There’s not a ton to do in Chinle, Arizona. That’s not necessarily a knock against my current place-of-residence–there’s not a lot to do in my Tallapoosa County hometown or any number of “sleepy” small towns across the South–but its remoteness does mean that it’s more of an effort to get to places where there are things to do.
And as a result, it dawned on me in the middle of last week that I hadn’t seen a minute of college football live and in person this season. Not one. I love my television like a child and my DirecTV signal like the child’s best friend who we adopted when his parents were eaten by sharks, but after a lifetime spent within 2 hours’ drive of Jordan-Hare except for the three years spent within walking distance of the Big House, this struck me as a sad state of affairs.
Fortunately, there was a fairly easy way to remedy it: spend the weekend in nearby* Albuquerque and attend the fourth annual New Mexico Bowl between 8-4 Fresno St. and 6-6 Wyoming. Here’s the official WBE first-hand report:
— The Mrs. WBE and I show up about 2 hours before kickoff to get a decent parking spot, have a look around, and purchase tickets. I’ve assured her that there’s no freaking way the New Mexico Bowl will sell out without the hometown Lobos involved, but there’s still this slim, stupid worry in the back of my head that I’m going to be in some fairly serious trouble if some misplaced sense of civic duty results in Albuquerquians buying up tickets by the dozens and stranding us outside the game we planned a whole weekend around.
Not to worry! Not only are there tickets available, we end up just on the midfield side of the 30-yard line and 13 rows from the sideline … and by the time the first quarter’s finished, it’s obvious that if we wanted, we could move close enough to personally tell Pat Hill how much we appreciate his ‘stache. Without raising our voices much, even.
— The reason for the rampant availability of good seats is obvious approaching UNM Stadium, where there’s two dozen Wyoming fans for every Fresno fan, and that’s being generous. Compare and contrast the gatherings inside and outside the Wyoming supporters’ club tent …
… with the forlorn Fresno Alumni Club tent:
Well, gosh, who’d have guessed that Bulldog fans wouldn’t have been excited to make the same trip to Albuquerque they made for last year’s New Mexico Bowl at the end of another season of WAC also-ranness?
Still, I’m surprised by the overwhelming ratio of Cowboys-to-Bulldogs, and already I’m cursing Pat Forde, who’d mentioned a couple of times this week at ESPN that Wyoming was the the Sagarin ratings’ worst-rated team to make a bowl. That little nugget prompted me to bump my Fresno pick in the Bowl Pick-a-palooza several notches up the confidence scale despite my misgivings about how much more the Cowboys–bowlless since 2004 and mostly bowlless for their entire history–are going to want the win today than Fresno will. Looking at the two sets of fans, those misgivings are substantially amplified.
— Any Simpsons fans worth their salt knows that the good people of Albuquerque, in a display of shockingly awesome civic taste, named their actual minor league baseball team the Isotopes in honor of the episode “Hungry, Hungry Homer.” (In which the Springfield ballclub of the same name is set for a move to Albuquerque.) I’m surprised and pathetically delighted to find that Isotopes Park is directly across the street. Photographic evidence:
Those of you who see yourself in your dreams with yellow skin and four fingers (you know who you are): that’s for you.
— This being a blog about sports, I know most of my readership is wondering, so I’ll go ahead and answer for you: especially for representing a state where no one lives and the main industry is cows, the Wyoming women more than held their own. One particular tailgate not far from where we parked could have airlifted en masse and plopped down in the Grove and still would have drawn more than its fair share of uh, ahem, appreciative stares from the SEC populace.
— On the way through the gates, every attendee is given a souvenir New Mexico Bowl hat, which is mostly gray but also has these giant black quadrants that look dumb enough to begin with but also further the clash between the hat itself and the red-and-gold New Mexico Bowl logo. Then, just to make sure no one would ever, ever wear the hat again, the back features the name, URL, and logo of one of the Southwest’s gazillion Indian casinos.
I’ve received a lot of terrible free hats in my time, but I really think this was the most terrible. But we still have two of them, sitting in the car, waiting to be thrown away, because for some reason it feels rude to throw away a free hat at the same game where you got the hat. Maybe that’s just me. (It’s worth noting that a lot of fans from both teams ended up wearing the thing, but I’m blaming that on 1. it being ass-cold 2. the same can’t-throw-it-away-yet impulse combined with the lack of any good way of carrying it.)
— Speaking of U-G-L-Y to point of not having an alibi, words can’t really do justice to Wyoming’s uniforms. I know it’s tough making anything look particularly good with brown, but why they went with yellow pants–not gold, not goldenrod, not “old gold,” just straight-up basic Crayola yellow–I have no idea. Trust me, they’re even worse in person, especially when the late afternoon sun is hitting them full blast and igniting their full the-1984-San-Diego-Padres-called-and-said-you’re-doing-it-wrong brown’ n’ yellow glory. What’s even crazier is that the last time the Pokes went bowling, they looked like this. Guys, this is the opposite of progress.
— During the pregame presentation of colors, a handful of (inebriated) Cowboy fans take advantage of the respectful silence to scream GO POKES, the second attempt at which earns a gravel-voiced “Shut up, hippies!” response from a Fresno fan over our left shoulders, who when I turn proves to boast a full beard and a bright red scar under one eye. This is more-or-less the definitive culture clash of the American West right here, in microcosm.
— The game kicks off. Halfway through the first quarter Wyoming freshman Alvester Anderson breaks loose for a 68-yard touchdown for a 7-0 Cowboy lead. Anderson will finish the game with 12 carries and 137 yards, an average of more than 11 a pop … while obviously, patently inferior senior starter Brandon Stewart finishes with 28 on 18 for 1.6 a carry. The person probably most frustrated by this peculiar coaching decision is the Mrs. WBE, who by the second half has to hear me complain about it every single time Stewart touches the ball.
— It turns out the Fresno fan yelling about hippies was yelling about hippies because he really likes to yell. There’s loud exhortations for the Bulldogs and smack directed at the Cowboys after nearly every play, most of it capped with an added “boys!” as in “You’re in trouble now, boys!” towards Wyoming after a long Ryan Matthews run or “Now’s the time to make it happen, boys!” towards Fresno before a Poke third down. Between the gruff voice and the use of “boys!” he puts me in mind of one of Peter Jackson’s Uruk-Hai, and for most of the game I refer to him mentally as Orc Man.
I expect Orc Man to take the prize for Most Aggravating Fan in a walk, but he actually has to settle for being runner-up when an intoxicated neutral–he’s wearing an Arizona cap, shorts, and a black t-shirt from some microbrewery featuring a bicep-flexing demon–shows up late in the second quarter, stands in the front row, and begins loudly haranguing the dozen Fresno fans in our section to “get fired up!” … during an extended TV timeout. He keeps this up for about 10 minutes before berating the Fresno band members waiting on the sideline before the halftime show. Thankfully, he leaves at halftime and never comes back, preferring to either hang out with the legitimately-fired-up Wyoming contingent or pass out in a bathroom stall. I’d put even odds on both.
— On paper, there’s two main attractions for the neutral fan in this game: 1. the possibility of a shootout, what with Fresno having far too much firepower for the Poke D but simultaneously boasting the sort of defense that likes putting that high-powered offense back on the field ASAP (as the Anderson run proves) 2. Ryan Matthews, the Fresno back who’s leading the country in rushing and is the top pro prospect for either team.
We get both of these attractions in glimpses in the first half–both teams move the ball up and down the field, but the half ends 14-14 thanks to a Fresno fumble deep in Poke territory and an epic 15-play, 95-yard Wyoming touchdown drive that eats up half the second quarter. As for Matthews, he has his moments shrugging off Cowboy tacklers and powering for tough yards, but there’s also not as much running room as he was supposed to find and for whatever reason Fresno’s rotating their RBs here in the early going.
— The New Mexico Bowl committee won’t like to read this, but even once the game starts, the closest parallel for the atmosphere in 38,000-seat UNM Stadium is a state high school championship game. You’ve got your smallish stadium, two sets of rabid traveling fans (well, 1.5 sets), a small scattered number of neutrals on hand for the heck of it, and a whole lot of empty seats. There’s even a smattering of children rolling down the grassy hillside along the visitor’s side. I say the bowl just goes all the way next year and crowns a New Mexico Bowl Queen at halftime.
— We’re sitting on the already thin Fresno sideline–we’re somewhere in the shot in the clip featured here, though I’m not sure which couple is us–and it gets even thinner as the game progresses and our side slips into the shade, turning the already-chilly temperature down several more degrees and sending a good number of neutrals onto the sunnier visitors’ sideline. By game’s end, though, it’s cold no matter where you’re sitting … and pretty much everyone that’s not visibly attached to one team or the other or football-crazed has left the stadium.
— Even in the first half, it’s obvious which team has more pure athletic talent–Fresno doesn’t just have Matthews, they’re visibly larger along both lines of scrimmage and don’t have any skill players who look anywhere near as definitely unexplosive as Brandon Stewart or the Wyoming receivers. Despite the tie game, big Cowboy drive, iffy Fresno defense, and nagging sense that Wyoming’s offense (under ex-Missouri OC Dave Christensen) is the best-coached unit on either side, I expect the Bulldogs to pull away in the second half as their athletic superiority takes its toll.
And for most of the half, that’s what happens. The Fresno d-line starts dominating. Bulldog LB Ben Jacobs is everywhere. Matthews starts breaking loose; the Pokes can’t tackle him one-on-one and aren’t getting the gang tackling they had in the first half. After mostly solid Wyoming true freshman QB Austyn Canta-Samuels gets picked deep in his own half of the field early in the fourth quarter and Fresno cashes in for 7 points and a 28-17 lead, the game looks pretty much done and dusted. Orc Man certainly thinks so; “Better warm up the bus, boys!” he yells.
But here’s the problem: it’s obvious watching the Fresno sideline that they think the game is over, too. The sense of relief and satisfaction following the TD is palpable, the celebration following the kicker’s jacked-him-up tackle on the kickoff return way too vigorous. And as soon as Wyoming makes one first down, you know they’re in trouble.
(Backing up a bit, one of Fresno’s scores comes on a sweet reverse-pass from the WR that fools Wyoming like they were a team of Mark Barrons watching a Chris Todd pump-fake. But they get flagged for a ridiculous unsportsmanlike conduct penalty–not A.J. Green-level ridiculous, but still ridiculous–and then commit a personal foul on the extra point, resulting in the deepest kickoff I’ve ever seen in person–the Fresno tee’s on the 7-yard line and the coverage unit lines up five yards deep in their own end zone. Orc Man, who as you can imagine is the epitome of grace and forgiveness regarding the officials’ decisions, recommends an onside kick. Fresno does not oblige.)
— If you saw the game, you know what happens next: the Cowboys drive down the field almost unmolested for a TD and two-point conversion to pull within three, then force a Matthews fumble to halt a potential game-clinching Fresno drive, then go on one of the more thrilling drives I’ve ever seen in person. They fake punt on 4th-and-2, gaining 3 yards to convert. Canta-Samuels runs for 8 on a second 4th-and-2. The Cowboys are taking their time; it’s now do-or-die. Canta-Samuels finds a guy falling down over the middle for 6 yards on 4th-and-4. Two plays later it’s 3rd-and-15; Canta-Samuels runs around for forever and throws across his body to a wide-open guy in the middle of the field, first down at the Fresno 20. Field goal good, tie game, overtime. (Final tally: 19 plays, 54 yards, 7:48 of 8:08 remaining off the clock.) Orc Man is less than pleased, but I for one feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth, although what I can’t feel is my toes.
— There’s a mad dash for the restroom as the teams head for OT, and there’s a War Eagle Moment at the urinals with a guy in an Auburn windbreaker. I don’t think they’ll build an advertisement around it, though.
— It’s taken me the entire game, but I think I’ve finally figured out that the unintelligible U-S-A!-paced cheer cheered by the Wyoming folk is W-Y-O!. Why chanting five syllables and three letters that have no reason for standing alone (other than the state’s Associated Press abbreviation) is better than chanting WY-O-MING!, I haven’t the foggiest.
— Fresno has the ball first and drives for first-and-goal at the 1. From our vantage point on the opposite end of the stadium, it looks like the Bulldogs score on both second and third down, but each time the line judge runs in, stares at the pile, and raises his hand for the spot. The replays on the videoboard are inconclusive; the Fresno fans are beside themselves. Matthews’ dive on fourth down is stoned–at what point in college football history did the dive stop working? Because it never works these days–and the Cowboy fans go justifiably crazy.
Wyoming’s OT possession goes like all OT possessions go when the first team fails to score: run for nothing, run for nothing, QB puts the ball in the middle of the field, out comes the kicker. The football gods do not approve of such a weak-sauce display and, as you know, the kick flies well to the left.
This last fact is lost on the Wyoming fans and the player entrusted with the giant Wyoming flag, who begin to spill out of the stands/rush the field even after the kick has missed. So weird: they waited for the kick, but not for the signal. I guess they were just waiting to make sure it wasn’t blocked?
— Second OT: Canta-Samuels wriggles out of a sack for the umpteenth time and finds the Wyoming TE for a touchdown. Fresno QB Ryan Colburn, however, isn’t nearly so graceful under fire: on 3rd-and-long he also escapes a heavy rush, and with a wide-open receiver available for a first down … short hops the ball like my Little League coach teaching grounders. Protection breaks down again on 4th down, a lateral to one of his linemen doesn’t work quite as well as the “give it to the fat guy” play did against Illinois, and that’s your ball game.
— As Wyoming’s fans pour out of the stands and a lonesome, solitary Orc Man slams his red hat against the bleachers, I worry about Auburn; unlike Fresno we’ll have a lot more fans in attendance than our opposition, but there’s no question that in terms of how much a win will mean, Northwestern’s going to playing the role of Wyoming come New Year’s.
But that and the frostbite are the only negatives from what’s otherwise turned out to be a hell of a game, one worthy of being the only one I’ll see in person this season. Maybe I’ll even come back next year.
Especially if they change the hat.
*“Nearby” in this case meaning 230 miles and a 3.5-hour drive. Your sense of what’s nearby and what’s not–Denver, I guess–get a little warped when you live out here.