A national title game-worthy team is looking to spoil the likely college finale for one of the most coveted pro prospects in history.
It seems like a terrific start to 2012 for the Fiesta Bowl after a dismal 2011.
Andrew Luck plays what is expected to be his final game before becoming the likely No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, with Stanford trying to prevent Oklahoma State from proving it should have been the one playing for a BCS championship.
These high-scoring, highly ranked programs meeting Monday in Glendale, Ariz., may be just what this once-troubled BCS bowl needed.
Both 11-1 teams could make a case to be playing for the national title, though there was a big gap in the BCS standings - and the AP poll - between the No. 3 Cowboys and the No. 4 Cardinal. Plus, this appears to be the final college game for Luck - maybe the most highly touted quarterback of the past decade - as well as 28-year-old counterpart Brandon Weeden and Oklahoma State star wideout Justin Blackmon.
Those are some good distractions for a bowl which has been shrouded by controversy.
“If you want to come up with an event that’s going to focus everyone’s attention on the game, you couldn’t ask for much more than this,” Fiesta Bowl executive director Robert Shelton said.
A scandal involving improper political campaign contributions and expense reimbursements by Fiesta Bowl employees resulted in longtime president and CEO John Junker being fired. For a time, the game’s spot in the BCS even appeared to be in jeopardy.
Not only did the Fiesta stay in the mix, but it got easily the best matchup of the bunch other than the title game between LSU and Alabama. That wasn’t the case last year when it settled for Oklahoma taking on a Connecticut team which entered with four losses, resulting in low TV ratings and the stadium being about 6,000 fans under capacity.
A full house seems certain to be on hand this time.
Luck is the biggest attraction. The two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up could have been selected No. 1 overall last year but returned for his junior season, only to come up one win shy of a trip to the BCS title game.
“He’s got all those tools and all the skills that you look for in a quarterback,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “And right on top there with everything else is that he’s an absolute competitor that loves the game and loves when the game’s on the line and loves when the ball is in his hands.”
The Cardinal’s 53-30 loss to then-No. 6 Oregon - the same team which kept them from having a perfect 2010 season - ended their national championship hopes Nov. 12.
That loss helped clear the Cowboys’ path, but six days later, they would be stunned by an unranked Iowa State team in a 37-31 double-overtime defeat. Oklahoma State bounced back two weeks later with a 44-10 rout of the Sooners, but that wasn’t quite enough to jump past Alabama for No. 2 in the BCS standings.
“Obviously it’s a little bit disappointing, but we did everything in our power, with what happened at Iowa State, to give ourselves a chance,” Weeden said. “To see how short we were, it’s tough to swallow.”
Despite having the same record as Oklahoma State and being a BCS program, Stanford didn’t come nearly as close to the No. 2 spot. Of the three ranked teams the Cardinal defeated, none were higher than No. 20 at the time and only one - Southern California - is still in the rankings.
While Stanford failed to reach its league title game, the Cowboys won the Big 12 - widely considered a more competitive conference than the Pac-12 - and beat three teams currently inside the top 20.
“I don’t think anybody that was in our position could say that they didn’t have some disappointment to not have an opportunity to play for it all,” said Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, the Eddie Robinson Award winner as national coach of the year.
Gundy’s team ranked second nationally in scoring at 49.3 points per game, never getting held to less than 30, and averaged 562.8 total yards in the final six.
The Cardinal averaged 43.6 points to rank fifth in the FBS but slowed down toward the end. They didn’t score more than 31 in any of the final three games and were held to an average of 406.3 yards.
Luck failed to crack 260 yards in any of his last four games and threw an interception in each of the final five, including two in the loss to Oregon.
Both Luck and Weeden completed at least 70.0 percent of their passes. Weeden finished third nationally with 4,328 yards compared to 3,170 for Luck, but did it in 149 more attempts and had one fewer TD pass (35-34).
“The nature of the bowl game with two quarterbacks who have put good numbers on good teams, I’m sure there will be a great story line for everybody,” Luck said.
While Weeden’s advanced age - he spent five years playing minor league baseball before joining the Cowboys - likely means he won’t be drafted in the first round, Blackmon’s name should be called not long after Luck. The first-team All-American is turning pro after a junior season in which he had 113 receptions for 1,336 yards and 15 touchdowns - among the top 10 nationally in all three categories for a second straight year.
“The quarterback and receiver combo, Weeden to Blackmon, is outstanding to watch as a football fan,” Shaw said.
The Cardinal’s best receiver may be Chris Owusu, but the senior appears unlikely to play after sitting out the last three games following his third concussion in a 13-month span.
Blackmon caught both of Weeden’s TD passes in last year’s 36-10 win over Arizona in the Cotton Bowl. Oklahoma State, appearing in a bowl game for a school-record sixth straight year, beat BYU in 1974 in its only previous Fiesta appearance.
This is the first Fiesta Bowl for Stanford but second straight BCS appearance, having beaten Virginia Tech 40-12 in last season’s Orange Bowl.
Plenty of points are expected as these programs meet for the first time. Weeden, though, could face some pressure from a Stanford defense which ranked sixth nationally with 38 sacks. Luck faces a pair of All-American defensive backs in cornerback Brodrick Brown and Markelle Martin, and Cowboys defensive end Jamie Blatnick made the all-Big 12 team after finishing with seven sacks.
“We all would have loved to play in the national championship. I think that would have been the best matchup, but we can’t,” Blatnick said. “We just have to take our frustrations out on Stanford.”