Halloween Weekend:  The State of Arizona almost became the “Walking Dead”

It was Halloween Weekend 2014, and there was reason for optimism throughout the State of Arizona.  A high school star from Arizona was starting for a top college program, the Suns were undefeated, both the U of A and ASU were in line for a possible top 10 national ranking, and the Cardinals were preparing for a season-defining game in the Big D.  So, after we all came down from our sugar highs from Friday night, we got to sit back and get ready to enjoy a weekend full of sports.  Then, it all started to unravel.

First up, Kyle Allen.  The quarterback phenom from Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale was named the starting quarterback for Texas A & M.  After being one of the top high school recruits in the country and ESPN’s number one rated quarterback in the nation, Allen was about to begin his legacy at the next level.   Fortunately, rather than being matched against another SEC powerhouse, he was to play in one of those fill in games, with the Aggies matched against the Warhawks of the University of Louisiana-Monroe of the Sun Belt Conference.  The Aggies went on to defeat UL-Monroe, 21-16 but for Allen, I am afraid that was about all of the good news.  His performance was less than mediocre (going 13-28 for 106 yards with one touchdown and one interception, for a QBR of 26.6) and he certainly did not create any waves suggesting that he should replace suspended quarterback Kenny Hill.  Oh well, the weekend was only starting.  Interim score:  Disastrous Weekend 1, Arizona 0.

Next up, the Arizona Coyotes.  True, they are off to a really slow start but we know that this will turn around any minute now.  Right?  Wrong.  They went into Raleigh, North Carolina and got pummeled by the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-0.  Carolina had entered the game winless in their first 8 games, recording a record of 0-6-2.  The Coyotes ended the evening in last place in the Western Conference and are already on the outside looking in for a future playoff position.  Interim Score:  Disastrous Weekend 2, Arizona 0.

Enter the Phoenix Suns, the team band-wagoners favor the most.  After two impressive wins over the lowly Lakers and the World Champion Spurs, expectations began to soar.  They travelled to Utah to take on a team who finished last season 23 games behind them in the standings, and had started this season 0-2 following decisive losses to Houston and Dallas.  Ready to notch win #3 into the Suns’ belt?  Well, in the words of Game Day’s Lee Corso, “not so fast.”  The Suns never rose in the city by the Great Salt Lake and the game ended in the early evening hours of November 1 with the Suns on the losing side of a 118-91 score.  Interim Score:  Disastrous Weekend 3, Arizona 0.

Ok.  Not to fear, the favored Wildcats and Sun Devils were taking the field against ranked opponents.  Victories would be seen as additional signature wins and would elevate both programs toward their showdown on November 28.  After only 2:31 of the first quarter, the Wildcats had driven 75 yards for a touchdown from Anu Solomon to Cayleb Jones.  Even though their offense stalled after that, the Cats headed into halftime leading 7-3.  

As for the Sun Devils, they were marching up and down the field at will in the first half against Utah, but the success was not translating into points on the board.  They went 72 yards on 10 plays in their first possession, settling for a 20 yard Zane Gonzalez field goal.  They went 57 yards on 11 plays in their second possession, settling for a 45 yard Zane Gonzalez field goal.  After sputtering on the next two possessions, they went 75 yards on just 5 plays, this time capped by a Taylor Kelly to Jaelen Strong TD.  The Devils were up by 10 in the middle of the second quarter, and life appeared to be good in both Sun Devil and Wildcat Country.  

But the Utes ended the first half with a 36 yard field goal and started the second half with a touchdown.  Suddenly, the score was tied, 13-13. ASU was then shutout for the next 24 minutes.    By approximately 10 pm on Saturday evening, the Cats were trailing the Bruins by ten and the Devils were trailing the Utes by three.  Even though Arizona does not change its clocks for the end of Daylight Savings Time, everyone by then was wishing that we could turn back the clocks on this “Black Saturday.”  The minutes that followed did not at all help the Wildcats, who went on to lose the UCLA, 17-7, including much to be expected missed field goals in what has become the Achilles Heel of the program.  Interim Score:  Disastrous Weekend 4, Arizona 0.

Once time-expired in Pasadena, televisions around the State were tuned to the ASU game to find the Devils down by three with less than 6 minutes left in the game.   And then it happened.  Somewhere around 11 pm, the Devils started playing like a nationally-ranked team.  Zane Gonzalez kicked his third field goal of the game, this time from 30 yards, and the score was tied when time expired.  In overtime, Utah’s Andy Miler missed a 35 yard field goal and the first smile of the day on Todd Graham’s face was captured on TV.  The Devils gained only six yards in their first possession of overtime but Zane Gonzalez went on to kick his fourth field goal for the game winner; ASU 19, Utah 16.  Interim Score:  Disastrous Weekend 4, Arizona 1.

Supporters of all things Arizona woke up Sunday morning hopeful that the Cardinals could go to the Big D and prevail, although realistic enough to know that they Cardinals have not beaten the Cowboys in Dallas in over two decades.  The game began and disaster struck yet again.  Carson Palmer threw his first touchdown pass of the game, but it was unfortunately to Tyler Patmon of the Cowboys for a “Pick 6.”  We collectively felt the blow to our Solar Plexus and readied ourselves for the capping off of an otherwise painful weekend of sports.  The first quarter ended with the Cardinals trailing, 10-0.  

But these are not the Cardinals of the past, who historically seemed able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Bruce Arians and his guys know how to win, and that they did.  The relatively unknown front seven of the defense along with its premier secondary completely stymied Dez Bryant and the boys.  On the other side of the ball, Carson Palmer played smart football, and methodically put the team in a place to win.  Justin Bethel and the Cardinals’ special teams blocked a 35 yard Dan Bailey field goal attempt, the Cardinals’ 18th blocked field goal in the last seven seasons, an NFL high.  The defense contained the unstoppable DeMarco Murray, who had entered the game with an NFL record 8 consecutive 100 yard rushing games.   Not today, DeMarco!  Both Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams were held without a catch until the garbage minutes of the fourth quarter.  When time expired, the Cardinals were victorious, beating America’s former team, 28-17.

Perhaps without being noticed, the Coyotes went into the nation’s capital to take on the Washington Capitals on Sunday.  They went on to score three times in the third period and held off the charging Capitals, 6-5.  Captain Shane Doan led the way with two goals and an assist.  

Final Score:  Disastrous Weekend 4, Arizona 3.  When I throw in NAU’s victory over Weber State, the weekend ended in a tie.   

I will say this, the weekend will likely not be remembered for the disaster that almost was.  Kyle Allen will have his ups and downs and may one day star at Texas A & M.  The Coyotes will figure out how to win and will make a legitimate playoff run.  The Suns will win far more games than they will lose and will be part of the championship hunt at season’s end.  The Wildcats will still appear in a quality bowl game and red-shirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon will likely develop into a game-changing quarterback under Rich Rod’s system.  The Devils will show that their ranking has been earned and will challenge all comers, including when the national spotlight that accompanies the Fighting Irish arrives this coming weekend.  

As for our now beloved Cardinals, I will not say much else.  I have had too many disappointing seasons over the 26 years since the Cardinals flew the coup in St Louis to celebrate before the “final buzzer.”   I will only say this…the Arizona Cardinals have reached the mid-point in the 2014 season with the best record in the NFL.  

From the darkness of Halloween night, the Valley of the Sun and the State of Arizona is again shining in the brightness of the day.