Friday, October 2, 2015


The sun dipped behind the press box, the lights shone on the field, and, with the eyes of the nation upon Northwestern in Big Ten Network Regional Action and with a fearsome two-tarp crowd, the Wildcats narrowly defeated Ball State to a deafening chorus. Northwestern is 4-0 and the Associated Press has declared them #16 in the country as they prepare for the perfunctory Big Ten play as a warm-up to an all-but-inevitable national championship.

Northwestern opened the game with a touching tribute to Classic Northwestern Football. The offense stagnated and turned the ball over, and the defense looked solid but more vulnerable than the top-ranked tackle wall that consumed its first three opponents. Ball State's freshman quarterback Riley Neal extended drives. More importantly, he continually hucked the ball in the direction of Jordan Williams, an eight-foot colossus with net hands who continually out-leaped Wildcat defenders for ridiculous catches.

Jordan Williams, artist's rendition

In the third quarter, though, the offense switched on. Clayton Thorson looked like a different quarterback, spreading the ball around, and letting Dan Vitale terrorize Ball State defenders and confuse Ball State coaches who presumably spent a week scouring arcane tomes of football lore to figure out what a superback was before deciding it was a myth and then found out only too late that it is a slightly different word to use for a tight-endish player. This is a successful tactic, and the Wildcats should come up with unnecessarily weird-sounding names for all of their positions, such as renaming guards to Man-Walls and the quarterback to the Unholy Shaman of the Ninth Eye.


Ball State came back to pull within five, but the game never seemed in doubt. The 'Cats did suffer some injuries. Standout tackle Geoff Mogus left on a stretcher. Safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro also left the game. Pat Fitzgerald has remained characteristically tight-lipped about his injured players, although at press time BYCTOM has been able to secure a confirmation from him that some of his players may be made of molecules.
It was a harrowing win, but let us remember that we are talking about Northwestern football. Let the football gluttons sit around in their tuxedos grousing about not winning by enough points and intriguing about playoff committees. Northwestern has started undefeated for the third time in nearly two decades and has yet to lose a game through a spectacular series of football misfortunes.

Over the course of following Northwestern, I thought I had experienced 
every single heartbreaking way to lose a football game. In the past two weeks, 
the Texas Longhorns saw a spirited comeback end when their kicker was 
 temporarily possessed by the Spirit of John Carney and then the next week 
were done in by a hideously mishandled routine punt. If the Longorns, the 
Habsburgs of college football, have experienced decades of football gluttony, 
this is their period of football gout 


Northwestern has beaten two good teams already, but the real season begins on Saturday with Big Ten play. The Big Ten West is hardly considered a crucible; instead, it is more often portrayed as a sad relic of Midwest, where the football factory has closed and rusted and now only manufactures fullbacks on back order since 1996 and rusted knock-off spread offenses that falter when weak shouldered quarterbacks, originally designed to dive heedlessly into an interwar leather-helmet ruck, now heave the ball in the direction of nowhere.

 The Northwestern-Minnesota game features two excellent defenses with suspect passing games. Conventional wisdom says that we should be in for another exciting game of field possession, dive plays, and punting. Hunter Niswander already attempted 10 punts in the Duke game. Any more double-digit punt games and he should be allowed to ride out onto Ryan Field on a custom-built punt-based motorcycle, his punting cape billowing behind him majestically while the marching band blares his majestic punt anthem.

Northwestern/Minnesota probably will not reach the heights of the 1939 Texas Tech/
Centenary College game, which featured 77 combined punts, including 36 by Tech punter 
Charlie Calhoun. The amount of punting is mind-boggling in a game that happened after the 
Spanish-American War. Were the teams handing off to a punter in the backfield who surveyed 
the defense and immediately punted? Was there a rule that any person involved in the game, 
including spectators and faculty members, were invited to stop play at any time to punt? Was 
Shreveport, Louisiana temporarily engulfed by a disruption in the space-time continuum 
that trapped a community in a maelstrom of endless punting and they could have been in 
there for years and have no way of knowing? It is also important to note that the Centenary 
College's team was known as the "College Gents" which is the puntingest football team name 

The game also featured 14 fumbles 

I don't anticipate a nonsensical paelolithic Big Ten puntfest because I have walked this Earth and I know that Minnesota/Northwestern games are a cauldron of insanity. These games have ended with hail marys, walk-off interception returns, 100-yard kickoff returns, and more improbable reversals of fortune than the last five minutes of a movie where a villain thinks he has successfully killed Arnold Schwarzenegger. I expect this game will end with the discovery of a heretofore-unknown NCAA rule that football games do not end until a team has successfully telegraphed the NCAA Head Office in the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago even though it no longer exists, prompting donors to attempt to build the hotel first. The game will be completed in several dozen years after the lawsuits are finalized.


I am a Cubs pessimist. I am a Cubs miserablist. I am a Cubs doom-sayer wandering around Wrigleyville in a sandwich board prophesying millennia of non-championship baseball, tormenting fans with occasional heart-breaking misery until they embrace the sweet release of death or become Yankees fans. 

 Now, the Cubs face a do-or-die Wildcard quasi-playoff invented by the champagne and goggle industry to have the honor of facing slaughter by the mirthless St. Louis juggernaut that trains by stomping on hearts. They will, barring a miraculous showing against the Pirates from a Reds team that ended its season two weeks ago and is now fielding their social media interns, travel to a raucous PNC Park to face an excellent Pirates team. The consensus is that the Cubs have the upper hand; they will send out Jake Arrieta, who has ascended to some Olympian plane of pitching transcendence that has made him nearly impossible to hit for months at the cost of only his facial expressions (Arrieta is scheduled to start Friday night; there is still time for him to suffer the entire litany of Springfield softball ringer tragedies before the playoff game on October 7). This is precisely the point where the impending Cub calamity is so glaringly obvious that Euripedes has already dismissed it as "on the nose" in a snarky blog post. 

 On the other hand, who cares? 

This Cubs season has been far too much of a joy to ruin with worry of an impending collapse. The Cubs have spent the past several years in an intentional death-spiral, slowly siphoning the fun out of the team like a python constricting the life out of a drunk, swamp-curious Floridian. The unfortunate reality of American sports teams, which favor bottoming out with no consequences, especially when you play in a tourist attraction guaranteed to draw during the summer despite sending an army of Darwin Barneys and Junior Lakes to helplessly flail at baseballs, nearly demands it. 

 The turnaround was not supposed to happen this fast. Kris Bryant, the probable Rookie of the Year, has been a star since he was brought up from Iowa awaiting the end of Theo Epstein's corn prison service time imbroglio. Addison Russell has been a revelation with the glove at short. Javier Baez and Jorge Soler have missed time with injuries, but both have returned towards the end of the season to clobber things. And Kyle Schwarber is a moon-faced stump person who has constantly entertained fans by finding new and more exciting ways to fall down and also smash baseballs into uncharted galaxies.

The team has been led by wacky old Joe Maddon who marries unconventional baseball tactics with whimsical entertainments for six-year-old birthday parties including dress-up days, zoo animals, and a magician. Anthony Rizzo could be making a case for an MVP-type season if Bryce Harper did not exist.

Harper (r) fights off Jonathan Papelbon's literal attempt to strangle him 
 according to baseball's unwritten rules of monster-violence. "Noose" 
 Papelbon plans to start a radio show with his twin brothers Garrotte and 
Throttle called Choke Talk where everyday Americans call in with problems 
and, after uproarious banter, one of them asks "have you tried choking 
 someone?" and then the brothers gently rib each other about the times 
 they've strangled and head-butted ineffectively 

The most curious part of the season has been Starlin Castro's transformation from the worst everyday player in baseball to a genuine force with the bat, hitting .403/.429./.708 in September. Castro was pulled as the everyday shortstop in August and his resurgence has been difficult to explain. But these wild fluctuations make up the Starlin Castro experience. Castro doesn't walk and, until recently, had shown sporadic power. His entire worth is based on fluctuations in batted-ball placement. He is a no true outcomes player. Starlin Castro performs as a baseball casino, letting the capricious whims of fate guide his game whether hitting slap singles or flipping a coin as a ball barrels towards him in the infield to decide if he makes an impressive play or attempts to fling it to the cutoff man in a sixteen-inch softball game happening at the lakefront park. 

 As much fun as the Cubs have been this season, the ultimate goal of a World Series seems unlikely this year, even if they get past the Pirates. Jake Arrieta is only one man and he cannot not pitch every day. Jon Lester has had a fine season of his own, but remains hampered by a bizarre inability to throw to first base, his feeble batting, and his use of David Ross as a personal catcher. Ross, a grizzled gray-beard who looks like a warrant officer on British frigate torn between his loyalty to a captain going insane on the high seas and the men fomenting mutiny to return the ship to combat, is one of my favorite players, but he swings the bat like a crusty Napoleonic naval officer who has never heard of baseball.

Sailing Master David Ross ponders a plot to lock the skipper in the brig
after the captain has disregarded RN orders in order to pursue the Captain's
sworn enemy Louis-Antoine-Cyprien Infernet across the seas

The rotation after Lester and Arrieta remains suspect. Jason Hammel, who pitched a strong first half, has imploded. Before the All-Star break, he sported a 2.86 ERA. After, his ERA ballooned to 5.10, he has pitched only 67 innings, and opponents have mashed a robust .856 OPS against him. That is an entire team of Kris Bryants. Kyle Hendricks has been better, but his 95 ERA+ (just slightly below an MLB-average 100) inspires little fear. The Cubs have cobbled games out of an armada of former starters in the bullpen, including Travis Wood and mid-season pickups Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill. In order for the Cubs to win, they will need Lester and Arrieta to be essentially perfect for every start. 

 And should the Cubs reverse every single defining feature of their team for the past ten decades and defeat the Pirates, they will be forced to play the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals have had an incredible season. They lost numerous key players to injury for all or part of the season including superstar pitcher Adam Wainwright, but have steamrolled to baseball's top record. Talismanic catcher Yadier Molina is out with a thumb injury sustained when Anthony Rizzo slid into him. Starter Carlos Martinez will not pitch in the postseason. This will not stop them. The Cardinals are essentially a Terminator factory of anonymous boring dudes sent to mirthlessly destroy baseballs. Their season has been a commendable testament to resilience and organizational depth. To fans of other Central teams leveled by the Cardinals juggernaut over the past decade, it is also a depressing paean to their inevitability. Facing the Cardinals in the playoffs is like receiving a tax audit, an impending bureaucratic nightmare that cannot avoided or triumphed against.
Unsurprisingly, Wainwright has returned months ahead of schedule to join the 
Cardinals' playoff bullpen. I suspect that the Cardinals have cloned all of their 
players and have only been waiting for the first opportunity to unleash this version 
of Waino Mk. II in order to defray suspicion instead of replacing him immediately 
and while this may seem impossible, far-fetched, and taken from the opening 
segment of the crappy latter-day Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Sixth Day, 
may I remind you that the Cardinals' cheating scandal from earlier this season involved 
computers, case closed

Meaningful baseball has returned to the North Side for the first time in seven years. It does not matter that the Cubs will be playing in a truncated, bastardized play-in game seemingly designed by a malevolent baseball deity for Cubbish heartbreak. The season has been too enjoyable to be undone by a single disappointing loss. The Cubs, with their young bats, piles of free agent money, and bats still lurking in the minors seem poised to remain relevant for years to come; it is only then, with sky-high expectations, can Cub fans be properly and traditionally broken.


The Gophers started the season with high expectations of Big Ten West contention. They opened with an encouraging loss against championship contender TCU, but have struggled against Colorado State, Kent State, and Ohio, defeating each by only a field goal. Minnesota's fearsome defense has also suffered attrition, more than Northwestern's. A win against a ranked Northwestern team would instantaneously restore Minnesota's status as a team to be reckoned with in the division while giving Northwestern fans flashbacks to the squandered 2013 season. A Northwestern win, though, will set the Wildcats up for a showdown with angry football muppet Jim Harbaugh's frisky Michigan team at the Big House for bowl eligibility.

 It is October, Northwestern is undefeated, and the Chicago Cubs are riding high into the postseason. Perhaps the most dangerous thing is not the tough Minnesota defense or presumed Pirates playoff starter Gerritt Cole. The most dangerous thing is the possibility of a comet striking the Earth.

Friday, September 25, 2015

WEEK 4: A Twenty-One Punt Salute

Northwestern came into the season with a tough schedule, an undefined situation at quarterback, back-to-back bowl-free seasons and the loss of the Hat to a team coached by a human bobblehead.  Another tough season seemed on the horizon.  Instead, Northwestern has won all of its games, they are 3-0, they beat Stanford and Duke, they have allowed a grand total of one (1) touchdown, they are ranked #17 in the country in the AP Poll, and they are going to win five simultaneous national football championships this year. 

The Duke-Northwestern game was played on the surface of the sun and broadcast locally on a channel showing nothing but Judge Mathis and ninja knife infomercials. Both teams feature ferocious defenses and both teams had first-year quarterbacks.  What followed was practically obscene.

Both offenses struggled in the unforgiving heat.  Balls sailed past open receivers.  Running backs fell fruitlessly into the arms of defensive tackles.  And punt after punt rained down upon Wallace Wade Stadium as possessions went through a football samsara, a cycle of death and rebirth off the exhausted legs of Hunter Niswander and Will Monday.

Do not adjust your monitor.  You are looking at eleven 
consecutive punts. This is taken directly from ESPN's 
game log.  The only adjustment I made was to zoom 
out the web browser because mine could not fit all of the 
punts on a single screen

The game was brutal and ugly.  And who cares?  Northwestern won.  Solomon Vault took the second-half kickoff some 97 yards and Warren Long snuck past a Duke defense that had loaded up on the line of scrimmage for a third-and-one.  The defense remained unmovable.  Dean Lowry terrorized Duke by tipping an interception to himself and coming inches from swatting another to the turf for a fumble and touchdown (referees ruled that the ball traveled forward enough to constitute a forward pass).  Anthony Walker was credited with 19 tackles, securing another Big Ten player of the week award.  Northwestern has the top-ranked scoring defense in the entire FBS.  The Wildcats' endzone might as well be the moon; sure it is possible to go there, and it's been done in the past, but opposing teams are wondering if they have the manpower and the short-sleeved white button-down shirts to engineer a way there and how are they going to convince the government to give them the resources to try in this economy.

Stanford scientists attempt to engineer a drive, but are unable to navigate past the 
VanHoose Belt

Yes, there are causes for alarm.  The offense, despite a superhuman 35-carry day from Justin Jackson on a muggy afternoon, bogged down.  The passing game remains a work in progress.  But cautious, measured optimism has no place in college football, a sport that lunges from ecstasy to horror in seconds, where victories are temporary and fleeting, where the only sensible way to handle the success of this team is to mold a car into the shape of the angry wildcat head from the helmets that says TRANSITIVE PROPERTY PAC 12 CHAMPIONS and shoots flames at passing motorists, most of whom have never heard of Northwestern's football team. 


But before Northwestern can move on to dismantle the Big Ten West, the 'Cats will be going UNDER THE LIGHTS to face the Ball State Cardinals.  This is not just a football game; this is prime time slobber-knockin', clock-cleanin', ball jarrin', big puntin' Midwestern football under the stars and on Big Ten Network regional action. 
Ball State's logo is a cardinal's head plummeting from the sky, presumably 
from a distressed headless cardinal injured in an unimaginably violent 
conflagration only seconds beforehand

The Big Ten Network has brought this team to prime time because of the storied rivalry between Northwestern and Ball State.  It all stems from the 1920s, when Ball State's football team consisted of Pericles N. Ball, a distant relative of the school-founding Ball family, who would travel to Northwestern football games and taunt the players for being feeble arm-noodles with the weak mustaches of a child.  Ball ordered pennants of a Wildcat logo with a giant no circle around it, but no printers would agree to print them because they were too absurd.  Each year, the Ball State football banquet would begin, end, and consist entirely of Ball reading an unhinged rant claiming that Ball State would start its program at the junior college level, eventually move up to the top division, and, 34 years later, finally walk into Evanston with a team mighty enough to grind the Wildcats into dust in a game momentous enough that word would spread over the telegraph to the far flung corners of Yugoslavia.

Northwestern and Ball State have never played, but only a fool would pencil in an easy victory.  The Wildcats will be favored, but anything can happen UNDER THE LIGHTS.  The Cardinals are 2-1 and have a very good coach.  They know the Wildcats will want to run the ball, and the 'Cats have yet to show they can pass effectively.  It is hypothetically possible that the lights in the stadium will go out and the plaintive cries of a Husky will echo through the Evanston night and Northern Illinois will come out of the tunnel as a MAC Commissioner John Steinbrecher swaggers onto the fifty yard line while Pat Fitzgerald stands in gape-mouthed stupefaction and Dave Eanet yells NO NO NO THERE ARE RULES AGAINST THIS.
Three kestrels flying over the Castle Steinbrecher heralded the inevitable ascension of young 
John to his destiny as the Commissioner of the Mid-America Conference, as noted in the 
ancient football text "Ain't Prophesied No One Yet" 

Ball State will be playing for a grand upset, a chance to demonstrate yet again that MAC teams can hang with a Big Ten opponent.  Northwestern has even more at stake: a chance to go undefeated into Big Ten play, solidify bowl positioning, and maintain a top-25 ranking and status as a Big Ten West contender.  Northwestern football rides high again, and the possibilities are unfolding in front of fans like an Early Modern prince with vague ties to the Spanish Crown seeing a portrait of the inbred, sickly Habsburg on the throne.  We have seen this before.

Two years ago, a ranked Northwestern finished its nonconference season 4-0 and ranked.  A bowl seemed certain and a spot in the Big Ten championship game seemed possible.  A tough loss to Ohio State showed that Northwestern could keep up with a top contender.  Then, the wheels came off.  The Wildcats lost every single game in the most confounding way possible like they had been cursed by a vengeful football deity for committing some sort of forgotten football blasphemy such as taking it more than one game at a time or scoring on the Forbidden End Zone or not jumping up and down and pointing emphatically enough after a fumble even if the ball rolled out of bounds 15 feet away from the closest Wildcat defender.  There are no certainties in college football.


Northwestern football is under the lights.  It will be dark out and later than normal.  There are several hours available to travel to your local library and peruse the section labeled by the Dewey Decimal System as incoherent football yelling (this section includes All Right It's Time to Trade Cutler to Zounds, Trade Cutler Already: The A to Z Anthology of Doug and OB Callers).  Ball State players will have to contend with the mayhem of Prime Time Ryan Field, with its shrieking fan maniacs and terrifying glow-in-the-dark tarps.  Kickoff is scheduled for 24 hours before a blood moon eclipse event, and the game should have been scheduled for then, a Big Ten-MAC showdown under Chicago's Big Ten Blood Moon with a tiny but fervent group of people braying about portends of the end of the world and a slightly smaller but no less fervent group proclaiming the glories of Wildcat football.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Week 3: The Northwestern-Eastern Illinois Game is Decadent and Depraved

Northwestern is ranked.  According to the Associated Press and the cabal of harried graduate football video coordinators who fill out the Coaches' Poll, Northwestern is one of the top 25 teams in these United States.  And now they have a looming showdown with a good Duke team in Durham that will be broadcast on the Internet to Northwestern fans, Duke fans, and people involved in football betting pools so degenerate that they spend halftime betting on nineteenth-century horse races by looking up the result in microfilmed copies of Gentleman's Magazine.

Among the Gentleman's Magazine's famous writers was Samuel Johnson (l, pugnaciously 
squinting), who craftily evaded a ban on parliamentary reporting by inventing the country 
of "Magna Lilliputia" and helpfully explaining that parliament's debates, which bore eerie 
similarity to the actual Parliament. It is hard to know how Johnson could have found anything 
extraordinary to write about eighteenth-century Parliament, such as when MPs would attempt 
to murder each other. In the early 1760s, radical reformer John Wilkes (r, depicted by Hogarth) 
dueled Samuel Martin after Martin referred to Wilkes as a "stabber in the dark, a cowardly and 
malignant scoundrel."  The two met at Hyde Park, where Martin shot Wilkes in the stomach.  
According to Edward Walford's Hyde Park from 1878, some gadflys suspected Martin of practicing 
for months and attempting to lure Wilkes to the duel through his use of brazen eighteenth-century 
epithets.  Wilkes survived long enough to get tried in absentia for co-writing a pornographic 
poem that was read in the House of Lords by his arch-nemesis, the Earl of Sandwich.

The Wildcats crushed an overmatched Eastern Illinois with another dominant display from the defense.  The defensive line and linebackers stymied the Panthers all afternoon.  Matthew Harris picked off two passes although one was on a faltering trick play where a panicking wide receiver attempted to huck the ball up to Mount Olympus and the other when the Panther quarterback improvised a shovel pass as if someone in the crowd had suggested the ball had suddenly become a rabid bat.

This game did not tell us much about Northwestern other than reinforcing the fact that the Wildcats can comfortably defeat a team that is structurally set up to be worse than Northwestern at football.  Eastern Illinois showed up, collected its check, and was subject to Chicago's Big Ten Football Stadium roaring comfortably at a one-tarp level (Northwestern has not yet deployed the Full Tarp; with the one home game happening UNDER THE LIGHTS before Big Ten play fills Ryan Field with jeering Iowans for the rest of the season, we may not yet see it).  The game certainly reinforced the Wildcats' defensive bonafides.  Opponents have yet to score a touchdown against them.  There are a number of rational reasons to proceed with cautious optimism, but for the love of everything holy the Northwestern Wildcats are ranked and I'm not going to let my native sports pessimism to take over here and heartily invite the Big Ten Conference to be effortlessly CRUSHED BENEATH ANTHONY WALKER'S CLEATS I'LL SEE YOU CHUMPS IN INDIANAPOLIS.


On Saturday, the sudden proclamation that Northwestern might be good will be put to the test by a very good Duke team.  Duke has made short work of its two first opponents, Tulane and North Carolina Central.  Before the season, pundits had questioned whether the Blue Devils could withstand numerous key graduations, especially on defense.  They have not yet shown any ill effects and now the 'Cats are going into their steamy swamp stadium in a battle of undefeated football titans.

Duke and Northwestern have met fairly often since the late '90s.  Both teams are small, private schools in big conferences that have spent most their footballing history flailing ineffectively at opponents like balloon men in a car dealership parking lot.  Northwestern has gotten the better of Duke, taking six of the last seven.  In fact, the Duke/Northwestern quasi-rivalry is evidence of Duke's stunning turnaround; the last Duke victory in 2007 ended a 22-game losing streak, and Duke played in the ACC Championship game just six years later.

Despite these similarities, Duke fans have endured the relative tragedy of their football program because Duke basketball is an unstoppable death-juggernaut.  While Northwestern sports are generally ignored or pitied, Duke's basketball team is almost universally reviled.  Northwestern takes the court to indifference; Duke basketball plays against a planet of seven billion fist-shaking Beck Men.  Northwestern has actively sought to emulate Duke's basketball success through a complex conspiracy involving numerous shadowy organizations, clandestine meetings, and hiring a guy who was literally Coach K's assistant coach. 

The mysterious disappearance of Duke Assistant Coach Chris Collins and his sudden 
reappearance at the head of Northwestern basketball is explained by the Chris Collins 
Conspiracy Corkboard that explains everything clearly and is not at all inscrutable-- in fact 
the Chris Collins Conspiracy Corkboard won Honorable Mention, Most Scrutable at the Screedies 
Conspiracy Awards or at least would have if it weren't for the intervention of shady forces 
beyond your wildest imagination

If the Wildcats wilt in the Carolina heat, they can still rally against Ball State (LET ME REMIND YOU: UNDER THE LIGHTS) and turn a strong non-conference record into a bowl campaign.  If they beat the Blue Devils, then it's TOOT TOOT THIS TRAIN ONLY STOPS IN PASADENA time and the Northwestern hype will switch into overdrive, kept off the front pages of the sports sections of Chicago's Big Ten Newspapers only by a particularly noteworthy Notre Dame practice.


The NFL has kicked off again with the controversy, lawyer-laden press conferences, and general up-in-armsmanship that has come to define America's game.  The actual games are almost incidental to ancillary NFL nonsense.  Some of it is a designed spectacle; the NFL has blown up the draft into a three day list-reading extravaganza that closed down parts of Downtown Chicago for upwards of a week.  Other times, it is the general bumbling created by the NFL's desire to serve as an independent branch of the United States justice system featuring a court lorded over by a a man who acts at all times like the guy from Bananas who goes mad the second he takes power and starts issuing underwear statutes.

The NFL's pompous nincompoopery came to a head during the Great Ball Deflation Media Event of 2015, which climaxed with Roger Goodell upholding Roger Goodell's decision to suspend Tom Brady over a shrill chorus of Wahlbergian moaning before an actual judge intervened.  At least the ball deflation scandal involved something as silly as Patriots skulduggery; earlier attempts to adjudicate on domestic violence through football justice were bungled so egregiously that I am surprised that Goodell has not yet mistakenly suspended himself before quickly changing suits and exonerating himself at a press conference featuring military hardware.

Even without scandal and legal wrangling the NFL has become exhausting.  Professional football includes the grandiose bumbling the NFL specializes in, but comes packaged with what can only be described as the dumbest shit imaginable.  The NFL's broadcasts aren't uniquely joyless; every televised sporting event bombards us with the same corporate simulacra of the concept of fun.  NFL games, however, are presented with a ponderous self-importance where announcers imbue inane platitudes about football players making football plays at the quarterback position in the national football league with the gravity of a U.N. conference on arms control.  Ads airing on sports events are universally intolerable, but only NFL games stop seemingly every three minutes to breathlessly shill rifled beer bottles, various pickup truck brands in increasingly hardy settings that will seemingly climax at the Super Bowl with a consumer-grade Gravedigger dragging Dennis Leary through the apocalypse, and an endless wave of Babas Booey screaming about fantasy football.

The fact that rational people tune into this week after week and that Americans are willing to cede precious hours of their lives to be screamed at by Trent Dilfer shows just how entertaining football games are. NFL players are really good at smashing into each other. And as long as players continue to fly through the air catching passes, drag five tacklers across the first down marker, and dramatically steam from their heads on winter days, we will continue to watch, no matter how badly the experience becomes laden with promos for TV shows about abrasive detectives who get results and this week the internet has become a person and it is murdering people.

This season airing concurrently on Fox, CBS, and NBC, Dan Bakkedahl 
stars as Karl Fugue: Asshole Detective. This week, Fugue is suspended for 
dropping leaflets outside police headquarters entitled Your Police Are 
Morons illustrated with a cartoon of the chief clumsily struggling to put on 
a dunce cap but he can't because he is so uselessly stupid. But then, Fugue 
solves the case because despite his gruff obnoxiousness, he possesses 
incredible powers of observation that no one on the force can match even with 
their newfangled computers. He is reinstated, tells the chief that he is an idiot, 
then goes to drink self-destructively, possibly with his reluctant partner, a 
by-the-book detective who can't stand Fugue but respects him and also while 
her career is going well, her personal life is in shambles. On the next 
Karl Fugue: Asshole Detective, someone fires a gun and drives a car recklessly


It is way too early in the season to consider any game make-or-break.  Last season, a roller-coaster where Northwestern struggled against non-conference opponents, scored two massive upsets against Wisconsin and Notre Dame, and then lost a bowl play-in game to Illinois, reinforced the unpredictability of Big Ten football.  The Duke game, however, should reveal a lot about the Wildcats: whether the Stanford game was a fluke, whether the defense can remain dominant, and whether Thorson can continue to play like a quarterback with far more experience than he has.  The game should be a defensive duel, complete with some pre-game social media chatter in which Ifeadi Odenigbo's expectations of a shutout have been received as if he referred to the Duke team as malignant cowards in Parliament. Everyone expects a close game, everyone that is except for Karl Fugue: Asshole Detective who is also a sports-betting sharp whose encyclopedic knowledge of college football betting patterns allows him to foil a series of shrimp restaurant robberies before that goddamn idiot chief has a chance to mess things up with his computers in Episode 8: Pick Six Murders.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Week 2: The Day of Two Noons

There are numerous ways to begin a season: elation, disappointment, caution, and amid accusations of football malfeasance.  This year, an unheralded Wildcat team looked awfully good against a sluggish and flummoxed Stanford, securing a jubilant upset and making the Big Ten look slightly less blighted.  A first-game victory tells us little, and it is important to be sober and dispassionate in our analysis but that is for fact-bloggers and football experts so let's build an elaborate cardboard edifice, wait inside, and then burst forth from it screaming about how Northwestern demands the Big Ten West, especially if you are living in a country where no one knows what the Big Ten or Northwestern or football is.


This first win has changed the complexion of the season.  The schedule had looked like twelve games of grim butt-holding.  Now, a convincing walloping of an FCS team and a respectable showing against Duke and Ball State (UNDER THE LIGHTS) can set the Wildcats up for a bowl run.  Some teams spend the season with a predetermined arc.  ESPN announcers constantly mentioned that Wisconsin, once scraped off the bottom of Alabama's boots, should expect to romp virtually unopposed through the West against a bunch of cardboard football programs such as Northwestern.  Ohio State's schedule remains under vigilant scrutiny should they fail to adequately humiliate each and every opponent they face.  Every Northwestern game, however, will remain an adventure game to game, quarter to quarter, and Pat Fitzgerald fist pump to Pat Fitzgerald fist pump, whether it results in a thrilling Wildcat comeback on a hook-and-lateral or an attack on Ryan Field by heretofore undetected Tremors monsters.

It is too early to celebrate.  But the fundamental tenet of sports fandom is irrationality, so for just one week let's allow for the possibility that Northwestern is much better than the prognosticators thought. In fact, let us throw out most of our assumptions about the universe as we know and spend the rest of the week as a cult of moon-haters celebrating every new moon as a victory and shaking our fists when it slowly grows throughout the month invoking our credo "I'll get you next time, Moon."


The Northwestern Wildcats scored 16 points and Stanford scored six and now Northwestern has one win and Stanford has zero.  This is a fact.  It is a matter of public record.  It is on television, on newspapers, on the internet, and possibly in Gregg Easterbrook's Game Over notebook.  The reasons for this result are up for debate.

Stanford did not play particularly well.  Quarterback Kevin Hogan struggled.  The running game, after the first drive, sputtered.  Wide receivers and cornerbacks dropped passes, including at least one sure interception in the endzone and one wide-open route where a receiver broke free of the defense with absolutely nothing to stop him from running into the endzone other than a temporary hallucination that the ball had turned into a vengeful porcupine.  Stanford fans have also complained about the early start time after traveling from the West Coast.  This problem, though, is part of the Ryan Field home field advantage, where opponents must learn to adapt to Chicago's Big Ten Time Zone.

(click to read)
Railroad companies introduced the first standardized time
zones in 1883. On November 18, the Day of Two Noons,
railroad stations across the United States simultaneously
synchronized their clocks. This is routine now, but the
synchronization provided some dislocation by reinventing
time itself and because The Day of Two Noons sounds like
the beginning of a Young Adult post-apocalyptic trilogy
where time itself is controlled by a mysterious Council that
can only be undone by a plucky tween and a mysterious old
man who knows the Terrible Secret of the Before Times.
This New York Times Article illustrates the concept with the
help of a couple of broadly-drawn Irish stereotypes which I
imagine newspapers brought out as their nineteenth-century
“Begorra,” remarked to his companion a vermilion topped
Hibernian who was watching the south face of the clock, “the
thing has stopped; phwats the matther wid it, anyhow? I don’t
see no time changin', do you Mike?”

Northwestern's defense, especially the defensive line, played well against a team whose M.O. is shoving people and falling down.  But the game belonged to the two 18s: Clayton Thorson and Anthony Walker.  Thorson's first game included a few nice passes and a few adventures through the hands of Cardinal defenders.  He won the game on the ground by flying untouched through the Stanford defense for a 42-yard touchdown.  Walker, on the other hand, was everywhere, tackling Stanford players at the line of scrimmage, in space, and in their classes after posing as a precocious guest lecturer before ripping off an elbow-patched sport coat and punching at their three-ring binders. 


It's football Saturday. You got your grill? You got your friends? You got your jersey and your facepaint and your foam finger with a generic football message? You got your Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants? Well, friend, it's cookin' time.

World-Renowned Chef Vaughn Sharkle knows what tailgating is all about as he drives the Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants RV through the heart of college football grilling.
"I've seen everything," Sharkle says moving his wrap-around sunglasses to the back of his head. "Shrimp, brisket, pork. The only thing college football fans are more passionate about their team is their barbecue."

And everywhere he goes, Sharkle draws a crowd with the smell of fresh, sizzling meat.
"You know a lot of people think of industry when they think of Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants.  Hard work. Smelting aprons. The work that forged America. But Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants are also a part of making America fun, like at this tailgate," said Sharkle completely spontaneously while casually flicking a beach ball with white hot anviling tongs in the direction of some giggling, clean-cut youths.

"I got involved with Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants because we're all about the same thing: Make it More Awesome," Sharkle said, putting on a Make it More Awesome t-shirt.  "I'm going to keep putting meats in more meats and blow people's minds, just like Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants has been doing in the anvil and anvil lubricant industry for 135 years." 

"Dude," he added.  

Vaughn Sharkle's quest for the perfect tailgate hasn't ended yet. You can follow him on Facebook and tweet to #AmalgamatedAnvil&AnvilLubricantGameDayHASHTAG and you could get Vaughn Sharkle and the Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricant Ultimate Game Day Tailgate Team to make your tailgate more awesome with Amalgamted Anvil and Anvil Lubricants.


Eastern Illinois looms next for the Wildcats.  The Panthers play in the FCS, and Northwestern fans are expecting a convincing victory after beating a ranked team.  But you can't sleep on the Panthers.  For one, expect them to take Northwestern by surprise by being primarily south and slightly west of Evanston.  For another, they will be gunning for an enormous upset of their own.  Last season, the 'Cats had a tough time scoring against Western Illinois in a miserable game involving a three-timeout kicker freeze and cheerleaders bearing placards reading (and this is a direct quote) "NECKS."  

Eastern Illinois threatens the Wildcats with a disembodied H.R. Giger panther head

Northwestern has only played Eastern Illinois once before in 2011.  Last year, the Panthers lost to all of the FBS teams they played as well as FCS Championship runner-up Illinois State, but they did pound the holy bejesus out of the teams they did beat.  Eastern is a surprising supplier of NFL quarterbacks. Jimmy Garoppolo was poised to start for the Patriots this season while Roger Goodell had Tom Brady imprisoned in the Ch√Ęteau d'If. Tony Romo worked his way from an undrafted free agent to stardom, riches, and getting assailed by angry Texas talk radio callers for nearly a decade no matter what he does. Northwestern has not had a regular starter in the NFL since Otto Graham, with the exception of that time Brett Basanez played for the Panthers or whenever Mike Kafka surfaces in preseason games to a chorus of the same Kafka jokes everyone made when he was at Northwestern some seven years ago and will haunt him for his entire professional career until the debut of a quarterback named Bobby Sartre or Jimbo Nietzsche.


It has only been one week and it is foolish to draw too many conclusions.  Every single football article you will read this week probably includes that disclaimer.  But the entire point of college football is these madcaps swings in confidence and despair, anointing strong teams and contenders and consigning losers to the dust bin of Pizza City bowls.

Official AP Style Guide for College Football Writing

Northwestern beat a ranked Stanford team and siphoned off their AP poll votes like a Highlander who has just successfully beheaded someone.  The 'Cats are Also Receiving Votes.  The day has two noons.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Week 1: Fall of the House of Beck Man

Football has returned!  On Saturday, the twenty-first ranked Stanford Cardinal drive their crowd-sourced content-centered Silicon Valley Tesla bus into Evanston while the Wildcats will try to disrupt their Pac 12 North title bid.  A long, bleak, hatless offseason finally ends.  Northwestern football is back to terrify the Big Ten West, to seize the Land of Lincoln Trophy from the cold, fired hands of the Beck Man, and make it back to a damn bowl game because I am pretty sure there are no more possible ways for Northwestern to lose every single game in a bizarre last-minute conflagration of football misery.

Since last week's exhaustive preview, Pat Fitzgerald has named a starting quarterback.  Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson has emerged to grab the starting job, probably because you can't bench the offspring of a Norse deity.  The coaching staff hopes that Thorson will remind Wildcat fans of the traditional scrambly Northwestern quarterback that has led the team during successful years without betraying his lack of experience.  He'll have some help with the return of speedy wideout Christian Jones, who missed all of last year, and Pierre Youngblood-Arry, the Cockney Prince of Agincourt.

Northwestern's offense plans to baffle the opposition with a secret play 
called "The Invisible Didgeridoo"

Northwestern's out of conference schedule this year includes a miniature tour of equally insufferable Power 5 private schools.  Stanford can be seen as a funhouse mirror Northwestern, albeit far more successful on the field, with much nicer weather and an ignominious loss involving a kick return team running over a marching band instead of an ignominious win involving the drowning of a goal post.  The Cardinal went 8-5 last year, including a loss to Notre Dame, a team that crumbled easily before the might of the Wildcats and the cumulative effect of every single lucky break that Northwestern had been denied in nearly two full seasons of football action. 

Maybe opening against a top-25 powerhouse with a freshman quarterback is not the ideal way to start a season.  But top-quality opposition will invite the full pageantry of non-conference football to Ryan Field: ESPN broadcast, Stanford's hallucinogenic tree mascot, and Chicago's Big Ten Tarp.  Northwestern's greatest seasons in recent memory have come out of nowhere.  It is time for them to once again ruin opponents' seasons, crush dreams, and travel to a bowl game even if we have to invent one from whole cloth using shell companies and a long con involving inventing a dot com company.


We don't have Tim Beckman to kick around anymore.  Last week, Illinois abruptly fired him amid allegations of player abuse.  Beckman's dismissal could hardly be seen as unexpected after years of futility, controversy, and general flailing Beckmania-- at one point his Wikipedia page contained a section entitled "Public Outcry"-- but his sudden termination eight days before the start of the season certainly caught the college football world unaware. He spent his last year of coaching like Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea; we all knew he'd get eaten by a shark, but the end was still sudden and jarring.

There's nothing at all amusing about the reasons why Beckman was ultimately canned.  A University of Illinois-commissioned report claimed that Beckman pressured injured players to keep playing and threatened players with the loss of their scholarships.  These charges are not that surprising in the world of college football, where some tobacco-stained mustache columnist is probably still rhapsodizing about the time an old-school hat-wearing Woody Hayes type yelled "you're not injured. I'll show you injured" before running a walk-on through with a Civil War cavalry saber.  A cynic could also note that the report gave the university adequate legal ammunition to fire him with cause and save nearly $4 million owed to him on his contract and his buyout.  Beckman denies the allegations and vows to fight for the money owed on his contract.

It seems likely that Beckman's tenure involved shady injury practices and provided the university with a way to renounce his salary. Illinois administrators, already riven with scandals in the athletic department and embattled leadership at the top, found an opportunity to free themselves from financial commitments to a losing coach who continually acted like Tim Beckman in public.  The allegations against Beckman don't seem outside the realm of possibility because they had already been echoed by some former players and because Beckman has coached like he bought a Weekly Reader book from 1967 called Trench Bludgeoner's Guide to College Football and Commie Spotting and dedicated himself to Cold War-era football: thus insisting on having players play through pain, demanding favorable coverage from print media, and nurturing the second-most ridiculous rivalry in college football.


If there is one thing that Tim Beckman accomplished at Illinois it was successfully creating a Northwestern-Illinois rivalry.  It is still not a true rivalry the way most intrastate rivalries work; instead, the Beck Man has somehow reinvented the entire concept of a college football rivalry as a quixotic crusade waged by a single man.  His immediate declaration of war against Northwestern was nothing short of ludicrous. His ham-fisted attempts to stoke that rivalry devolved into farce. It is possible to read the entire Beckman treatment of Northwestern as a brilliant deconstruction of rivalry itself, recasting the Iron Bowl, or the The Game, or the dozens of other actual football rivalries as absurd, rendering all football fans as dimbulb Beckman simulacra.

But, let's give the Beck Man his due here: it sort of worked.  No one hates Northwestern football. Northwestern football is briefly remembered and occasionally pitied. I have spent the past few weeks skimming thousands upon thousands of words of college football and Big Ten previews and almost none of them deign to mention the existence of Northwestern football except as evidence of a Big Ten contender's easy schedule. So when Sheriff Beckman swaggered into town with his school up north euphemisms and purple clothing bans, it was fun.  Beck Man stood in front of the press, the world, and his god decrying Northwestern football with a straight face and it was impossible not to respond with hat-taunts as he floundered about. In theory, the rivalry was against the University of Illinois.  In reality, it was a rivalry with Beck Man himself, who inexplicably continued his one-man anti-Northwestern jeremiads while simultaneously comporting himself like a man in an infomercial unaware that an overstuffed kitchen cabinet is about to unleash an unholy rain of tupperware upon his person.

This actually happened.
This actually happened.
This actually happened.
This actually happened.

What on earth are we going to do without Tim Beckman?  Bill Cubit seems unlikely to burst into a press conference with a fresh barrage of Northwestern hate-mongering-- it is possible he removed the anti-Northwestern symbol from the Illini locker room only to discover it was covering up a secret cache of VHS recordings of an unsold television pilot called "Tim Beckman's Hat Police."  I don't know anything about Cubit other than his name is an obscure, ancient unit of measure that is good for maybe one half-hearted stiff-arm joke per season.  Our only hope is that Cubit somehow becomes mesmerized by the Hat, loses all grip on reality, and turns into a Klaus Kinsky character over the course of the season, his clothes in tatters, his hair frayed, his press conferences devolving into incoherent hat-shrieks, only no one notices because that is still slightly more reasonable than Tim Beckman.

Illinois fans, we're in this together.  Beckman may have have stared blankly into the middle distance for the last time as the Illini coach, but we have a conference, a trophy, and two bleak programs eclipsed in our own state by a MAC team and FCS team, respectively.  We only have each other. 

Beckman, banished to the Phantom Zone, vows to defeat That School 
From The Adjacent Dimension Well Actually There's No Way To Define 
Its Relation To Us In Time and Space

Give us our damn hat back.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Northwestern Preview

In scant weeks, the college football will again get underway and soon, perhaps as soon as the first forlorn kickoff returner is scraped off the field, it will be time to have The Conversation.

The Conversation dominates college football's bloviosphere for the entire season.  Its cosmology is heliocentric; everything revolves around the playoff and, ultimately, the National Championship.  For a team must be in The Conversation before it can be in the playoff, and each week, each minute of college football season, unavoidable college football pundits and bloggers and unhinged Finebaum shouters who, without Finebaum, would be forced to call people to yell at them about Alabama one at a time starting with A Aaronson and ending with T Zbikowski to cast teams out of The Conversation like the Almighty banishing Moses from the Promised Land.  It is a process so weightily asinine that it requires a Bill Simmons-esque Capitalized Phrase.

The crew of Bloviosphere II begins its two-year project to live in a self-contained ecosystem 
generating all of its energy from nightly screaming matches about the SEC.
N.B. College football is so dependent on subjectivity, arguments, and nonsense that it is the 
most Bill Simmonsy sport possible-- we should be living in a world where Bill Simmons 
develops a feud with Phyllis From Mulga

College football is the only major American sport where The Conversation has tangible effect on determining a champion.  There are 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the sheer impossibility of determining the four top teams results in a hodgepodge of computer formulae, polls filled out by hat-wearing journalists and graduate assistants, Lou Holtz's saliva, residual Civil War animus, and people paying to fly airplane banners over stadiums. Then, a mysterious Committee of Thirteen picks them with no accountability.  College football has found the most convoluted, compelling and profoundly stupid way to pick its champion short of Nostradamus texts.

Approximately 90% of the media discussion about college football is about The Conversation and more than 90 of the 128 FBS teams will not be in The Conversation for a single second.  Northwestern is one of them.

Also-ran teams in top "Power Five" conferences exist only when a Conversation team rampages through their stadiums with their entourage of bloodthirsty alumni.  Those outside the Power Five, the Mid-Majors without the influence and the money and the ludicrous propaganda television networks might as well exist in Siberia or a the very least Moscow, Idaho.

Big Ten Network programming subtly works in a sponsor while airing its The Big Ten Invents
Football: Rutgers documentary

Northwestern, along with the vast majority of college football teams, exists in a shadowy netherworld apart from the dominant college football narrative.  These teams toil in relative obscurity as tackling dummies for contenders or by beating up on each other on games televised by contractual obligation that only warrant a passing mention if they end with the requisite number of overtimes, laterals, or 300 pound men precariously running with the football, gleefully living out their Pop Warner touchdown fantasies before they gained several hundred more pounds and coaches convinced them to smash into other giants, triumphantly gallumphing along the sidelines desperately looking for someone to stiff-arm.  In an ideal world, these teams are agents of chaos, ruining a contenders' season and exulting in their opponents' shock, sorrow, and internet coach-firing.  Notre Dame, for example, deserves the indignity of losing to Northwestern so completely that, if Northwestern did not exist, we would have to invent it and its temporarily unstoppable baseball kicker.

Teams outside of the championship face spread offenses, blitz packages, and genuine existential quandaries.  There are 128 teams.  There are no draft picks rewarding miserable seasons; the only prize is its merciful end.  For these teams, the season is a Sisyphean struggle where quarterbacks metaphorically hand off enormous unmovable rocks. This is the best football.

Fans of teams in The Conversation suffer through football season as a precarious drudge through a dozen potential calamities.  Anything short of a championship is agony, a nine-win season is a failure, and anything short of that requires the immediate installation of creepy flight-tracking software to analyze coach movements.  In a sport featuring a weird, oblong ball, every unpredictable bounce portends doom and misery, and every discussion of the team welcomes a thousand armchair Napoleons spouting inane theories about a winning mentality.

Turn on the television and college football is about ESPN College Gameday, poll positions, committees, and trophies.  But for most fanbases, The Conversation is irrelevant white noise.  It is about grasping a frozen beer at 10:00 in the morning before entering an empty, windswept stadium, exulting in invites to the forgettable dregs of bowl season, buckets, Hats, and the faintest hope of ruining the season for some juggernaut team.  Their asses will remain uncrowned. It does not matter.


Northwestern has had a rough couple of seasons.  The 2012 campaign ended a bowl drought that originated in the Truman administration in a bowl that people actually have heard of.  The Wildcats began 2013 with high expectations, eventually summoning College Gameday to campus in a football apocalypse against Ohio State.  Since then, it is misery and strife.  Northwestern has experienced a beguiling series of impossible, last-second losses culminating in the catastrophic Hat Game Bowl Game defeat at the hands of Beck Man in their own goddamn stadium.  There have been no bowl games since the 2013 Gator Bowl.  The Hat resides in Champaign, under guard from Beck Man's elite Order of the Mustacheless.

The Order is trained from birth to defend the Hat with hand-to-hand combat, stump 
speeches, Abraham Lincoln Trivia facts, period-accurate timepieces, and bo staffs.  
Before 2009, they were known as the Order of the Flying Tomahawk with a whole other set of 
birth rituals, each of which was probably offensive and problematic, so if you think about it 
the whole turnaround into a Lincoln-based artifact-guarding death cult in such a short amount 
of time is pretty impressive

The main question is at quarterback.  Candidates include big-armed senior Zack Oliver, dual-threat sophomore Matt Alviti, and John Grisham protagonist Clayton Thorson.  Less than two weeks before the season opener against Stanford, the quarterback situation remains unsettled.  Northwestern does not necessarily need a single incumbent starter.  During the Kain Colter/Trevor Siemian heyday, the 'Cats altered quarterbacks successfully; Northwestern should push that further by having at least three quarterbacks on the field at all time, occasionally playing quarterback, occasionally playing other skill positions, and other times simply standing in the backfield attempting to confuse the defense with unpredictable arm motions while Justin Jackson runs around them.

If there is one thing to look forward to on offense, it is the return of Justin Jackson.  Jackson seized the starting job as a true freshman after the unexpected departure of star running back Venric Mark.  He ran for 1,184 yards despite coming on as the featured back in the third game.  As Siemian battled injuries, Jackson carried the offense, including going for 162 in an upset against Wisconsin and 149 against Notre Dame.  Jackson's game depends on an expert reading of holes and coverages as he slinks and slithers through the line, ending up where linebackers aren't looking for him.

A frustrated linebacker punches the mirror where he thinks Justin Jackson is, but he is not 
there; no, he is 20 yards away, scampering past a hapless safety or maybe he is cutting back,
warding off the nose tackle with his claw hand

The Wildcats will lean heavily on their defense this season.  They lost some stalwarts last year including ball-hawking safety Ibraheim Campbell and all-encompassing tackle monster Chi Chi Ariguzo.  They return a senior-heavy defensive line and Nick VanHoose at corner.  Safety Godwin Igwebuike and linebacker Anthony Walker made excellent debuts last season.  Igwebuike picked off three passes in the Wisconsin game alone, although picking off Wisconsin passes is equivalent to 1.65 normal passes since the Badgers only break out the forward pass as a droll party trick.  Walker memorably returned a pick for a touchdown in his first start and made another vital pick against Notre Dame off a pass that had comically bonked off a Notre Dame player's helmet.

The road to an unheralded Pizza City bowl game will be difficult.  The 'Cats open the season against a strong Stanford team vying for a Pac 12 North title.  They also face a resurgent Duke team in Durham.  The Big Ten West division does not inspire reverent rhapsodies or rapid mouth-foaming soliloquies on sports talk radio, but it still offers little respite; the 'Cats will likely need to eke out three or even four Big Ten victories to qualify for a bowl game.  After Fitzgerald guided Northwestern to five straight bowl appearances, fans had become accustomed to them, treating these excursions to Texas (always Texas) like a dubious birthright.  Now, expectations have relaxed.  A big upset would be great.  Bowl eligibility spectacular.  But none of this matters when some Midwestern Roscoe P. Coltrane has absconded with The Hat and it is finally time to do something about it. 

While the Wildcats attract little attention during football season, they've found themselves at the center of the unionization debate.  This week, the National Labor Relations Board surprisingly overturned the regional board decision that labeled football players employees and allowed them to vote on forming a union.  The NLRB examined the evidence, looked at the trailblazing work by Kain Colter and the CAPA and the growing unease about the way billion dollar sporting leagues are incoherently bolted onto universities and boldly declared: "THE HELL IF I KNOW."

The NLRB overturned the earlier ruling argued that the designation of athletes as employees at a private institution would cause conflicts when expanded to public universities.  According to this article, Michigan and Ohio have passed laws specifying that scholarship athletes are not employees in response to Northwestern's initial unionization attempts.

The unionization case has exposed the dark underbelly of college football at Northwestern.  The nonsensical marriage of universities and big-time football is endemic and ever-present in the nature of college football the way the air we breathe is rife with microscopic fungus spores and our gas station soda cups are inescapably inundated with images of captain something-or-other who will defend humanity by throwing people into buildings with no apparent effect in an endless series of movies.  Even Northwestern, which has recently invested in a series of various-sized tarps to cover up empty stands (ranging from FCS Illinois Team to Purdue and It's Snowing) is inundated with Big Ten Network money and plasters fans with ads from companies who paid actual American dollars to be the Official Such-and-Such of Northwestern Football because they were swindled by some dashing Harold Hill figure.

Players, university officials, and easily-riled internet commenters can debate about the extent to which they feel athletic scholarships adequately compensate athletes for their time or the extent to which unionization is the right path for athletes.  But it is also difficult to square the opulent spectacle of college football with the actual demands from Colter's College Athletes Players Association for things like expanded medical care, protection of scholarships, and payment for use of images so they can make some money from when I use a thinly-veiled Kain Colter video game facsimile to get an endless supply of first downs against Virtual Ohio State.  It is not clear what behooves the NCAA or its member conferences to increase benefits for players when players have essentially no leverage to play anywhere else until Vince McMahon brings back a new version of the XFL where players are forced to comply with a fringe cowboy hat dress code and play is constantly interrupted by washed-up former players dramatically entering the field while everyone involved unconvincingly feigns stupefaction.

The Macho Man Timmy Hat Rage leaves college to 
join the reformed XFL, enjoying a stellar run as a guy 
who keeps forgetting his gimmick


Northwestern is irrelevant in the national media's coverage of college football.  But off the field, Northwestern has become the most important team in the country when it comes to showcasing the meaninglessness of the NCAA's "student-athlete" designation.  Ultimately, the battle for college athletes to gain what they decide is their fair share of the monstrous profits generated by college sports will continue to dominate the off-field narrative.

But the bizarre nature of college football, almost impossible to explain in the abstract, will once again make sense as soon as the meats sizzle in parking lots, the marching bands blare their Chicago covers, and the students begin ramming into each other for our amusement.  Northwestern kicks off against Stanford in two Saturdays and all becomes lost in a haze of tarps and hands contorted into crude wildcat claws. I want college sports to reach a more equitable place even if that means massive changes that render them unrecognizable.  But I also want to watch Northwestern players score ludicrous touchdowns, completely destroy some Big Ten team's season, and defeat the Illini in some way that causes the winning touchdown to somehow trigger a vast Rube Goldberg apparatus that hits Tim Beckman in the face with a pie.  I have no idea if these two desires can coexist or if this is a delusion created by the pageantry of the music, the stadiums, and the people dressed like angry anthropomorphic animals imploring the team to touchdowns.