One of my personal favorite recurring bits is envisioning Ohio State head coach Ryan Day as an Elder Scrolls non-playable character. Originating from Twitter’s dearly departed Connor Southard and leaked outwards through various group chats, each image of Day invokes a man programmed to say the same lines for eternity.
There’s a lot of reasons why it works, first and foremost that NPC verbiage is inherently funny. “Hail, adventurer, can I interest you in some fine weapons and armour? Surely you have the coin,” is a funny turn of phrase.
Ryan Day also has a weirdly non-descript head and facial features combo that uncomfortably crosses the uncanny valley in its appearance. Put simply, he’s a 3D projection that’s leaked into our physical world.
It also works because Day is far from a bit character selling you lavender on the outskirts of a hamlet only happened upon because a radiant quest you unlock after becoming the guildmaster of the bards makes you visit to speak to the tavern owner Mildred Shattersword.
Ryan Day and his Ohio State Buckeyes are one of the three central nodes around which the rest of the college football universe turns around. You can’t write the story of any college football season without mentioning how Ryan Day did. Envisioning one of the main characters of college football stuck as a Level 4 bandit thug armed with a hide shield and a fork is a way to cope with the omnipresence of his unsettling visage.
In my blog idol’s, BYCTOM’s, season preview, he wrote about the inevitable bifurcation of the sport as the College Football Playoff takes center stage and mega super conferences are built.
What the college football establishment is doing is attempting to build a delicate floating island resort for top teams that can compete for championships over the awful, roiling ocean of football chaos. There are horrible things down there-- triple options, overtimes, toppled goalposts, Ryan Field filled with opposing fans on a gray November Saturday where teams combine for 17 total points and a sinkhole claims the special teams coach. But, for most fans, that cauldron of 11AM kickoffs in half-empty stadiums between godforsaken teams vying for a spot in the Pinstripe Bowl is the experience of the sport and will be until the United States finally makes college football illegal.
Northwestern fans can be forgiven for forgetting where they really exist in that landscape.
Twice in the last three years, Northwestern has been within a game of a weekend stay at one of those delicate floating island resorts. Pat Fitzgerald and Mike Hankwitz’s hold on The Dark Magic confounded pundits, infuriated neutral observers, broke Scott Frost’s brain permanently, and transmuted Northwestern from its general state of being to something far greater than it really is.
Michigan State delivered a public service announcement Friday night in Evanston.
The ins and outs of why Northwestern got its teeth caved in by a probably bad Michigan State team don’t really matter. First of all, it’s impossible to know with a sample size of one what’s really going on. Maybe Hunter Johnson’s turned a corner and is a mid-range and long range assassin. Maybe Jim O’Neil turbo mega gigasucks as a coordinator and we’re back in the Greg Colby era. Any proclamations about what ills Northwestern going forward are wrong, because there isn’t enough data to know what’s real yet.
What became very clear from listening to Northwestern fans kvetch on the internet and in the stadium is that Northwestern fans have forgotten the rules of engagement.
Northwestern’s resting heartbeat as a program is not all that different in 2021 than it’s been at any other point in the past 10 years.
The ceiling’s moved. Evolution as a program, good fortune in playing in one of the more diseased divisions of college football, and a decade of rock solid defensive coaching opened the door to the ten win seasons that Northwestern has scooped up in recent years. But the average years, the teams that don’t have megastars who get their names put on walls and nicknames yelled by half drunk Pike rushees are still the same: hiccupy and weird teams that win somewhere around 6 games in alternatingly excruciating and ebullient way because that’s what most of college football is.
This team does not suck. Weird busts and missed red zone opportunities make the loss feel worse than it really was. There’s some interesting pieces on offense (Stephon Robinson, hello), and the defense can’t be that bad every week. It’s not like everyone who came back from last year’s team got Monstar’d into forgetting how to play football.
(Quick note: my one serious bit of analysis this week is that the Northwestern red zone offense may be irreparable this year. Without a running back who can make someone miss or a target of any size on the outside, it’s going to be a feat of creativity to turn scoring opportunities into touchdowns. I don’t think “throw the ball to Trey Pugh, dammit, give him the goddamn ball” is a long term success plan.)
This team is average. It’s got problems. It’s got players who are going to pop in cool ways. But average Northwestern is 6-6 or 7-5 and that means losing to teams that smell bad. This is college football. You get caught with your pants down in embarrassing ways, you pick yourself up, and you torment Wisconsin in a 13-8 win in a blizzard because Pat Fitzgerald’s chin intimidates a field judge into calling a personal foul flag on a cheerleader.
Northwestern fans confused themselves with a main character. They thought their story would be on the main quest line, with set pieces like castle sieges and open field battles.
What they are in reality is a shop owner named “Brevin” who sells leveled rings and alchemy materials who aggros against hostile animals, tries to stab a Saber Cat with his iron dagger, and is killed before you can initiate a quest where you deliver his love letter to the innkeeper’s daughter.
Most of the time, most of the people forget Northwestern and its fans are there. They’re not that important. They make the overworld a little bit richer as valuable filler. You can’t fill a world with protagonists and antagonists.
Northwestern is in for a regular year. Make sure your coin purse is full and your bag has ample potions before venturing out to the barrow, traveler.