Thursday, November 20, 2014

NFL Picks Week Twelve: On what it means to win in South Bend

On Oct. 2, 2004, I was a sophomore in college going on a jog along Northwestern University's Lakefill when at the north end I came across an enormous gathering of Ohio State fans tailgating on the shores of Lake Michigan. On this night Northwestern would be playing Ohio State in front of a national TV audience looking for its first win against the Buckeyes in 33 years. Campus was alive with anticipation for reasons no one really knows. I remember walking along Sherman and Simpson and seeing students tailgating and playing beer pong in their backyards, almost as if it was a real college. For myself and a group of friends from freshman year, our preparation of choice was a power hour at our friend Sparky's apartment on Simpson St.

We got drunk, we had a blast and on Noah Herron's 33rd carry of the night we beat Ohio State in an overtime thriller. To that point, and I say this without irony, it was the greatest night of my life.

When you went to a school that has framed itself as a perpetual underdog thanks to its remarkable history of football ineptitude, moments when you are pitted against a legendary nationally-recognized program and somehow seize them are particularly special. Experiencing those moments when you are young, dumb and, well, you know, have a special kind of youthful optimism about them. You don't know what tough turns life can take in your 20s in terms of a career, family, friends or romance because you're a college kid, and all that matters right now is you can rush the field and there's beer to drink.

I still get the opportunity to celebrate sports victories that carry a special brand of surprise or joy, but it is rare that I get to experience the kind of fresh-faced child-like exuberance that comes with an upset victory in college sports. I do not live on a college campus anymore, though I suppose one could argue New York City provides access to the same kinds of vices, and so the magic of a football upset, while still invigorating, does not always carry similar heft.

Then we come to this past Saturday. Notre Dame is not the same dominant, take-no-prisoners program it was in the days of Ara Parseghian or Knute Rockne, even if it did somehow wind up in the National Championship Game two years ago. But even if the Irish aren't as powerful these days as Alabama or Florida State, that golden helmet still means something. It is still a brand, a symbol -- an identity -- that is universally recognized across the football landscape. When you're Northwestern, your opportunities these days to take a swipe at that symbol and take a piece of attention for yourself are few and far between.

This season, after three years of waiting for the heavily-anticipated matchup, it seemed that opportunity was even more far-fetched. The Irish had essentially been knocked out of the national championship race with a road loss at Arizona State in their previous game, but Notre Dame was still ranked No. 15 in the AP poll, while Northwestern appeared to be in the midst of a lost season in which it had fallen to epic opponents like Cal-Berkeley, Northern Illinois and a mediocre Michigan team in one of the most inept football games every played.

Three years after the school scheduled what appeared to be a strong opportunity for a national statement, Northwestern entered its first visit to Notre Dame Stadium in 19 years as a 17.5-point underdog, which given how the Wildcats had played over the previous month, might have been generous. I had been planning on making my visit for three years, however, and mediocrity or tall odds be damned I was going to do just that.

I probably should have accounted for the snow, too. As everyone is reading about in Buffalo right now, Lake Effect Snow is a bastard, and the day before this game northwest Indiana was blanketed. That meant, among other things, that it was going to be awfully cold and my friend Nicole and I needed to bundle up thusly. Given that wind chills throughout the game would be around 20 degrees, it may not have been particularly wise to get a concrete mixer to eat on my walk to the stadium from Culver's, though the double butter burger with cheese and the cheese curds were absolutely necessary.

When we arrived at our seats near the top of section 107, it became clear the air would not be the only thing freezing us. We were sitting in an area of the stadium that never gets direct sunlight, and even though the opposite side of the stadium, which we would move to at halftime, was relatively clear, our seats were covered in inches of snow that left our asses and toes numb.

The field, in the meantime, was clear, and after a week of looking like Northwestern had forgotten what a first down was, the Wildcats were proving they could at least play with the Irish even if they weren't the better team. A back-and-forth first half featured several peculiarities, like the first time I had ever seen a defensive two-point conversion and NU wideout Tony Jones dropping three passes that all should have been touchdowns. Regardless, in the second quarter Northwestern somehow jumped ahead, and I made a point to commit it to memory.

In the second half, with Notre Dame back in front, things took the expected turns. Northwestern turned the ball over at untimely junctures, the Irish stayed juuuuust ahead every time the Wildcats put points on the board, and with 6:08 remaining, NU got the ball facing an 11-point deficit that would have been more had Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly not inexplicably opted for a two-point conversion moments earlier only to see it fail. At this point Northwestern began to look like a football team again, and Trevor Simien, an albatross at quarterback all season if there ever was one, methodically led the offense down the field for a touchdown he eventually ran in himself and a two-point conversion that closed the gap to a field goal and gave the Cats a fighting chance. All they needed was a stop.

For a moment it appeared the Cats got it, halting Notre Dame on an incomplete pass on 3rd and 9 from NU's 48 yard line. A gift pass interference call, which biased old me will go to his grave insisting was nonsense, kept the drive alive and simultaneously functioned as the deathknell for a Northwestern comeback.

Unless, of course, the Irish were to fumble two plays later.

Already resigned to defeat, euphoria rippled through the visiting fans placed firmly in the near end zone opposite Touchdown Jesus. Again Simien brought the Cats down the field, connecting four times with the big-bodied Kyle Prater and setting up Jack Mitchell's game-tying field goal with 19 seconds to go. Moments later overtime came around, the Irish went nowhere on their first three plays before shanking a field goal, and suddenly Northwestern, which had appeared all but dead 15 minutes earlier, had a thrilling come-from-behind victory against the legendary Golden Domers in its grasp. Northwestern ran three inept plays of its own before Mitchell came on again, looking to boot a block of ice 41 yards, no small feat in this weather, for what would be his fourth field goal on a very impressive, unsung day.

It was good.



The feeling that goes through a moment like this, with this buildup, with this drama, against this kind of opponent, is a difficult one to quantify. Of course at that exact moment that the ball passes through the uprights, there is no thinking at all. You act on instinct. You jump. You scream. You hug. You lose it. It takes time for the emotions to settle down, after the Northwestern alums who traveled have already rushed to the edge of the field to sing the fight song with the players and take pictures in front of the field. It is only then that you contemplate a victory that may not actually turn the program around, but feels like it might. It only took a few minutes before those alums in my age range immediately asked the question. "Was this a greater moment that beating Ohio State 10 years ago?"

I'm not sure. It's still hard to say because the emotions are still raw, but the fact that those emotions were evoked at all is proof enough that the question isn't ridiculous. The difference is that this time, 10 years after the fact and seven years after I left the warm, supportive womb of college, I know how rare moments that make you feel like this are.

All of us took pictures, though we bemoaned that the scoreboard in the background had been turned off. A group of four seniors asked Nicole if she would take their picture and we happily obliged. After all, we had just spent the previous five minutes hugging complete strangers. They were young, and you could see it on their faces that they felt similar to how we felt 10 years earlier. They were excited, and with their futures in front of them they didn't know how rarely you were afforded moments like this.

"Are you seniors?" Nicole asked.
"Yeah!" one responded in between screams of "Holy shit, guys, we just beat Notre Dame!"
"Oh, so you've only got six months left before your lives are over, huh?" I joked.

They chuckled and said they were excited to start being adults and begin throwing money into their 401(k)s, at which point I told them, "Guys, I just had to select a new employer-funded healthcare plan last week. It was awesome."

These are the choices and quandaries that we're faced with when we leave the safety net of college, but returning to campus, as I did the day before the game, or watching something like this brings you back to the time when you didn't have to worry, and the pure unadulterated joy of a huge upset win would not soon be hampered by concerns over saving for your retirement. Those four seniors think they know what is going to hit them in life when they graduate -- all of us do when we're 21. But they don't really and we didn't either.

Sometimes, though, you get nights like this. Sometimes a football game will change your demeanor for at least a few hours and remind you what it was like to be young and dumb. It reminds you of how great it is when you don't quite get it, and the littlest things can do it for you. This is not necessarily a universal condition and college sports are hardly a panacea for life's questions and problems. But they can be great. And if you're lucky, once in a while they let you feel like a kid again.

Last week: 5-9-0
Season: 73-87-0

Kansas City (-7) over OAKLAND
Cleveland (+3) over ATLANTA
BUFFALO (-4.5) over NY Jets
CHICAGO (-5.5) over Tampa Bay
INDIANAPOLIS (-14) over Jacksonville
Green Bay (-9.5) over MINNESOTA
Detroit (+7) over NEW ENGLAND
PHILADELPHIA (-11) over Tennessee
Cincinnati (+1.5) over HOUSTON
SAN DIEGO (-4.5) over St. Louis
Arizona (+6.5) over SEATTLE
DENVER (-7) over Miami
SAN FRANCISCO (-9) over Washington
NY GIANTS (+3.5) over Dallas
NEW ORLEANS (-3.5) over Baltimore

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