SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
10/21/2006 04:52:00 PM
The Agony of Defeat: A First-Hand Account
Like his teammates, Northwestern QB C.J. Bacher played a brilliantly for two-and-a-half quarters ...
One of the perils of covering college football for a living is that you lose touch with your inner-fan. After years of sitting in either a sterile press box or on the couch with a laptop open, you can’t help but watch every game -- no matter who the participants -- from a purely analytical, almost emotionless perspective.
Which is why, at least once a year, I make a pilgrimage to Blondie’s, a popular sports bar on New York’s Upper West Side, to watch with the people. But not just any people. Blondie’s happens to be the official gathering spot for alumni of several different schools, most notably my alma mater. The regulars -- a lot of them not that far removed from their undergrad years – go all out, wearing purple, singing the fight song and drinking purple shots after each touchdown.
For two-and-a-half quarters Saturday, the purple people of Blondie’s were doing a lot of both. Behind a new starting quarterback, sophomore C.J. Bacher, their team, which came into the game with a 2-5 record, repeatedly marched down the field to build an improbable 38-3 lead. Toasts were raised to the new quarterback of the future. The poor girl in the corner who gets lifted up in the air after each score looked ready to vomit after doing 38 “push-ups” -- about as many as she’d had to do the entire season to date. This, my friends, was the collective joy of victory, one of those inherent fan emotions I’ve been trained to repress.
As most of you already know, my alma mater is Northwestern. Part of being a Northwestern fan is that you learn from a young age (most often your freshman year) never to get your hopes too high -- and never to be assured of victory until the clock reads 0:00. But c’mon. At 38-3, you’re assured victory.
Earlier this week, SI.com’s Peter King called the Arizona Cardinals’ blown 22-3 lead against the Chicago Bears “one of the biggest choke jobs in sports history.” I have to confess, I went to bed early and missed it. But Saturday, I got to see nearly every moment of the biggest choke job in Division I-A history. That’s not hyperbole, by the way. Over the final 22 minutes of the second half, Michigan State -- the same team known for its own monumental collapses – mounted the biggest comeback in Division I-A history, producing four touchdown drives, returning a blocked kick for another touchdown and converting a last-second field goal to turn a 38-3 deficit into a historic, John L. Smith-job-saving 41-38 victory.
If you didn’t watch the game (as I’m assuming most of you didn’t) but heard about what happened, your initial reaction was presumably, “How on earth did that happen?” But here’s the thing about watching a game from the fan’s perspective. Not only can you answer that question, you could actually see the whole thing coming from the time the Spartans scored their second touchdown of the rally.
As you know, college football is a game of momentum. When the Wildcats were in the midst of their 38-point explosion, they could no wrong. Bacher was on fire. And because the Spartans’ defense had to contend with Bacher, suddenly RB Tyrell Sutton was running wild. The offense’s success seemed to be rubbing off on the defense, which continually stymied Michigan State QB Drew Stanton.
But once it got to 38-3, the offense backed off. Stanton started performing target practice on the suddenly helpless defense. When the Spartans got to 38-17, the Blondie’s crowd -- much like its team -- tightened up. Fans sat a little more rigidly on their bar stools. Conversations tapered off. People started paying closer attention. By the time the ‘Cats got their punt blocked to make it 38-24, you could tell by the looks on the fans’ faces they knew that, as improbable as a 35-point comeback might seem, that’s exactly what was going to end up happening.
Sure enough, Bacher would end up throwing a ghastly interception to set up the Spartans’ field goal with 18 seconds left.
You know that awkward feeling you get when you walk out of a dark theater into the sunlight of the parking lot after seeing a particularly intense movie? You’re still so caught up in the fictional reality of your past two-and-a-half hours that it takes a few minutes to actually return to the “real” world. This is what I thought of as I joined a pack of dazed Northwestern fans leaving the bar and walking out to the sunny sidewalk. All around us were the scenes of a beautiful Saturday afternoon in New York. Mothers pushing strollers. Women toting shopping bags. Couples walking hand-in-hand to the park.
Having reconnected with my inner-fan for three hours, I could tell by the annoyed looks on my compatriots’ faces exactly what they were thinking.
DON’T THESE FREAKING PEOPLE REALIZE NORTHWESTERN JUST BLEW A FRIGGIN’ 38-3 LEAD?? DO THEY HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT THIS FEELS LIKE??????? YOU CAN ALL GO TO HELL!!!!!!
Ugh...I sympathize. I'm a Mizzou fan, and before this season, I've watched more games where we've snatched defeat from the jaws of victory than I can count. I was at the 97 Fleakicker game, and was all ready to join my fellow students in rushing the field when It happened. Trudging back in the cold to my dorm afterward is still one of the more depressing moments of my life.
Wait! This was dejavu' all over again. Do I know how you FEEL!? As an MSU you fan, I know EXACTLY how you feel...because I went through the same thing four weeks ago when Notre Dame did the same thing to us.
MSU finally got their Mojo back. John L Smith got his job back (at least for now)and an NCAA Division I record was set. Michigan State knows how to lose a game (Notre Dame) and they also know how to pull off the shockers. What a Roller Coaster ride MSU is taking us on. Well buckle up your seat cause the rides not over. Go Green!
Stewart, what can one say? I'm a MSU alum...was in the stands for State's 16-13 victory over Ohio State in 1974...and again in the stands for this season's debacle against Notre Dame. Not bad for a native Texan still living in Texas!
A few weeks ago you published your theory explaining college football teams' fortunes over time, something about a central tendency towards mediocrity for most programs. You noted the few exceptions...the Michigans, Ohio States, etc. MSU is another exception to the rule, but they're exceptional for their diagnosis: bipolar disorder.
Like bipolar people State can seduce you into believing them despite your knowing better. Like bipolar people State will disappoint you at the most inopportune times, and then thrill you just before you give up on them.
As I've told some Texas A&M grads...being a Spartan is like being an Aggie - only ever so much and more so!
A first hand account would have been at Ryan Field. Going to a bar on the upper west side of New York doesn't give you any kind of connection to Evanton or Big Ten country. A New York bar actually couldn't be more worlds apart from Big Ten country.
When Coach Walker died, you captured the essence of the grief of college football fans. Again, you have captured the essence, this time of the agony of inexplicable defeat. I am pleased that you can lose the "purely analytical, almost emotionless perspective."
I hope that someday you will be able to express the essence of a college football joy...but not at the expense of the Wolverines!
In response to a previous blogger, being among fans of your persuasion is exactly what connects you to Evanston and Big Ten country.
Even though MSU mounted a historic comeback vs Northwestern, that SHOULD NOT be enough to save JL Smiths job. Think about it, they had to COME BACK from 35 down to Northwestern?????!!! If MSU admin thinks that is enough proof to prolong Smiths tenure at MSU, then they deserve what they get.....
Ironic, isn't it....the same NU team known over the last few years for its amazing comebacks under Randy Walker (two touchdowns in the last two minutes to beat Iowa last year, for example) suddenly goes the opposite direction. I'm an NU grad living in Michigan...I wore my Wildcats sweatshirt to the grocery store today and people laughed at me. Ah, we'll be back.