PASADENA—I wondered if there was a different way to watch Stanford defeat UCLA. The Cardinal had done it eight straight times, twice in one week, but I was seeking enlightenment and a new perspective.
I had watched Stanford defeat UCLA from the Rose Bowl press box and from the press box in Palo Alto. I had seen it from home, on TV and from my couch.
It's been my football version of “Green Eggs and Ham.”
I have listened to Stanford defeat UCLA in my car, and seen them do it from a far…
Saturday I saw it as a patron, a spectator, a journeyman Joe, from Bob Uecker’s seat—last row at the prettiest stadium on Earth. I paid 33 bucks for a general admission ticket and was ready to fork over 25 bucks for parking, but somehow lucked out when no one stopped me on my way to fairway parking on Brookside Golf Course.
For years, as a working hack, people used to say “isn’t it great you get in all the games for free?”
And I’d say, “yeah, even the terrible ones.”
So Saturday, instead of walking by all the tailgaters on my way to work, I became one of them.
This is so, SO not me. I’m the worst fan of all time. From the stands I am jittery and nervous. I can’t cheer because that’s not what I was taught in “J” school. As president of the Football Writers Assn. of America, in fact, I used to have to admonish people in the press box who did not follow those rules.
There is no such thing as me “letting loose.”[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
Being a fan makes me uncomfortable. I worry about my friends in the press box bumping up against a crippling deadline.
Someone will say “Great game, huh?” and I’ll point to the press box and say, “not for them.”
For better or worse, though, this is the new, post-LA Times me. So I sought out a fresh twist on an old yarn: what did Christian McCaffrey look like from an end-zone seat?
I played the common-man game. My wife, a Stanford grad who does cheer for her team, wanted to see it live. So, we went. Our trip started with a stop at Roma Market, near the Rose Bowl, at the corner of Mountain and Lake. An old Italian man has been making delicious sandwiches there for years. The bread is so fresh it melts in your mouth like cotton candy.
So we bought sandwiches and ate them, literally, on the tailgate of our car. I may have also guzzled two glasses of a very decent Italian wine.
Then it was into the Rose Bowl, where I watched so many games as a writer, including Texas over USC in that post-2005 season epic.
This experience wasn’t that one.
Up the north end zone steps I climbed, all the way to the top, to see these Pac 12 teams do battle.
I was equipped with the same binoculars I used in the 2012 national title game between Alabama and Notre Dame. I remember focusing in on the pregame warm-ups that night and commenting that one team looked like an NFL team—and the other one looked like Notre Dame. The game result supported that analysis.
Watching Saturday’s game, though, from the last row was almost out-of-body. I sneered at the kids next to me slamming their feet on the benches—forgetting I was actually in their office. I was dumbstruck by the number of people who had no interest in the game other than eating, drinking, standing up in front of me, or going back and forth to the restroom.
What was I doing here without my remote for instant replay?
I picked Stanford to win but it was not the game I expected. UCLA stood straight up, limb-to-limb, to the Trees. The Bruins controlled the game and owned most of it. They led 10-3 at the half and bottled up McCaffrey as best as anyone can.
Anyway, it looked so much like this was going to be UCLA’s night.
Stanford Coach David Shaw, in many ways, reverted back to the conservative coach he was a couple years ago.
I thought it would come back to bite him Saturday, but he got away with it. Twice, on fourth-and-one, he elected to punt even though he has, on his team, the first or second best player in college football.
This, in my opinion, is the kind of mentality that has cost Stanford a shot at the national title in the same era Alabama has won four.
Shaw plays to win games late, in the fourth quarter, which is a fine strategy in the NFL because you can afford to lose games and still make the Super Bowl.
In college, though, two close losses put you out of contention. LSU, in 2007, is the only two-loss team in the BCS era to win the national championship.
Saturday night, though, Shaw escaped with his shaky logic. The Cardinal got the ball back late, down four points, and drove the length of the field to score the game winner with 24 seconds left. A late fumble return sealed the score at 22-13.
That’s playing with fire in the college game, but Stanford survived and UCLA didn’t.
So I saw UCLA lose its ninth straight loss to its rivals from the North, but it was the best defeat of the bunch. The Bruins were up for this, which made the loss only more crushing.
UCLA has two losses now, one in overtime at Texas A&M, and Saturday’s gut punch.
It wrapped a hellish weekend for the locals, following USC’s last-minute defeat at Utah on Friday.
Clay Helton didn’t get away with his poor decision-making. Up by three, he punted late from Utah’s 37, stealing a page from the 1980s Big Ten.
Helton trusted HIS defense to stop the Utes? No way.
So, that’s my spectator, laptop wrap, written from the passenger seat of my car.
It’s an interesting world out here, from the weeds.
I left Lot 4 on Brookside Golf Course, dust kicking into a hot night, to a world where USC and Notre Dame are 1-3.
I watched a game in which UCLA held Christian McCaffrey without a touchdown.
And still lost.[/membership]