So, I went to Champaign yesterday. What follows is a recap of a football game, but also a recap of a metropolitan area.
First off: the title. We won ourselves a monopoly piece. In a somewhat disappointing turn, I never actually saw any NU players with the trophy, so I'm not 100% sure the hat on wood exists. But we won it. Pat Fitzgerald's next trick will be to pull a rabbit/endless strand of cloth out of the Land of Lincoln trophy.
- Second off, football: It took around 3/4 of the year for it to happen, but some players I expected to play well and some I never, ever did have turned into a cohesive football team.
- Mike Kafka Not sure how it happened, but the guy turned into a complete college quarterback, even though the running skill he once showed has sort of evaporated with his hammy injury. Iron Mike hasn't thrown a pick since the Indiana game, but busted out a whole arsenal of passing skill we just haven't seen. In the beginning of the year, he was a deadeye passer on those short dinky-dunky routes. Then, yesterday, Illinois did something very difficult. They spent a whole week training, and essentially shut down Kafka's ability to nail these passes: Guarding the middle to protect against those short in routes, putting on a decent pass rush, and limiting receivers' yards after catches. Where week 3 MIke Kafka/Fitz might've tried to have him throw deep, with the operative word being "tried", and then, after realizing that wasn't going to work, would've stuck with the inefficient short passing attack with diminished results.
- But now? The dude can complete long passes. He nailed - nailed! - Zeke Markshausen twice on those corner routes, hit Ebert on the same route too. He had Sid Stewart twice, got him the ball both times! Stewart failed to bring in a catch on one of them, but, it was admittedly a tough one. And of course, the 50 yarder to Brewer. Old school Mike Kafka overthrows him or throws a wobbly end-over-end joint that gets picked off. But old Mike is old MIke.
- Where did our running game come from? Did last years' just get off the bus from San Antonio? Scott Concannon spend those weeks where he was supposedly out with a concussion in China training with a running back sensei? Did Arby Fields somehow get three miles per hour faster since week one? I don't know. But whatever happened, NU had an effective running game today. Concannon isn't fast, but he's just fast enough to get to the outside corner, and wiley enough to find holes that aren't there and spin out of tackles and he stays on his feet long enough to get five or six yards when he finds that hole. Arby Fields is straight up fast, and actually looked like a running back after being nonexistent for so long. We used four running backs,f five when you consider Persa was effectively being used as a Wildcat player with no option to throw, and all five of them were effective to some extent. We gained 139 yards on the ground. Tell me you thought that would ever happen four weeks ago.
- Corey Wootton is absolutely catching wreck right now. This is Corey. We have him for two (two!) more games, so let's enjoy the everloving nonsense out of it. I hope NFL scouts didn't close their file sometime around the Minnesota game, because this is a completely different human being.
- I can't say I was pleased with our defense. You're up 18. Cover the guy going deep. Put a safety on him, let him catch the ball and bring him down right after that. But cover him. If Illinois had a quarterback who... well, looked like Kafka did today, they win this game. Easily. Guys were open downfield, and if you can't hit em, they can't do anything for ya. I'd go so far as to say that our defensive unit played well. Wootton, as noted, is back. Q, Brian Peters, and Nate Williams were everywhere. Our defensive line held their own despite only getting one sack and giving up unfortunate amounts of rushing yardage to something called a Michael Leshoure. By all means, the reason Illinois only had 3 points after 3 quarters is because Illinois is Illinois. Dropped passes, missed targets, missed field goals, general malaise and lamentation of the women. But the defense played well enough to give us the W yesterday.
- Stefan Demos is no longer the G.O.A.T. But you can't blame the guy for not pulling off a perfect season. That's asking a bit too much of any kicker, much less one also pulling punting duties.
- Hunter Bates: true American hero. Now, look, folks, catching a football is hard. Arrelious Benn, as well as our kick returners, should have showed you this today. You know what else his hard? Jumping three feet into the air, getting undercut by the type of human being strong enough to play for a Big Ten football team, flipping over, landing on your back, and not dying. Bates managed to do both, with an end-over-end onside kick. Applause. Hunter, you're good in my book. I'm no longer a little bit annoyed at you for confusing me whenever I see a short white dude with black hair wearing #7 doing things and then wondering which one of y'all it is.
- I'm not sure if that last play was a pick. What I'm sure of is that it was awesome.
- Words of advice to the U of I PA announcer: Marks-hausen. Not Marchausen. I wouldn't be mad, but he caught the ball like 43 times, including a touchdown. His job is to catch a football while running as fast as he can and then avoiding getting tackled by strong and fast people. Your is to pronounce his name correctly. He did his, but guess which of your jobs is easier? Also, chill out with the descriptors, homie. Jacob Charest did not just "scamper" for a first down, he ran for one. Stephen Simmons wasn't tackled by "a host of Illini", it was, like, two dudes. Say their names, get it over with. Also, the enthusiastic way you yell "FIRST DOWN!" is cool, but, uh, not when your team just was the beneficiary of a penalty or they just recovered their own fumble past the first-down marker. Then you can just say "First down." Chill on the pants-crapping.
- With regards to the stadium: it's weird, I go to a college, and I go to games where football is played, but after almost two seasons of being a student, I went to my first college football game. It would be cool if we could have a full stadium with loud, interested fans, all wearing the same color, all cheering, with a band I could hear 150 yards away from the other side of the field, with a student section the size of my school locking arms and bouncing around (which looks awesome, btdubs) Obviously, the fact that our school is 1/6 the size of theirs will prevent any of this from ever happening. But, uh, I'ma take some football roadtrips more often. Illinois isn't really talked about as having a spectacular football atmosphere, but it's a completely different universe from anything you can get at Ryan Field. If you don't accept this, you're wrong.
- Not that I have qualms with NU's fanbase. We were audible yesterday. I wasn't sitting in the NU section, but I heard em. And if you're going to play "Hey Baby", as dozens of schools do, don't let it be against NU, because having a few hundred people yell "HEY WHAT? GO WILDCATS" is audible even in a stadium of 60,000.
- About which, do any Illinois fight songs contain words? I'm pretty sure it's all just clapping. And then they spell their team name, which always sounds cool, but like every other place that resorts to mass spelling, isn't that impressive when you think about it.
- While we're talking about attendance and whatnot, uh, Champaign is, well, awesome, and to some extent, this helps a lot with football games. I don't mean awesome in that Champaign is an innately enjoyable place: it's like 50,000 college students surrounded by a few hours of cornfields. (Sorry. It's true. Big ups to all my farmers out there!) But as Northwestern students, it's tough not to walk through Champaign and get jealous. Public drinking is not so much permitted as expected. You're allowed to sell and take Jagerbombs in the street. And I'm not saying that this is a good strategy because I'm a college student and therefore, yeah, bro, drinking! Sweet! I'm saying this because Evanston/Northwestern's insistence on enforcing laws most college towns turn the other way on don't seem to have any positives: I don't see how our university thinks that making getting caught drinking have major negative implications is a good thing, because I'd think the school has a vested interest in preventing students from drinking themselves to death in their dorm rooms. At U of I, if you get dangerously drunk, they take care of you first and then slap you with a $300 ticket later. And just sayin, students go to football games there. Part of this is just a size thing: with 50,000 students, there's a lot more to deal with there, and they get less nitpicky, and none of this will change until, like Illinois, NU has a quad the size of what is now south campus. (that is to say, not happening.) But having hung out with guys in the Illinois chapter of my fraternity for a few hours yesterday, and when we described the way we do things in terms of doing fun things at NU, the way I would describe their reaction is "sympathetic to our plight". I can say confidently that although I love NU, there's a lot of aspects of life here that I wish were different and shouldn't require much thought or debate to change.
- Point being, I probably should just transfer to a state school. That's the life.
- I mean, we had N.E.R.D for our Dillo Day concert, remember? They had Jay-Z, with Wale and N.E.R.D. opening. Wale! Damn.
- Then again, apparently you have to do various forms of community service and apply to get student basketball tickets there. I show up five minutes before the game and sit front row. Some things are good.
- Something that isn't good? Amtrak. The last thing that the people at the U of I chapter of the fraternity said to us was, "hey, hope your trains aren't delayed" and we thought they were joking or something. My friends and I paid for a train, but what we got was a bus that showed up a half hour after we were supposed to board the train. As a New Yorker I'm used to efficient public transportation. When I showed up in this part of the world and found friendly people, delicious pizza, and the El, uh, I was displeased. So imagine me being violently angry after having been awake for about 16 hours yesterday.
- Oh, and, Illinois, people, let's get something straight. We don't have a big enough rivalry that there needs to be that much glaring when two guys in Northwestern gear walk into a bar after a game, regardless of the final outcome. We went into this really cool place on Green Street called Legends, the problem is, on the unwelcome sports fans glare-o-meter, with a 1 being "unprovoked loving embraces" and a 10 being "immediate murder upon sight", we were probably getting a 6.5-7 from the middle-aged Illinois fans we saw, which is a step below actually stepping to us and starting something. Chill out, Illinois fans. Coming from somebody who has never been in the city of Boston without wearing a Yankees hat and sweatshirt at all times, the Land of Lincoln trophy shouldn't make me feel like I'm wearing red in Crips territory.
That's pretty much all I got. I'll have more football-y posts as the week goes on and I start thinking more about sports and less about how badly I wish we could throw actual tailgates as the week goes on.
For now, let's just rejoice: I mean, back-to-back winning seasons? This is only the second time since we started playing a 12 game slate that's happened. Think about that. We're bowl eligible for the third time in three years. Uh, same ish there. This doesn't happen very often.
So as I always say, sip with me. Let's enjoy this, and I'll see y'all in a nice, warm place in a month and a half.