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Northwestern football as Möbius strip of frustration

It’s a cruel world out there.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

What the heck.

I just had to laugh. During that awful stretch where Northwestern had negative-infinity yards and gave up two return touchdowns, a sense of absurd desperation fell over me. Like, what the heck was that? How does that even happen for an FBS school? How is that even allowed?

I then remembered I’ve already felt the exact same feeling during the Michigan State game last week. I felt the same way for Stanford, Akron, Duke, Rutgers, Illinois State, and countless other games over the course of this decade. I could put together a film breakdown of the offensive ineptitude that cost Northwestern the game, but it would be utterly pointless.

We’ve all seen it before: moribund play-calling, terrible execution, poor offensive line play, inept wide receiver play, inane coaching, awful decision-making. And if, somehow, you’re unfamiliar with this brand of Northwestern football, I guarantee the rest of the coaches in the Big Ten are not.

Watching this over and over again has become a Kafkaesque experience. Not Mike Kafka, mind you, but Franz Kafka. Northwestern fans are all Josef K in The Trial, forced to become a total bystander as a sloppy and nonsensical bureaucracy continues to torture us for no apparent reason. Fun.

Since this is a rambling essay about metaphysics and emotional disturbance in the context of sports, we might as well knock out the obligatory David Foster Wallace reference. A central theme of the novel Infinite Jest is “annular fusion,” the method by which Wallace’s dystopian North America produces cheap energy. Despite its pretentious name, the process is actually quite simple: it’s an energy-producing reaction that produces toxic garbage. That garbage is fed into another reaction, which creates even more garbage. It’s a very pretentious way to describe self-perpetuating cycle of destruction.

As Wallace writes: “What looks like the cage’s exit is actually the bars of the cage...The entrance says EXIT. There isn’t an exit. [Northwestern is] the ultimate annular fusion: that of exhibit and its cage.”

I bring this pretentious reference up because Northwestern football is an exercise in pure annular fusion. While this system is applicable to many societal ills—substance abuse, the prison system, bad relationships, climate change, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the New York Mets, etc.—the annual insanity of watching Northwestern do the exact same thing on offense with limited success is the purest form of self-perpetuating destruction. You watch it, you feel bad about it, then you watch more to feel less bad about it, only to eventually end up feeling worse.

Garbage begets more garbage. Terrible first down plays breed awful second down plays. A lack of good offensive line play leads to crushing turnovers. An offensive philosophy earns success in spite of itself, and then creates an even worse cycle of offensive futility. Annular fusion is achieved because wastage is rewarded. Instead of trying to evaluate the process, Pat Fitzgerald spends his time gaslighting the media by giving them a Trump-ian non-sequitur about Video Games and Duh Internet that makes no sense.

Calling it an “offensive philosophy” is itself a half-joke—the most obvious takeaway from the last four games is that there is still no philosophy. Northwestern’s “plan” is to get a first down from two predictable run plays and a five-yard pass. If anything goes wrong en route to this first first down, it’s all over. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but it can’t be that much more complicated than that.

Sometimes, it feels like someone on the staff has just inserted plays in because they sound cool—the RPOs, the fancy speed option, the zone read that everyone sees coming. Hunter Johnson often looks completely confused, and while that is definitely on him in some respect, it also must eventually come down to bad coaching and design.

I mean, seriously, we do this every year.

I don’t need to tell you that the ‘Cats are second to last in yards per play in the FBS. I don’t need to tell you that Bill Connelly’s efficiency numbers have them as the worst Power 5 offense in the country, by far. I don’t need to tell you about Northwestern’s fall from an exciting, top 15 offense that invented the spread to unwatchable mess. I don’t need to tell you this because you’ve likely already internalized it, as this process has been going on FOR OVER SIX YEARS, at least. Think about where you were at the end of the 2013 season.

Perhaps you had a child in 2013...that child is now starting elementary school. The No. 1 songs of 2013 included “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. And that’s only covering the measurable decline phase—the @FireMickMcCall Twitter account has been running since 2009.

From a wider perspective, Inside NU is essentially a chronicle of various attempts to understand why Northwestern’s offense is the way that it is. For those who don’t know, I actually graduated in June 2019, so my entire Northwestern journalism career has been exercise in trying to fathom various forms of offensive ineptitude.

My first-ever football article on Inside NU was an investigation on whether Northwestern truly deserved to be outperforming its awful offensive S&P+ in 2015. There are, quite literally, hundreds of posts on this site determining what is wrong with Northwestern’s offense.

Highlights Include:

“Will Mick McCall Leave for Bowling Green” (Imagine that alternate reality!!!) - Chris Johnson, December 13, 2013

“Why Do You Want Mick McCall Fired?” - Kevin Trahan, December 4, 2014

“Should Offensive Coordinator Mick McCall Be Fired?” - Henry Bushnell, January 4, 2016

“Northwestern Football Cannot Get Better Unless Pat Fitzgerald Changes His Staff” - Kevin Trahan, September 29, 2016

“Chicago’s Big Ten Existential Crisis” – Tristan Jung, October 7, 2017

“Northwestern Loses to the Akron Zips again.” – Ben Goren, September 15, 2018

And then yesterday, courtesy of former Inside NU EIC Caleb Friedman:

Inside NU has gone through eight editors-in-chief since the blog began in the misty days of the early 2010s. There have been almost 50 writers that have come and gone. How many coordinators has Alabama had since 2009? 25? How much staff turnover have you had at your day job in the last decade? Perhaps you’ve even changed jobs yourself. Yet Northwestern continues to stay exactly the same, against all odds.

At some point, this is stagnancy for the sake of stagnancy. The more the Northwestern football fan intelligentsia (and the media...they’re the same) complains, the more recalcitrant the people become. This is something that scientists and anthropologists have tried to analyze, by the way.

In a recent study about the anti-vaxxer movement, research has shown that the proliferation of open communication and social media has actually made it easier for fringe groups to justify their positions. The ability to pit yourself against the world allows the creation of self-imposed authority. And you see it in these postgame interviews, these hostile, evasive, self-assured tirades, and in the on-field product.

That narrative is kinda funny, however, because it’s not like the media doesn’t want Northwestern to succeed. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as seen by their endless series of national TV games. On a personal level, Northwestern sports have given me some of my best memories of the last four years, and I’m thankful for that! I also want these moments to continue!! It is very simple! It just feels like things could be better! Really! Sigh. Seriously, there is no conspiracy to neg Northwestern football into ignominy.

In the end, the thing about annular fusion is that it’s essentially a clever metaphor for addiction. And it’s very, very clear that the Northwestern football apparatus is addicted to this style of offense, because there’s no logical explanation for what I’m watching. Of course, because football is football, Northwestern’s clear lack of a solid process on offense doesn’t actually matter as much as we think.

After all, Northwestern is hardly the only program with issues—heck, half the programs in the country are typically in disarray (see next week’s opponent, Nebraska). Northwestern’s unique situation is that it can remain in this torpor forever, creating a Möbius strip of bad offense and bad in-game decisions that never, ever ends. Other teams feel pressure to make changes and cut down on wastage. Northwestern does not.

That stagnancy often prevents Northwestern from reaching any kind of truly impressive ceiling, but it’s not like Northwestern can’t win games. As every single complaint about the offense is contractually obligated to mention, Northwestern’s defense is typically a joy to watch. The special teams play was also great yesterday.

Consequently, they could’ve beaten Wisconsin, and the team could’ve insufferably reveled in its ability to grind out close games that must be deserved because of (insert cliché) here. Football is highly dependent on luck. Northwestern has gotten quite lucky for a long time, and these types of demoralizing losses are going to happen when you aren’t getting literal miracles to go your way. And yet, the Wildcats could very easily still finish 5-7 or 6-6, and we’ll do this again next year.

Yesterday, the offense was given every possible chance to succeed. In previous years, this has worked out. However, instead of using that defensive foundation to spur change and build a better offensive scheme, Northwestern has used its garbage offense to justify staying the exact same way. And thus, it must continue.

Like the Mexican PRI Party of the 20th century, Northwestern is in the midst of a “perfect dictatorship” of bad offense that seemingly cannot be undone, transforming the team from a great Saturday escape to a depressing reflection of Monday–Friday. Which is fine, I guess, if we want to keep making this blog a soapbox for complaining. But I just want something a little bit more optimistic, given the times.

Onward to Nebraska.