Fantastic Football: Getting Good in Goodman Field (Week 2)

Welcome back to Fantastic Football, my ongoing Let’s Play of Madden NFL 2002 on the PlayStation 2. As we learned last time, the football is, in fact, not that fantastic, because the Las Vegas Vandals suck. Specifically, their defense sucks. They suck so much that despite the Vandals scoring 70 points in their first game, they still lost. So I spent some time after the last game making some trades, signing a free agent or two, adjusting the depth chart, and in general tweaking the roster to try and improve things a bit. Hopefully, it will pay off when the Vandals play the Cardinals in their Week 2 game.

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According to Madden, it should. It looks like my roster changes have massively improved the rating of my defense, and my depth chart tweaks have managed to increase the strength of my offense slightly. What’s most surprising to me here is that, despite only reordering the special teams depth chart a little bit, Madden now believes that my special teams unit is 37 points better than it did last week.

Overall, my defense is still weaker than my offense (and weaker than the Cardinal’s defense), but this match-up is looking a lot more favorable than it would have been a week ago. Let’s hope Madden’s assessment proves correct.

(For the curious, a complete copy of the current Vandals roster/depth chart can be found here.)

The Vandals are playing at Goodman Field this week, and we all know what that means.

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Look at those golden boys go.

The Cardinals win the coin toss and opt to receive. I’m not worried though. This time, the Vandals’ defense will be ready.

This time, we’re going to win.

THE GAME

The wind blows the kickoff a little bit short, and it comes down just in front of the 20-yard-line. A modest but respectable return effort by the Cardinals ends with the ball at the 32.

Now we shall see what our efforts have wrought.

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Success. The Vandals hold the line, even if just barely, forcing the Cardinals to punt on 4th and short from their 41-yard-line. Even better for the Vandals — although significantly worse for the Cardinals — halfback Stephen Davis sustains a chest injury during the play on 3rd down, causing him to be sent off. While I sincerely hope he hasn’t sustained any permanent injury, his removal from the game is a serious blow to the Cardinals.

Tremain Mack receives the punt and runs it up to the Vandals’ 35-yard-line, and a facemask penalty against the Cardinals puts the ball at the 40. With the defense having proven their mettle, it is now time for the offense to open up the guns.

Peyton Manning (#18) fires the first volley, a 34 yard pass to tight end/wide receiver Shannon Sharpe (#82), and just like that, the Vandals are in scoring range. A 20 yard pass to Tony Gonzalez (#88) moves the ball to the 5.

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Sharpe makes the touchdown, and the Vandals take the lead.

The Cardinals start their next drive at the 29-yard-line. Fortunately for them, Davis’ injury was apparently not serious, and he is back in the game. Still, the Vandals stopped him once before, they can do it again.

Although the Vandals are unable to keep the Cardinals from advancing downfield, they make them fight for every inch of it. When Jeff Garcia starts relying on throws to Randy Moss to move the ball forwards, Vandals’ head coach Hugh Mann starts ordering blitzes to put more pressure on the quarterback. It works. The Vandals halt the Cardinals’ advance at the 25-yard-line, and then push them back to the 31. On 4th and 16, the Cardinals are forced to try a 47 yard field goal.

It’s good. The score is now 7-3.

After the kickoff, the Vandals start their second drive from their 23-yard-line. Remembering the disastrous interceptions from the Chargers’ game, Hugh Mann tells the Vandals to run it. But after two running plays and an incomplete pass to Tony, the Vandals haven’t moved an inch. They punt the ball away, and the Cardinals’ offense returns to the field at their own 34-yard-line.

Hugh Mann orders the Vandals to keep applying pressure on Garcia. The less time he has in the pocket, the less time Randy Moss has to get setup downfield. It works even better this time, and after 3 plays and 3 downs, the Cardinals are forced to punt the ball back from their own 31.

After getting the ball back on their own 38, Hugh Mann tells Peyton to go high and go far. The Vandals are going to score on this drive, and they’re going to do it the only way they know how. Sure enough, a single pass moves them onto the Cardinals’ end of the field. Then, after a string of incompletions leaves them at 4th and 10 on the Cardinals’ 38, Hugh Mann says only three words.

Never. Stop. Passing.

The gambit finally pays off. A successful pass to Sharpe puts the Vandals at the 10-yard-line, and from there, it’s only a few more plays until the drive reaches the end zone.

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After the kickoff return, Garcia leads the Cardinals’ offense onto the field at the 28. Once again, the reshaping of the Vandals’ defense proves its worth. Blitzing Garcia forces an incompletion, and a run by Davis hardly moves the ball past the line of scrimmage. Another run just barely makes it past the first down line, but a penalty kicks the Cardinals back 10 yards to 3rd and 12. After another blitz and a failed pass, the Cardinals are forced to punt from their own 25.

After the punt, the Vandals line up at their 42-yard-line in preparation for another drive. With 5 minutes left in the first quarter, it seems likely that the Vandals will score at least one more time, which bodes ill for the state of the game. Three touchdowns a quarter is not something that is supposed to happen in football.

My fears for the future of football are averted for the time being, however, as the Cardinals force the Vandals to 4th and 2 on the 50-yard-line. Decidedly more cautious after the failure of aggressive tactics last week, Hugh Mann orders the Vandals to punt.

A strong return by the Cardinals spots the ball on their 31, and the yellow wall lines up once again. This time, the Cardinals are ready for the heavy pocket pressure. Using a mix of rushes and quick, short passes, they doggedly drive upfield, despite heavy opposition from the Vandals. Over the course of six plays, they manage to gain 28 yards. The seventh play is an incomplete pass. It looks like the Vandals’ wall will hold.

On the eighth play, the dam breaks.

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Davis sprints down the field. Keith Brooking (#56) sails past in a missed tackle. Davis continues on unhindered, aiming for the end zone. He makes it 24 yards before being brought down at the 16. It takes three Vandals to stop him.

The Cardinals continue their running game, slowly but surely edging closer to the end zone. The Vandals managed to hold them to a 5 yard gain, but at 4th and 5 on the 11-yard-line, a Cardinals’ field goal seems certain.

The quarter ends before the teams can line up for the field goal, so they all run down to the other end of the field to setup for the same play again.

The second quarter begins with a successful Cardinals field goal, bringing the score up to 14-6. Mack returns the ensuing kickoff, setting up the Vandals offense to start from the 21.

The first play from scrimmage results in a 31 yard pass to Dawkins, putting the Vandals on the Cardinals’ 48. Unfortunately, as Dawkins goes down, he injures his shoulder, taking the Vandals’ second-best receiver out of the game. With any luck, he’ll be back before the end of the game, but trusting to luck in Las Vegas is the past-time of fools and losers.

After the next play, the injury report comes back. Dawkins will be out for a week. Not ideal, but better than some of the alternatives. Undeterred, the Vandals continue their drive downfield, lead by Sharpe and Tony. They don’t stop until they reach the end zone. The extra point attempt clears, and the score is now 21-6.

The Cardinals get the ball at the 22, and the cycle begins once again. The Vandals’ blitz-heavy offense has rendered Randy Moss, the best wide receiver in the league at the time and the Cardinals’ greatest offensive weapon, almost completely useless. Unable to hit their star receiver, the Cardinals are forced to rely on eking out short gains by running the ball. That suits the Vandals just fine.

Or at least, it would, if the Cardinals were only making short gains. After an incomplete pass to Randy Moss, Garcia hands the ball off to Davis again, who runs it 27 yards up the field before being brought down at the 50. A costly mistake, but it will be the only one of this drive. The Vandals manage to keep the Cardinals from making any further gains, forcing them to punt on 4th and 2 at the 43. It bounces out of the back of the end zone for a touchback.

The Cardinals seem to have learned a trick or two from the Vandals, as they begin applying their own blitz-heavy defense to try and put pressure on Peyton. It works, and the Vandals are forced to punt the ball back after a gain of only 8 yards across 3 plays.

The Cardinals’ punt returner, Travis Taylor, drops the ball, but before the Vandals can take advantage of the fumble, Derek Smith dives on it, ending the play at the Cardinals’ 32. Once again, the Vandals line up in a yellow wall, and the Cardinals begin chipping away at it with Stephen Davis. Once again, Davis manages to slip past the Vandals for a gain of 23 yards. A few plays later, and a pass interference call against the Vandals moves the Cardinals up to the 17-yard-line and into field goal range.

The Cardinals can see daylight now, and Davis begins chipping away even harder. It’s 2nd and 2 now, and they only need 9 more yards for the touchdown. The Vandals throw everything they can into a goal line blitz, and manage to push the Cardinals back 3 yards. They line-up and do it again, managing to sack Garcia at the 21. It’s 4th and 14 now, and the Cardinals are forced to take the field goal once more.

The kick is good, and the score is now 21-9. The kickoff return ends in a touchback, and the Vandals take the field for the next drive at the 20. Aware that the Cardinals are trying their own heavy blitz defense, Hugh Mann decides to keep Tony on the line to protect Peyton, while Glenn and Sharpe go deep for the flying offense. It works, and after 5 plays, the Vandals have moved 73 yards downfield and are 5 yards from the end zone. Soon enough, Matt Stover (#3) is lining up to kick the extra point attempt. It’s good, and the score becomes 28-9.

Despite an amazing 39 yard kickoff return, a holding penalty ends up causing the Cardinals to take the field at the 22-yard-line. The Vandals hold them there, and the Cardinals punt it back on 4th down. Mack gets it as far as the Cardinals’ 43-yard-line before being brought down.

Taking a page out of the Cardinals’ book, the Vandals rush on the first play from scrimmage, and Charlie Garner manages to pickup 7 yards. They keep rushing, and manage to pickup the first down. They keep running, and they convert again. After 9 plays and 39 yards, Garner manages to run it into the end zone for a touchdown, proving that the Vandals can score without throwing a single pass. Once the extra point sails through the uprights, the score is 35-9.

The Cardinals get the ball back on the 26, and despite managing to pickup 13 yards on a short pass, it seems like the drive is following the same pattern as before.

And then this happens.

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Garcia completes a 61 yard pass to Randy Moss, who puts on the jets and runs it in for a touchdown. I’m not even mad, that was seriously impressive. One extra point attempt later, and the score is 35-16.

The Vandals’ next drive starts at the 24, and this time they’re not going to bother with arbitrary limitations like “don’t pass the ball”. This time, they’re playing to win. No, they’re doing more than that. They’re playing to destroy the Cardinals, utterly and totally.

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5 plays. 4 passes. 74 yards. 1 more touchdown on the board.

Despite drawing a penalty on the extra point attempt which pushes it back 10 yards, Stover easily sends the pigskin through the uprights. The score is now 42-16, and there’s still a minute left in the first half. There are still 31 minutes left in this game.

For the Cardinals, it will be 31 minutes of hell.

This time, the Cardinals manage to get the ball to the 37. It won’t be enough. The Vandals will make sure of that. The defense keeps the pressure on, and the Cardinals are forced to punt on 4th and 7 from their own 41. There are only 15 seconds left in the half when the Vandals get the ball back, and Hugh Mann tells Peyton to take a knee to run out the clock.

And like that, the half ends.

The second half begins with the Vandals receiving the kickoff. The resulting drive begins on the 26-yard-line. The Cardinals, however, are determined not to let the Vandals run-up the score, and force them to punt on 4th and 16 from their own 20.

The Cardinals’ next drive begins at their 43. Right out of the gate, they open with their own version of the flying offense, starting with a 25 yard pass that moves them into field goal range. Despite the longness of the odds, they seem determined not to go down without a fight.

A 22 yard pass brings them up to the 9-yard-line. Hugh Mann tells the Vandals to turn the pressure up to 11. The Cardinals must not score.

The Cardinals score on 3rd and goal. They make the extra point, and the score narrows to 42-23.

The Vandals start from the 23. The Cardinals blitz, but as Peyton goes to ground, he manages to get the ball off to Tony Gonzalez, who slides forwards on his knees to make the catch.

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Emboldened, the Vandals continue their push downfield. But the Cardinals push back, not only halting the Vandals but driving them backwards. After 7 plays, the Vandals are only 12 yards from where they started, and it’s 4th and 17. They punt.

The Cardinals move the ball up to their 46 before beginning their next drive. Their spirit is commendable, but their hopes are futilie. The Vandals hold them at the 46, and on 3rd down, Cardinals’ quarterback Jeff Garcia is sacked and injures his foot.

Mack receives the punt and runs it to the 38, where the offense takes the field to start another drive. After 6 plays, they’ve moved 58 yards up the field, and that’s where the Cardinals make their stand. After a sack and two incomplete passes, the Vandals are forced to take a field goal from the 11-yard-line on 4th and 10.

It misses. Matt Stover, a kicker with an overall rating of 98, just missed a 25 yard field goal attempt.

The score remains 42-23, and the Cardinals get the ball back on their own 20.

Jeff Garcia has apparently recovered from his stubbed toe, as he takes the field to lead the Cardinals’s offense to try and attempt a miracle comeback. They won’t succeed, but I admire their determination.

As if trying to prove me wrong, Garcia then goes on to throw 3 consecutive passes for 13, 13, and 10 yards. It’s not a lot, but it’s moving the Cardinals down the field, and the Vandals seem unable to stop them. And then, on the very next play, the Cardinals score a touchdown.

The extra point is good, and the score narrows further to 42-30. The kickoff results in a touchback, and Peyton takes the field again. Coach Hugh Mann tells him to open up with everything he has. The Cardinals, however, have other plans. They rush Peyton repeatedly, forcing him to dump the ball. After three incomplete passes, the Vandals are still sitting at the 20-yard-line, and it’s 4th and 10. They punt.

The Cardinals take the ball at the 45, and now they’re hungry. They’re only two touchdowns away from overtaking the Vandals, and they’ve found Peyton’s weakness. There’s a chance for them now, albeit slim.

Once again, Davis leads the charge downfield, like a bulldozer at 4 times speed. Try as they might, the Vandals just can’t seem to stop him from crossing the first down line. But finally, after a brutal fight in the midfield, the Vandals finally put the Cardinals on 4th and 9 at their 42-yard-line. They won’t be scoring on this drive. The ensuing punt results in a touchback.

The resulting drive goes nowhere, and ends in a punt back to the Cardinals. The game has now entered a defensive stalemate, as neither side can advance far enough to score. Ironically, it is far more entertaining to watch than the absolutely abysmal defense of the previous week, despite the record high scoring nature of that game.

Despite the efforts of Davis and Garcia, the Cardinals’ drive fails to break the stalemate. They line up at the 33-yard-line to attempt a desperation field goal from 50 yards away.

Amazingly, it just barely clears the uprights, bringing the score to 42-33.

The Vandals aren’t about to let their lead slip away. They line up on the field to try another flying drive.

In the span of 1 minute and 34 seconds, the Vandals make 5 plays, complete 5 passes, gain 76 yards, and score 1 touchdown. The extra point is good, and the score jumps up to 49-33.

The wind carries the ensuing kickoff just out of bounds, giving the Cardinals the ball at their own 40. There are 18 seconds left in the third quarter. After a failed rush at the end of the 3rd, the 4th quarter starts with the Cardinals at 2nd and 11. Desperate, they once again attempt their own version of the flying offense. They succeed in moving the ball 35 yards down the field, but the Vandals stop them at the 25-yard-line.

The Cardinals decide to go for it, and succeed on converting on 4th down. With the ball on the 15-yard-line now, the Vandals throw up every roadblock they can. It’s not enough. On 3rd down, Garcia manages to get a quick pass off to Moss, who catches it in the end zone for another touchdown. Playing frantically now, they go for the two point conversion and make it, bringing the score up to 49-41.

There are 13 minutes left in the game.

A lot can happen in 13 minutes. Too much. The Cardinals cannot be allowed to narrow the lead any further.

The kickoff results in a touchback, and the Vandals take the field at the 20. They fly downfield again, picking up 80 yards and a touchdown in 5 plays. The extra point clears, and the score becomes 56-41.

The Cardinals start their next uphill drive from the 20. And it might be their best drive of the game. On the third play from scrimmage, after an incomplete pass and a 14 yard pass to Ben Coates, Garcia manages to shrug off a sack, escape from the collapsing pocket, and nail a 27 yard pass to Cris Carter, putting the Cardinals on the 39-yard-line. Another pass on the next play nets them 16 more yards, and just like that, they’re inside the red zone. But the Vandals turn the pressure up even more, and force the Cardinals onto 4th and 4 at the 17.

Once again, the Cardinals line up to go for it on 4th down, but the Vandals plan to be ready for them this time.

They aren’t. Facing down the oncoming blitz, Garcia manages to snap the ball off to Carter for a touchdown. Again, the Cardinals go for the two point conversion. This time, they fail. The score is 56-47.

The Vandals line up for another flying drive starting from the 21. They quickly move up the field, only to come to a screeching halt near the 50-yard-line. Looking at 4th and 7 on the Cardinals’ 44, the Vandals punt.

The Cardinals have even less success, as the Vandals’ defense succeeds in holding them at the 20-yard-line. Left with little other choice, on 4th and 4 they too punt.

The Vandals get the ball back at the Cardinals’ 49. With 7 and a half minutes left in the game, the Vandals shift tactics to start trying to run out the clock, switching from the pass heavy flying offense to a rushing drive. They fail to move the ball up the field, but they do burn 2 minutes off the block before punting it back into the Cardinals’ backfield.

With 5 and a half minutes left, the Cardinals start another drive from the 18-yard-line.

They creep down the field in short spurts. The Vandals make them fight for every inch of it, knowing that they only have to play for time. It takes six plays and a minute and a half for the Cardinals to get back into field goal range. The Vandals fight even harder, stopping the Cardinals at the 11-yard-line. On 4th and 2, they decide to go for a field goal. It’s good, and the score moves up to 56-50. The time left on the clock is 3:46.

With 3 and a half minutes left in the game after receiving the kickoff, Hugh Mann orders the Vandals to stall for as much time as possible. He tells them to take a safety if they have to, as long as it keeps the clock running.

It won’t be necessary. The Vandals manage to move the ball up for another 1st down, and with 2:40 left, the Cardinals won’t be able to stop them from running out the clock.

The Cardinals start using their timeouts. But the Vandals get another first down, and with 1:53 left on the clock, the Cardinals only have one timeout left.

After a series of short running drives, only 15 seconds remain on the clock. The Vandals lineup one last time, so that Peyton can take a knee.

The game ends, 56-50. The Las Vegas Vandals have won a football game for the very first time.

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