against Penn State.  Badger fans, however, remain baffled at their coaching staff's decision to call passing plays late in the game while Gordon remained their most dangerous offensive threat.
 
Wisconsin coaches instruct their evil ninjas to circle Black Belt Jones and attack 
him one at a time.  It's called playing the percentages

Northwestern's offense seems to improve every week.  Freshman running back Justin Jackson, had an impressive game in his own right with 162 yards.  Tony Jones and Dan Vitale have given Siemian steady options to move the chains; Kyle Prater is finally healthy and Pratering people. 

But something more important happened last Saturday.  Northwestern entered the fourth quarter with a lead.  Northwestern entered the fourth quarter with the lead against a ranked opponent.  Northwestern entered the fourth quarter with the lead and instead of fumbling nine consecutive times or throwing fifteen interceptions or committing personal fouls with overly-extravagant timeout gestures or the heavens opening up and a ray of light shining down upon Joel Stave who then turns into a many-armed Russell Wilson/Jim Sorgi/Scott Tolzien avatar of Wisconsin quarterbacking which makes him really good at handing off and also occasionally completing passes and then throwing five consecutive hail marys to Melvin Gordon, nothing happened.  The Badgers approached the endzone.  Igwebuike picked off the pass.  The Wildcats held on.
 
Godwin Igwebuike's Law: As a Wisconsin game grows longer, the 
probability of a ridiculous Wisconsin interception on a pass play 
when Melvin Gordon is literally in the backfield approaches 1

LOOKING DOWN AT THE BIG TEN FROM A LOFTY PERCH

Minnesota and Northwestern sit atop the Big Ten West.  The Gophers are 4-1 this season, with their only loss to TCU.  Their signature win this season was at Michigan, where they waxed a Wolverine team in complete and utter disarray and reclaimed their jug trophy.  Minnesota plays rivalry games for a jug, a pig, and an axe as they try to complete the Triple Crown of Hillbilly Accoutrements.  There's no trophy at stake this week other than control of the division as the Big Ten and college football continues to eat itself in an upset ouroboros.

Conference play has come, and Big Ten teams can safely retreat to their thunderdomes to clobber each other in peace, insulated from the braying mockery of the national media.  There is still upheaval.  Michigan has fallen apart.  Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke have been confined to the Touliers Palace. 
 
Hoke and Brandon attempt to flee to Windsor, Ontario, but are captured when 
Brandon's face is recognized from a Domino's coupon

At the bottom of the conference, Illinois fell to lowly Purdue at home.  The loss casts a pall over the Beckman Era.  Illinois supporters have grown restless with their coach, who has managed a single conference victory.  A rogue Wikipedia editor has added a section to his page entitled "Public Outcry."  There are vultures circling the Castle Beckman.  He may not last the season.  All of us can only hope that he turns it around and wins a few because nothing in college football has brought me greater joy Tim Beckman's War on Northwestern.  

GOOD GRAVY, NORTHWESTERN IS A DECENT TEAM BY BIG TEN STANDARDS

What are we to make of this Wildcat team?  They went from encouraging to despair to looking like a bowl team.  They only need three more wins, and Big Ten victories apparently come more easily than to Pac-12 and MAC opponents.  They have decisive home and road victories over Big Ten title hopefuls. 

Minnesota is in the same position, hoping to take the pole position in the topsy-turvy West.  They don't feature any superstars like Penn State's Hackenberg or Wisconsin's Gordon, but they also don't have a glaring achilles heel like Penn State's self-blocking linemen or Wisconsin's nineteenth-century passing attack.  We're in a dangerous place as Northwestern fans, with our expectations raised just enough to be dashed.  But this team's steadfast refusal to Northwestern itself in Big Ten play has gone from puzzling to exciting.  Regardless of what happens in Minneapolis, Nebraska will have to come into the Invincible Fortress Evanston where they face the impossible pressure of not embarrassing themselves in front of the stands full of Husker fans. 

Fist pump.