Darkness descended upon the three-tiered east grandstand at Arizona Stadium as the faint scent of mesquite wafted through the Southern Arizona sky.
For the first time, after months of scorching heat, the weather seemed downright, dare I say, fall-like.
It was a perfect night for football, and an evening fit for a showdown between two of the hottest teams west of Ames, Iowa—in Arizona and 15th-ranked Washington State.
It was a night that had it all—with more yards (1,181 combined) and points (95) than your typical arena league game.
It was a night fit for a king, with sophomore renaissance man Khalil Tate once again playing the lead role.
There was one glaring thing missing Saturday, however—the crowd.
Saturday’s crowd for Tate and company’s bowl-clinching 58-37 coronation—according to the man in the press box, at least—was listed at 42,822.
Arizona Stadium, if you’re wondering, officially seats 55,675, meaning roughly 13,000 seats went unused on a night that could be a turning point for coach Rich Rodriguez’s program.
A numbers game
How bad was Arizona’s attendance in retrospect, you ask? Let’s go through the numbers.
Two weeks ago, in a game against a hapless UCLA team, Arizona managed to fill 48,380 seats, in a game that Arizona won by 17 points.
Against Northern Arizona University—an FCS program with a 6-2 record—the Wildcats drew 43,334.
The only game so far this fall in the Old Pueblo that drew fewer members of the peanut gallery was the team’s dismal 19-16 loss to Utah.
That game, played on a Friday night, drew a measly crowd of 36,651—though it can be excused, since once again, it was on a Friday night.
I could go on and on bludgeoning the Wildcat faithful (or lack thereof) for their absentia on Saturday, but I’ll take the high road.
Instead, I’ll give you the rundown on what people that avoided Arizona Stadium like a week old Sonoran hot dog missed.
First, you missed another mind-boggling performance from sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate, who torched the Cougars’ eighth-ranked defense to the tune of 275 passing yards (a career high) and 158 rushing yards.
Next, you missed a hell of an effort by the defensive unit from Arizona, affectionately known as the Baby Cats, who snagged four interceptions—including a 66-yard pick six by freshman Colin Schooler—off Washington State backup Tyler Hilinski in the game’s latter half—giving the unit nine picks in their last four games (a stat I received from do-it-all Arizona stat guy Blair Willis).
You missed not one, not two, not three (etcetera, etcetera)—but four scoring plays of more than 25 yards by the two teams.
You missed a team pull off a feat that boggles the mind. The Wildcats—381 days removed from their worst loss in 68 years (a 69-7 defeat to the very same Washington State Cougars)—punched their way off the ropes, slaying the Cougars on their home field.
Sellout or not, Rodriguez and his players expressed a similar theme in avenging last year’s humiliating loss to the Cougars—redemption.
“This game we talked about redemption and relevance and that was the last thing I said to them before the game,” Rodriguez said. “I said that we had a chance to be relevant by beating a top 25 team. Every player wants to be relevant. The more you win the more there is at stake and we have a pretty big one next week.”
The big one Rodriguez is referring to is the team’s clash against the Trojans of USC in Los Angeles next Saturday, in a game between the Pac-12 South’s two best teams.
The Wildcats, with a victory, would be in the driver’s seat for a division title and a berth in their second Pac-12 Conference Title Game, heading into their final home game against Oregon State on Nov. 11.
Here’s hoping redemption applies to the hometown crowd as well.