Football Famine Before the Feast

It’s an unfortunate part of football, and most sports, that you have to experience agony before you can enjoy success. George Steele’s journey through 1960s and 70s football in A COACH AT HEART provides plenty of both.

A modern-day example came Saturday. The latest edition of the Stanford-USC rivalry once again came down to a late field goal, along with some controversy. San Diego State, meanwhile, suffered a heartbreaking defeat at North Carolina. Both the Cardinal and Aztecs deserved to win, but sports — as in life — aren’t always fair.

At Stanford, the Cardinal took just about every possession of the game well into Trojans territory, and wound up with only 10 points. The defense was stellar in holding Troy to just 13 points, which you’d think would have been the key to a comfortable victory. Instead, a series of bizarre mistakes in or near the red zone doomed the Cardinal’s chances. Penalties killed several drives, and in one case, QB Kevin Hogan offered a hand-off to a running back that was too high, resulting in a fumble. The most glaring error was a chop block penalty that wiped out a fourth quarter touchdown pass.

The game also featured a strange sequence where USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was given an unsportsmanlike penalty and called athletic director Pat Haden down to the sideline to complain to the referees. Have you ever heard of such a thing before? There have been so many bad calls over the years that you’d think would bring an AD to the sidelines to read a zebra the riot act, and it didn’t happen, and then to have Haden come down for this call is truly weird. The refs have clearly said they’re enforcing the sideline rules this season, and Sarkisian simply got caught.

In Chapel Hill, the Aztecs followed a similar script as Stanford. After driving deep into Tar Heels’ territory in the second quarter, QB Quinn Kaehler tossed up an ill-advised pass while rolling to his left to escape the pass rush, and a UNC defender picked it off an ran back 100 yards for a 7-0 lead. SDSU scored the next three touchdowns to go ahead 21-7, but Carolina came back to go up 28-27 in the fourth quarter. Kaehler had a chance to drive the Aztecs down for a go-ahead field goal, but again rolled to his left and tossed an INT. On this one, the Carolina defender was actually leaving his receiver when Kaehler threw, but stopped on a dime and reversed course to snag the ball. UNC’s field goal put them up 31-27.

That left the Aztecs needing a touchdown, not just a three-pointer. They worked the ball down the field again, to the UNC 6, inside a minute to play. Yet another Kaehler pass was picked off, this one by a diving safety Tim Scott. While you could look at the box score and blame Kaehler for the loss, it looked from here like great plays by Carolina’s secondary as much as anything. But for a program desperate for a signature win in this new era of college football, the 31-27 setback was an opportunity lost, and it hurt for the players, coaches, fans and maybe the program itself.

Yet, both frustrating games provided hope.

Stanford’s defense appears dominant, while the young offensive line opened some running lanes and provided Hogan some time to throw. Hogan is Hogan, while receiver/kick returner Ty Montgomery might have entered the Heisman conversation with a win. The Cardinal may or may not win the Pac-12 or North division, but they’re clearly positioned for another strong season, despite a tough schedule.

San Diego State, meanwhile, showed off an offensive line that is on its way to becoming dominant and a typically disruptive defense. As mentioned in the Mountain West preseason post, the Aztecs have the best personnel top-to-bottom in the league, a notion confirmed two weeks into the season. They have a chance to win at Oregon State in two weeks, and shouldn’t lose more than one conference game, barring injury.

So while Saturday was painful, evidence was presented that both schools that serve as settings in A COACH AT HEART are in fine shape, otherwise. Fans of the Cardinal and Aztecs should be feeling good by the end of November, and perhaps the memory of the early-September heartache will make the end-of-season celebrations just that much sweeter.

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