Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fiesta Bowl

If you had suggested to me my junior year when Stanford football went 1-11 that we would go to 2 consecutive BCS bowl games within 5 years, I would have called you insane. Now, it was a reality and I was in the luxurious position of weighing which BCS bowl I’d like to attend. My personal preference was the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans against Alabama because let’s face it, how often can Stanford contend against a bona fide SEC team? It would be an offense with 4 first round draft picks against an equally if not even more stacked defense. Furthermore, it would be in SEC country and give us a chance to prove to the nation that real football was played west of the Mississippi. But the Fiesta Bowl as the second leg of what will hopefully be a Grand Slam of BCS bowl appearances that I attend, and third consecutive New Years spent in a new city (El Paso, Miami and now Scottsdale) was fine by me.

Albert and I got in on Saturday morning with his roommate Todd in what was a Cardinal heavy flight from SFO and Orange filled flight from LAS. We picked up our rental in the nicest rental facility that I’ve ever seen. Albert and Todd were playing a round of golf that afternoon so I headed to Majerle’s Sports Grill which was conveniently located just across the road from our hotel (The Best Western Plus Sundial) to catch the bowl games and Stanford vs USC basketball game. By the end of the trip, Majerle’s was firmly entrenched as my second most frequented sports bar behind the Old Pro with a grand total of 5 visits in 3 days! No doubt the number of football and basketball games which I had a vested interest in thanks to office pools (I won my bowl pick’em pool leading wire to wire), futures bets (Broncos to win the AFC West) and Stanford (we beat USC in an excruciatingly sloppy game) played a big part, but the food was good, drinks reasonably priced and TVs plentiful. Throw in some cute and friendly staff, former NBA star “Thunder” Dan Majerle making an appearance and every game going my way except the last when we swung by post-Fiesta Bowl to grab some grub and drown our sorrows, Majerle’s Sports Grill gets 5 stars from me.

In my opinion, the best part of BCS Bowl Games is that they serve as one big reunion for Stanford sports fans. I get to see friends from all over the country/world whom I haven’t met in ages as well as season ticket holders whom I haven’t seen in over a month. While the game itself is important, it feels like gravy when you’re playing in a BCS Bowl game and an underdog to boot. Compared to fans who are shelling out quite a bit of money and precious holiday time, thus making the Fiesta Bowl their Superbowl of sorts, this feels like another road trip to me except I have no real contempt for the opposing team’s fans (compared to say Oregon or USC) and it’s more like a 3 day vacation rather than a 1.5 day quick turnaround trip. Even a loss has fewer ramifications compared to the first loss of our season which would have put us out of the National Championship race or the second which might have kept us out of a BCS bowl game. In short, I’m typically just happy to be there and not even thinking about the game for the majority of the trip. With perfectly located accommodations this year (kudos to Albert), I had an even better time at the Fiesta Bowl than the Orange Bowl. On New Year’s Eve, I hung out with a former co-worker and some freshman dorm-mates, bumped into some of the guys who I went on a post graduation Vegas trip with and was introduced to a mutual friend who is a professional poker player / sports bettor living in Vegas. While everyone was scrambling to find a cab, I simply crossed the street and was back at the hotel. On New Year’s day, I met up with another ex co-worker who lives in Phoenix while Albert and Todd fit in one last round of golf, had dinner with our Chuck Taylor’s Grove tailgating crew at what had to be the best steakhouse in Scottsdale, and welcomed some late arriving friends at Majerle’s which had turned into one of the unofficial Stanford gathering spots. The whole weekend was thoroughly enjoyable.

On game day, we got an early start to avoid traffic and ended up arriving at the stadium before our parking lot opened. It was a blessing in disguise as we were able to park at the nearby Gordon Biersch and grab some food while catching the early games. After deciding that no one really cared about the third OT of the Michigan State – Georgia game, it was a quick drive to the stadium and we checked into the large sprawling space that was the Official Stanford Tailgate. While not quite as cool as being held inside the Stadium ala the Orange Bowl, the screening of the Rose Bowl was a nice touch and I was impressed by the sheer size of the area. In what was extremely good timing, the Seattle Seahawks (the only NFL team with 2 Stanford rookies coming off stellar seasons) finished up their regular season against the Arizona Cardinals the previous day and so Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin were in attendance. As a side note, I heard a story of two Stanford fans going hiking on Sunday morning when someone recognized their Cardinal attire and gave them 2 free tickets to the afternoon NFL game. How cool is that? Sherman whose gracious manner off the field belies his brash demeanor on the field was holding court with an endless line of well-wishers. Players’ families were also in abundance and I heard from a pretty reputable source that we’d have a new starter at left tackle next season.Shortly after purchasing my Fiesta Bowl tickets through the ticket office, I won a better pair through a Buck/Cardinal club contest and was seated in the Athletic Office section next to Stanford Women’s Tennis head coach. In addition to being one of the top tennis coaches in the nation, she was pretty knowledgeable about football too. There was also a Toby Gerhart sighting in an adjacent section. For some reason, he was on crutches although I hadn’t heard of any injury news. Perhaps it was just the wear and tear of the NFL season.

The game itself was an exciting affair with Luck playing one of his best games in a Stanford uniform. Our defense started out strong but once Oklahoma State figured out that if they spread us out with 4/5 WR, we had no answer for them, it turned into a shoot-out. We made some mistakes with the fumble at our own goal-line and some curious wildcat calls but OK State’s coach arguably made an even bigger one by kicking a field goal from the 1 yard line on fourth down! Ultimately, it boiled down to clock management and Jordan Williamson having a chance to kick the game-winning field goal with no time left on the clock. While Shaw has been heavily criticized by most, I suspect a large part of it is due to results oriented thinking. If it were the NFL, I think Shaw played it absolutely perfectly. Given Williamson’s late season and early game struggles, there was some merit in trying to get one more first down with some safe play-calling. My preferred play would have been a QB bootleg with Luck instructed to go down in bounds if nothing was there. Trying to score a TD by throwing it deep seems like a terrible option to me because the assumption that the only person responsible for an interception is the QB and Andrew Luck would absolutely not have thrown an INT in that situation is silly. The downside of an aggressive approach was failing to get a first down and giving the ball back to OK State with 40 or so seconds and Stanford either up by 3 or the game tied if Williamson missed the field goal (which based on what happened would likely have been the case). The upside was having a closer field goal attempt but how large is the marginal increase in probability of making the field goal with the extra yards? The right decision obviously depends on what probabilities you assign to Stanford getting a 1st down, Stanford getting x yards when they do get a 1st down, Williamson making a field goal of x yards, OK State scoring if they get the ball back etc. but my gut feel is that it’s a pretty close decision either way and not worth losing any sleep over. Much like how no one questions the decision to let Gerhart score when Notre Dame was trying to let him and barely avoiding overtime or kicking a 48 yard field goal with 14 seconds left up 6 against Oregon when punting or even taking a safety would have been significantly superior, I doubt anyone would be questioning Shaw if Stanford had won the game.

And so this is how an unprecedented 2 year run for Stanford football would end. We were a hair away from back to back BCS bowl wins and finished with the Heisman runner up 2 years in a row. We owe so much to the signing class of 2008 who committed to a 1-11 team and have completely turned it around while conducting themselves with cruelty on the field and class off it. While this may be the end of their journey, I’m confident that the program will continue to flourish and look forward to backing it up when next season’s wins over-under is released.

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