On dealing with disappointment: Comparing and contrasting the 2012 Fiesta Bowl and the 2013 Iron Bowl

December 4, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 4, 2013

If you’re a Stanford football fan, then you remember the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, 2012. It was perhaps the most painful loss out of the handful of defeats that the Cardinal has suffered in recent years.

The final game for all-world quarterback Andrew Luck was a shootout. Twenty-four points were scored in the fourth quarter, starting with a 30-yard field goal by the Cardinal’s Jordan Williamson. Oklahoma State — which threw for 399 yards that night, but rushed for only 13 — answered with a 17-yard pass from Brandon Weeden to Justin Blackmon. That balanced the scoreboard at 31-up.

Stanford retook the lead on a short Stepfan Taylor touchdown run, but Joseph Randle’s 4-yard scoring run retied matters at 38-38.

Stanford fans had to be pretty confident at that point. Only 2:35 remained in the game, and the best signal caller in school history was under center. Surely Luck and company would march down the field and clinch the game by scoring as time expired.

That’s…not quite what happened. The team advanced 63 yards, to the Cowboys’ 17-yard line. On third down and two yards to go, with only three seconds remaining, coach David Shaw turned to Williamson, a redshirt freshman who was one for two on field goal tries to that point in the game.

Up went Williamson’s 35-yard try as the clock ran out. It missed. That brought on overtime, with the Cardinal offense going first.

This time, Stanford’s attack was impotent. After it netted zero yards on three downs, Shaw sent his kicker back out, this time for a 43-yard try. Williamson’s kick was no good.

Now Oklahoma State had the whip hand. The Cardinal D stopped a Blackmon rush for no gain on first down, but then Weeden completed a 24-yard pass. After repositioning the ball and enduring a Stanford timeout, the Cowboys sent out their kicker for a 22-yard kick. The Quinn Sharp try was good, propelling Oklahoma State to a 41-38 victory, and leaving Stanford fans with a bitter taste that would linger in their mouths for many months to come.

As previously mentioned, Stanford football hasn’t lost many games over the last four years. Since the start of the 2010 season, the team is 45-7. Two of those losses were blowouts at the hands of Oregon (2010 and 2011), one was a 17-13 defeat at Washington (2012), one was the infamous 20-13 overtime loss at Notre Dame (also last year — Stepfan was in!) and two came this year: 27-21 at Utah and 20-17 at USC.

Each of these defeats rankles in its own way, especially the narrow ones. But ever since the Fiesta Bowl loss, a vocal subset of Stanford fans have bitterly criticized Shaw for his play-calling. With the game on the line, why choose to rely on a relatively untested kicker instead of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game? That’s how the argument goes, anyway.

Why am I rehashing all of this on the verge of Stanford’s 2013 Pac-12 championship bout against Arizona State? Not because of anything that took place on the West Coast but because of what occurred in the tumultuous wake of the Iron Bowl.

If you don’t know what happened when Alabama visited Auburn last Saturday, then either you don’t like college football (in which case, why have you read this far?!) or you can’t be trusted to operate an automobile or any heavy machinery. Chris Davis’ game-winning 109-yard touchdown return off of a missed 57-yard Alabama field goal attempt with no time on the clock instantly became one of the greatest plays in the history of college athletics.

I watched the game’s conclusion in a sports bar. I had no dog in the fight, but when it became apparent that Davis would score to upset the top-ranked Crimson Tide, I raised both of my arms and began screaming wildly. After the play, I turned to the man next to me, a complete stranger who had stepped up to the bar to pay his tab, and high-fived him. Both of us were grinning loopily.

Now, if I were a Bama fan, I surely would have been put out by that play. I probably would have found plenty to bellyache about. You don’t have to search very far through my blog to discover criticism of Stanford football. (In fact, you’ll find me whining about the Cardinal offense fizzling vs. Notre Dame beginning around the 3:10 mark of this episode of the excellent Solid Verbal podcast.)

What wouldn’t I have done? Unfortunately, Alabama fans put on a clinic in what not to do.

Cade Foster, the Tide’s placekicker, missed all three of his field goal tries against Auburn: A 44-yard attempt on the first drive of the game, a 33-yard kick near the start of the fourth quarter and a second 44-harder with 2:41 to play.

That last miss — actually, this try was blocked — turned out to be crucial. A successful kick would have all but the game out of reach for Auburn; instead, the Tigers roared back to tie the score before Bama coach Nick Saban sent Adam Griffith to try for an extraordinarily long kick on what was just the freshman’s fourth collegiate attempt.

Over at Deadspin, Samar Kalaf documented the, uh, wave of vitriol that subsequently was unleashed upon Foster’s Twitter account. Supposed Crimson Tide fans — and who else, aside perhaps from gamblers, would act so vilely? — told the senior that they wished he was dead. That he should kill himself. That they hoped his girlfriend cheated on him with his best friend. That he should be raped and his mom beaten. That he was a “garbage ass bitch.” And there were even fouler imprecations that I shan’t repeat here.

As awful as this behavior was, it was far from the worst thing to happen in the wake of the Iron Bowl’s thunderous climax. A 28-year-old Alabama fan was charged with fatally shooting a fellow fan shortly after the game ended. Accounts vary, but the suspect, Adrian Laroze Briskey, is said to have been inebriated. She reportedly got into an altercation with the victim, 36-year-old Michelle Shepherd, because Shepherd didn’t appear to be sufficiently upset about the Crimson Tide’s loss.

Alabama.com’s Carol Robinson describes Shepherd as “a mother of three and case worker for at risk youth and young parents.”

Now, let’s not get too high and mighty. Alabama fans are not routinely shooting each other in the wake of Crimson Tide defeats (which are, one should note, exceptionally rare to begin with). This murder is an exceptionally rare event — a true outlier.

Still, I don’t remember much criticism being leveled at Jordan Williamson by Stanford Cardinal supporters following the Fiesta Bowl loss, let alone anything resembling the outpouring of hatred that was directed toward Foster. Quite the opposite — not only did fans focus their ire on Shaw, the highly compensated coach, they sympathized with Williamson. In fact, there was even a Facebook group formed to express support for the young unpaid player.

It’s easy for Stanford folks to pat themselves on the back for their accomplishments. Sometimes, they mistake their own good fortune for virtue. And to be clear, there’s nothing about Stanford fans that makes them inherently superior to Alabama fans — especially since the above-mentioned foul speech and abhorrent acts of Crimson Tide backers represent only a relatively small minority of Alabama fans.

But let’s just take a moment to consider something that Stanford fans like to think about themselves: Maybe, just maybe, we really do keep college sports in the proper perspective.

Oh yeah. And let’s also remind ourselves, Cardinal nation, that we’ve never done — and, I devoutly hope, we never will do — anything like this depraved Alabama booster did.

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