The state of Arizona was poised for a big weekend of football, with its two programs in major College Football hosting conference foes from Southern California’s City of Angels, and since Los Angeles offers no chapters in the NFL, fans of the Sunday game had to settle for the Cardinals’ division rivals from the Golden State’s northern region. Saturday’s prime-time game in Tucson was so hyped, in fact, that the folks in Bristol decided to host their morning road-show at the University of Arizona, while the Trojans visit to Tempe was more of a night-cap than anything else.
Even Sunday’s game, FOX decided, was worthy of the network’s #2 broadcast team of Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis, and Tony Siragusa. Ceding “A-team” status to the Chicago-Seattle game was probably more about the uncertainty of the 49ers, after a surprising Monday Night opener that may have dispelled everyone overreaction to their tumultuous off-season and the quite unsurprising egg they laid in a Week 2 loss at Pittsburgh. It was difficult to doubt the merit of the Cardinals, who appeared to be every bit as good as their 2-0 record, entering play this weekend.
A Solemn Saturday
The thing about College Football, and I preach about this all of the time, is that you almost need to see the complete body of work to truly evaluate how good, or not good, a team is. There’s a lot of fool’s gold to be offered from early season games, especially when you’re dealing with the PolyTechnics and directional state schools, which are not created equal. Numbers next to school names on the schedule make for good marketing, but they never dictate how well a team is going to play on any given Saturday. It’s a fallacy to look at the previous year, which we often do early in the season, since there’s so much turnover with graduation alone.
Coming into the year, five different people may have given you five different answers, when discussing the class of the Pac-12 South, which includes two Arizona schools, two Los Angeles schools, Utah, and Colorado. Colorado was probably the only name not given during the time to predict a division champion. Looking at Rich Rodriguez’s improvement, year over year, since arriving at Arizona suggested there was something there with the Wildcats. Todd Graham’s Arizona State team looked decent on paper coming into the year, but a Week 1 thrashing from Texas A&M, paired with underwhelming home performances against Cal-Poly and New Mexico had many dismissing the Sun Devils. However, ASU has handled themselves at home against USC, during what has obviously been a couple of down years for the Men of Troy.
Tucson got the pep rally from ESPN, they had the number by their name, and the football program had the requisite number by their name, which may or may not have made them worthy of the smack-talk towards their neighbors to the north and west. They played in the Fiesta Bowl on the last day of 2014, and remain in possession of the Territorial Cup after winning their annual clash at home last November. The Sun Devil faithful in the Phoenix-area returned the smack, because that’s how it goes out this way. At the end of the night, neither fan base had anything of substance to say to the other.
In a game that resembled a track meet early between UCLA and Arizona, quickly became a touchdown marathon for the visiting Bruins, who made a similar statement at Arizona State in late September last year. UCLA overcame the absence of 2-way star Myles Jack with the sensational and consistent play of Josh Rosen, the true freshman quarter, who was given the keys to the offense by head coach Jim Mora. There was some euphoria before the game for the home team, who had star linebacker Scooby Wright back in the fold, but when Arizona lost their third-year starter Anu Solomon at quarterback, it was curtains for Week 4’s hosts of College Gameday. Ultimately, they dropped this one 56-30, quickly reminding everyone that UCLA is a different ball of wax than that of Northern Arizona, Nevada, and Texas-San Antonio.
Arizona State fooled no one with their 2-1 start, and there’s little point in doing anything to reset their 42-14 defeat on Saturday night. USC led 35-0 at halftime, and quite frankly, it actually could have been worse. Sometimes decent teams play poorly, but this was just a case of the visiting team being better. No one like going from National Championship contender to questioning bowl eligibility, but this is the bed that Arizona State has made for itself.
There will be a National Championship played in Arizona on January 11th of next year, but it will very likely feature two teams from outside of the state, at Univeristy of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Fortunately, the locals can enjoy the building’s primary tenants on Sunday afternoons.
A Sensational Sunday
In both the real world and the virtual one, the one where everyone’s name begins with an “@”, I am privy to discussions that compare and contrast the college game and the NFL, as if everyone can only choose one. I tend to play the role of Switzerland in those conversations. I like the volume of College Football, though I must acknowledge a gap in the quality of play, and in most cases the disparity with the level of competition. I like that the staggered starts mean not every game is at the half at the same time, and over the course of 45 minutes, you can watch exciting finishes in 3 or 4 games, in their entirety. I could do without the endless halftimes, one of several contributing factors to 4-hour games.
At the same time, I appreciate the lack of volume of NFL games, the highest quality talent, and how neatly everything seems to fit three-hour windows, give or take 20 minutes. I like that Power Rankings mean nothing, and that a win is a win, regardless of the week’s opponent. I like that, if properly equipped, you can watch every game in its entirety, without the necessity of a website or mobile app. Of course, this means that you have to reset from end-of-game mode to start-of-game mode around 4pm Eastern Time.
On Sunday, during that transition from thrilling finishes in Cleveland and Cincinnati, to the beginning of the 49ers and Cardinals NFC West match up in Arizona, the Cardinals decided they had no interest in waiting for the early game audiences to take a deep breath. Despite taking the opening kickoff and getting things going early, between Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona’s first drive stalled, but it was a couple of Colin Kaepernick throws that equaled crooked numbers on the scoreboard for the home team.
The first pass thrown by the San Francisco quarterback was picked off and returned 21 yards for a touchdown by Justin Bethel. The fifth-year player from Nevada was fortunate to complete a couple of throws to his teammates, before Tyrann Mathieu stepped in front of his fourth pass of the day, running that one back 33 yards to paydirt, giving the home team a 14-0 lead without any serious aid from Palmer and the offense.
When Arizona’s offense finally got on the field, Palmer got to work, throwing to Fitzgerald a few more times and letting Chris Johnson do the rest on the ground. On the first play of the second quarter, Johnson ran one in from six yards out, and the rout was on. The Cardinals would pick off Kaepernick 4 times, sack him twice, and generally controlled the game in every way possible, on their way to a 47-7 victory, making them 3-0 in this young season. This takes me back to a conversation I had over the summer with a friend, and long-time fan of the Cardinals.
At the time, this is a guy who could have stood a break or two in life, but it’s like John McCain told Chris Berman on the eve of Election Night in 2008; hope springs eternal with the Arizona Cardinals. Those bastards went to the Super Bowl that year1They aren’t really bastards. It’s just that I’m still waiting on the Browns to accomplish that feat; 46 seasons and counting., and they came damn close to winning the thing. Back to that conversation over breakfast last summer, one of the things that kept this friend ticking was the statement that the Arizona Cardinals had a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl. This time I didn’t doubt him, and it wasn’t because I dismissed the conversation we had at a bowling alley before that miraculous 2008 season and playoff-run. The crux of our prior discussion was to put that team in a vacuum; take away the Arizona, take away the Cardinals, and really think of Ken Whisenhunt’s team as a potential playoff team that year. I wasn’t buying it, and I think it would have been foolish to believe anything of the sort, knowing the stigma of the Bidwill-owned Cardinals.
It was a different time back then, as we weren’t far removed from the forgettable Sun Devil Stadium Era Cardinals. They weren’t just forgettable, but nearly unlikable. I liked hearing stories from the season ticket holders, those who endured the days on the hot metal benches in Tempe, only because it was essentially the only evidence that the team played home games prior to 2006. I’d seen video evidence of the Cardinals playing there just three times2It would be four, if we’re counting that Monday Night Football game from Jerry MacGuire, a sympathetic lifting of the league-mandated blackout for Sunday Night Football in Week 3 of the 2001 season, a Browns game that I watched from Cleveland, and Josh McCown’s Hail Mary to Nate Poole to end the 2003 season (and the Minnesota Vikings playoff hopes).
Even on Sunday, while the Cardinals’ defense was spotting their offense 2 scores early, we were talking about how there’s an actual home-field advantage at University of Phoenix Stadium, something that was virtually never true for the Birds at Sun Devil Stadium, at least when you considered the ratio of home team-to-visiting team fans. People like me, the transplants from elsewhere, will never fully come around, but this is a team and a culture that should deter young people from choosing the Cowboys, Steelers, or Raiders. It’s okay, and probably even cool, to like the home team. Lord knows this market isn’t getting it on Saturday nights.
Bruce Arians has something special cooking for the fans in these parts. Small sample size or not, what we’re seeing from the Arizona Cardinals is no fluke.
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|1.||↑||They aren’t really bastards. It’s just that I’m still waiting on the Browns to accomplish that feat; 46 seasons and counting.|
|2.||↑||It would be four, if we’re counting that Monday Night Football game from Jerry MacGuire|