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The philosophical implications of Northwestern’s OT win over Nebraska

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ARE WE MERELY PAWNS IN THE HANDS OF FATE?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Hypotheticals are irrelevant. Reality will not change, no matter how many well-reasoned what-if scenarios sports fans will devise. And yet, even with Northwestern’s players celebrating and 89,000 people emptying Memorial Stadium in record time, everyone involved wondered what might have been, at least once.

Inside NU is no different.
XKCD

College football, like all sports, is a nonsensical game of layered probabilities. No. 6 Ohio State lost 55-24 to Iowa, a team that could not score more than 10 points against Northwestern. Was this likely? No, but that doesn’t matter. Stats are for losers.

After the Penn State game, I wrote that Northwestern was “Chicago’s Big Ten Existential Crisis.” At the time, it was a humorous dig at the team’s moribund start. But for me, it was always a personal crisis of whether college football was worth watching. Three overtime wins later, I can definitively say I was wrong. Northwestern football is worth watching.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the existential crisis is over. The way these wins have happened, in classic Northwestern fashion, are so ridiculous that you have to question the mechanics. Was this absurd string of games...destiny?

Let’s look at the math. What are the odds Northwestern would play three straight overtime games? You will likely never see that again, that’s for sure. Prior to this season, Northwestern played 15 overtime games in 264 opportunities (this is a stupid stat to use, but it’s all we have). That’s a lot. Kansas State, the other purple Wildcats, have played 3 overtime games between 1996-2016 (ironically, they also won in overtime today). But using that undoubtedly inflated 5.68 percent rate, Northwestern’s chances of going to three straight were still just .019 percent. The odds Northwestern would win all three, after losing the coin toss, were even greater.

But that doesn’t matter. While you read this, there was a 100 percent chance Northwestern would win three straight overtime games (something that had never been done before), because it actually happened. There’s no point in saying it was “unbelievable” or “unreal” because that implies another reality was more likely, which is absurd. This is all we’ve got.

So...does Northwestern like playing overtime games?

“I would prefer not to,” Fitzgerald said, when asked. “I think our guys have some confidence in tight games. To see now the way we responded, to see the look in their eyes when it was overtime, ‘we are going to win this game’.”

This is coachspeak, for sure, but it still has some analytical value in a philosophical way, if not practically.

Sporting events will always be the best gauge on whether a person believes in determinism or free will. With that quote, you feel like Pat Fitzgerald is buying into a deterministic worldview, an understandable reaction to sporting events. Fitzgerald went for it on four gutsy fourth down plays that changed the course of the game with little hesitation. Prior to this year, no one would ever say Fitz was an aggressive coach on fourth down. Now, he seems to be going for it at all times, even when the math isn’t even in his favor (remember that fourth-and-long he went for against Maryland?). That screams determinism to me.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Clayton Thorson, on the other hand, seems to be a free will guy.

“It starts up front, those guys are playing well,” he said. “On those three other drives I missed some throws I never miss, so I have do a little better job of that.”

This is some major armchair psychology, but as a quarterback, it makes sense that Thorson tends toward free will in sporting events (no clue what he thinks in non-sporting events). He’s the attacker, the offensive genius who is supposed to marshal his team to victory. He makes the throws. It’s his decision. If Thorson doesn’t believe in his individual agency, then he probably wouldn’t be a very good quarterback.

Of course, Thorson’s free will can lead to bad outcomes.

“I definitely didn’t have my best stuff the whole game,” he said. This was a slight understatement. With Northwestern down 24-17 in the middle of the fourth, he had 175 yards and two interceptions that led to Nebraska touchdowns. He hadn’t made a pass downfield in the entire second half. He was missing wide-open players. His confidence was gone. But then, Thorson picked himself off the mat and delivered two excellent drives to tie the game and to go ahead in overtime. Free will, right?

Not so fast. For Pat Fitzgerald, the former linebacker, determinism must be the only outcome. Just as the star quarterback must love free will, the star middle linebacker, whose main job on the field is to diagnose plays before they happen, must be a determinist. Offense=active, defense=reactive; you get it. The play is already decided before you walk up to the line. You spend hours with the scout team, looking for tells, looking at film, trying to counter. The middle linebacker, ideally, knows everything that is fated to happen before the game even begins.

“We made a mistake at the end of the first half, not taking a timeout,” Fitzgerald said, frustrated with himself. “That played into the fourth decision at the end of overtime.”

Fitzgerald made a dumb mistake, but clearly, he sees it as merely part of the process that led to his fourth down decision in overtime. And that was a major reason they won, so determinism wins, right?

But when you really think about it, both arguments make perfect sense. It’s as if determinism and free will are like two sides of one football team. They are compatible with one another, and as David Hume argued in the 1730s, that’s fine. Under the philosophical idea of “compatibility,” as long as the free decision to go on fourth down is included in the chain of events, you can have free will and determinism working simultaneously.

So many things had to go a certain way for Northwestern to be 6-3. Some of them were acts of fate (Noah Fant’s dropped pass). Some were acts of free will (Flynn Nagel escaping a tackle to tie MSU to force triple OT). And today, if one supernatural Justin Jackson run gets stuffed, or Godwin Igwebuike doesn’t make a game-saving pick in the redzone, NOTthwestern would have lost. You can disappear headfirst into hypotheticals, and sports narrative will let you in the door for advertising revenue. Be a casual fan tonight. Rather than thinking about those darned sports narratives, I think Northwestern fans deserve a night to just appreciate what has occurred over the last three weeks, if only to relax our stressed brains. It’s been a magical mishmash of fate and freedom. This type of absurdity is why we watch sports.

I made fun of Pat Fitzgerald for evaluating things “holistically,” but I am now going to evaluate college football holistically. Everything from today’s crazy day in the Big Ten, from Michigan State defeating Penn State to Rutgers having three conference wins, happened exactly how it should have happened. We are at the mercy of an unfathomable fountain of players and circumstances dictating this absurd, but very, very fun, sport. That’s what makes college compelling, not endlessly replaying events in the rankings and in our minds. Now let’s go celebrate.