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Same Time, This Year

Pregame festivities at the Fiesta Bowl -- Photo by Al

GLENDALE, Arizona -- I'm spending part of the holidays in Arizona, and as last year, decided to take in the Fiesta Bowl.

I have a feeling the Oklahoma Sooners boosters are going to ask me not to go next year, if their school winds up invited back. For the second straight year, the Sooners went in as favorites, and for the second straight year, they went back to Norman with a loss, this time a 48-28 loss to an inspired West Virginia team that spent the evening showing why they felt they should have been in the BCS championship game vs. Ohio State (and likely would have, had they not been upset by a similarly-inspired Pitt team on December 1.

Without an unbeaten team like last year's Boise State Broncos, and with many tickets returned (as many as 7,500 from West Virginia, according to some reports), the crowd didn't seem as excited or interested as last year's; in fact, the announced crowd of 70,016 was almost 3,000 below capacity, and I'm guessing the many scalpers I saw waving tickets on the streets near the stadium wound up eating some of them, because there seemed to be more than that number of empty seats, particularly in the upper levels, and according to the dead-tree edition of the Arizona Republic this morning (can't find any online link), tickets could be had on the street for as little as $10. Even so, traffic headed to the stadium on highway 101 was really slow, even two hours to kickoff; at one point, several police motorcycles blasted through traffic -- only to reveal that they were escorting four large buses, rather than going to any accident; these were likely the school bands.

The usual chants of "Boomer! Sooner!" filled the stadium before the game; the Sooner fans seemed to outnumber the Mountaineers fans almost 2-1, but once the game started, the yellow-and-blue-clad West Virginia fans were much, much louder. Oklahoma was only briefly in this penalty-filled game, getting the score to within a touchdown at 13-6 late in the second quarter (before allowing a 21-yard touchdown pass making it 20-6 and blocking a WV field-goal attempt at the end of the half), and then briefly making it a 6-point game at 20-15 (and failing to convert a two-point attempt which would have made it 20-17). They were outplayed by the combination of Mountaineer QB Patrick White, and freshman running back Noel Devine (who came into the game only when starting RB Steve Slaton left the game in the first quarter with an injury. That, combined with the swarming defense led by linebacker Reed Williams, bottled up Sooner QB Sam Bradford all game. Though Bradford did complete 21 of 33 passes for 242 yards, he was sacked three times and threw an interception (in the end zone, when Oklahoma was driving to what would have been a leading touchdown).

By the time White threw to Tito Gonzalez on what wasn't designed to be a long play but wound up as a 79-yard touchdown completion to make the score 41-21, many of the Oklahoma faithful in the crowd had headed for the huge parking lots surrounding the "flying saucer in the desert". Though it wasn't as spectacular a game as last year's thrilling overtime win by Boise State, attending a football bowl game, seeing fans in their crimson and blue wigs and other outlandish getups, hearing the marching bands (I have to say, I'm always impressed by those, because not only do you have to play well, you also have to memorize the complicated choreography while marching on a football field), and soaking in the pageantry of a national event (Cub connection: Mark Grace, who was grand marshal of the Fiesta Bowl parade, also was asked to flip the coin at midfield before the game) is always fun.

Note to the Fiesta Bowl Committee: next time, have someone proofread your program material before you send it to the printer. The glossy, $10 magazine is very attractive. But I was flipping through the rosters because, not being familiar with either one of the teams, I wanted to match numbers with names -- and looking at page 115, I couldn't figure out why some of the numbers didn't match, especially when I was trying to figure out who West Virginia's #92 was (at one point, he was briefly down on the field injured). It was then I saw West Virginia's #5 listed as... Jared Zabransky. And looking down the rest of what was supposed to be the WV roster on that page, I realized that they had reprinted the Boise State roster from a year ago.

Nice glossy magazine, though. Maybe I'll come back next year to see if they've got the West Virginia roster printed. (And Oklahoma fans, I'm taking bids from you if you don't want me to go, if your team makes it back in 2009.)