— If this game takes its name from the Spanish word for “celebration”, how come everyone at the Fiesta Bowl looks so glum? Why did Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, when requested to bring 30 players to media day on Friday, opt not to include his starting quarterback among the two-and-a-half dozen Buckeyes? And why do we get the feeling that if Texas players were to send “Wish U Were Here” postcards to their Oklahoma counterparts, the sentiment would not be congenial?
Welcome to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, where everyone has a tortilla chip on his shoulder. Where two programs who believed, at different points of the 2008 season, that they’d receive their just desserts find instead that they are … just in the desert. Where the disposition of the fans will make that election night gathering for John McCain here two months earlier seem, by comparison, ebullient.
Fiesta Bowl 2009, where the slogan is, “Your Appointment With Disappointment.”
Each season only 10 out of 119 FBS schools (or 8.4 percent) are invited to play in a BCS bowl game. And yet annually there’s always a team or three from that select group that comes out of the tunnel looking dejected, looking like the kid who wanted Guitar Hero III for Christmas but who only got … a guitar.
Ohio State has been in a foul mood since mid-September, since USC waxed them 38-3 in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Buckeyes had a number of players who could conceivably have gone pro after last season. Players such as middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and offensive tackle Alex Boone.
Instead, that trio returned, joining 15 other starters from a squad that had advanced to the BCS Championship Game last January … and the January before that. Anything less than a third consecutive appearance, and a different outcome, would mean that they’d fallen shy of their objective.
And so, when the Trojans did what the Trojans do to Midwestern teams who venture to southern California, the frustration was evident.
“(Ticked). Extremely (ticked) off,” the mammoth Boone, 6-8 and 320 pounds, said afterward. “I mean, I don’t know what else to say … Every big game, we end up blowing it for ourselves.
"When we walked in at halftime and nobody was saying anything,” Boone continued, “I mean, what the (heck), we're Ohio State! We should be screaming and swearing and saying anything we could think of, and guys are hanging their head and you don't know what to say to them.”
The Buckeyes blame themselves, and rightly so. Not so the Longhorns. Here in San Antonio, where I write this, a T-shirt boutique is selling a burnt orange item that reads simply, “BCS Robbery.”
There were other one-loss teams that failed to garner an invite to Miami for the BCS championship game (not to mention an undefeated team out of Salt Lake City), but no other school could point to one play, as can the Longhorns, and say, “There! That’s where we lost it.”
The play, of course, was Graham Harrell’s touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree with :01 remaining in Texas Tech’s victory over the Longhorns on Nov. 1 (true Longhorn masochists will also remind you of freshman safety Blake Gideon’s hiccup on a potential game-clinching interception on the preceding play). That one play, remarkable as it was, erased three straight weeks of incredible efforts by the Longhorns in which they took down a trio of Top 11 opponents: Oklahoma, Missouri and Oklahoma State.
And when the Big 12 season ended, three schools stood at 11-1. The Sooners, although they lost to Texas, earned the invite to the Big 12 championship game, which became their on-ramp to the BCS championship game. Robbery? Not quite … but you can understand why the Longhorns feel like the Wronged Horns.
Texas may be angry, but at least they’re united. Ohio State? The starting quarterback whom Tressel chose not to make available to the media is Terrelle Pryor, a latter-day Vince Young who, believe it or not, is already taller and larger as a true freshman than Young was as a redshirt junior. Pryor, the most coveted prep athlete in the nation a season ago, is the future for Ohio State. Whether he should be the present appears to have been a matter of contention in the Buckeye locker room all season long.
Ohio State, as previously mentioned, is a veteran team. Eighteen returning starters. One of those starters was the quarterback, Todd Boeckman, a 24 year-old sixth-year senior who a year ago threw 25 touchdown passes and led the Buckeyes to the threshold of a national championship.
Boeckman is immobile as compared to Pryor. He is a game manager as opposed to being a playmaker, which is Pryor’s forte. He is meat loaf to Pryor’s sizzling fajitas.
However, the Ohio native is a well-respected veteran (a team captain, in fact) in a locker room full of veterans, many of whom will be millionaires in the next few years. He was first team All-Big Ten a year ago.
And then midway though the USC game he was replaced by Pryor. Boeckman played just two snaps in the following game versus Troy — the hometown fans booed him when his lone pass fell short. The start at USC would be Boeckman’s last, and he would attempt just 15 passes in the Buckeyes’ final nine games.
Boeckman’s demotion seems to have caused a schism in the locker room. Here was a senior-heavy team that twice had advanced to the national championship game, and now the boss was handing the most important position on the field to a true freshman? Observing the Buckeyes, you sensed the resentment among the upperclassmen. Todd Boeckman couldn’t lead Ohio State past USC, but how many quarterbacks could?
Laurinaitis, Ohio State’s most outstanding and most respected player, was asked about whether Boeckman deserved to be under center. His response spoke volumes.
"That's not really my decision and I don't really have an opinion on it," Laurinaitis said. "I've learned in my career here that I really don't have opinions on things I can't control."
Laurinaitis and the Longhorns could have a long talk on Monday about having opinions on matters that are beyond their control. Instead, they’ll just play a football game. And, if they can all somehow get beyond the misery of having been marooned in the Valley of the Sun for a week in January, they might just put on a good show.
They are, after all, two outstanding football teams — if they would just smile.