It was hard to pinpoint the most disappointing no-show Wednesday afternoon: the Washington State Cougars or the fans.
Large segments of both were noticeably missing in action, contributing to the sinking feeling that the Rose Bowl is turning into just another game.
Now that the Pacific 10 and Big Ten champions aren't locked in, the Rose Bowl is nothing more than an afterthought in the years it doesn't play host to the BCS "national championship" game. Before, even if it was irrelevant in the national championship picture, it was still unique. Without its tradition it is diminished.
If the Rose Bowl wants its stature back, it might as well join the campaign to dump the BCS and utilize the major bowls as playoff game sites.
Otherwise they'd better get used to scenes such as Wednesday's. Instead of the usual backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains, the telltale image on this perfect New Year's Day was the empty rows of seats in sections 27 and 28 behind the southern end zone before the game. Ushers invited fans to come down from the upper seats of the stadium during the first quarter so those barren bleachers wouldn't be beamed across the TV airwaves.
The final score of the game was Oklahoma 34, Washington State 14. The final tally from the turnstiles was 86,848 -- the worst Rose Bowl attendance since 1944.
"It's not something we're happy about," Rose Bowl Chief Executive Officer Mitch Dorger said.
It's clear he also wasn't happy about Washington State's performance -- before the game when it came to selling tickets. Many of the empty seats had the damning evidence of glittery Washington State pompoms.
"I don't want to get into that," Dorger said. "You'd have to check with Washington State and how they marketed it, what went right and what went wrong.
"Oklahoma sold their quota [27,500 tickets] and 7,500 more than their quota. We basically sold all of those that are assigned here locally as well. So I don't think it's a local issue.
"I wish I could give you more, I just wasn't involved with [Washington State's] sales effort."
Well, how are you supposed to promote a team whose head coach is on the way out the door? And why would any other fans spend their money on a game when its own organizers felt it wasn't the most desirable matchup?
The Rose Bowl executives didn't do a good job of disguising their anger when the Orange Bowl snatched Big Ten co-champion Iowa away, leaving the Tournament of Roses with Big 12 champion Oklahoma. They tried to spin it and say how pleased they were, but everyone knew the truth. This matchup had no juice outside of the Palouse and the prairie. The only reason some national college football writers dropped by was because they were in the neighborhood for Friday's Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
I feel sorry for Oklahoma, because they were stuck with the blame. Don't be mad at the Sooners.
First of all, who could pass on an invitation to California? Once they got here, they did everything they could to honor the game and its tradition.
Their fans filled more than half of the stadium with their crimson shade of red.
The players enjoyed stopping by a few Hollywood night spots and avoided trouble.
"I'm glad to be here," cornerback Derrick Strait said a couple of days before the game. "A Big 12 team in the Rose Bowl? It never would have happened a few years ago.
"I'm glad they're giving us the opportunity. Just because we're in the Big 12 doesn't mean we don't want to experience the Rose Bowl and things like this. I'm just glad they're giving us a chance."
The Sooners took it as a cultural experience. One Oklahoma fan had the finer points of a churro explained to him by a Rose Bowl vendor before deciding to try one.
It was odd to see Oklahoma, the school that brought you Barry Switzer and Brian Bosworth, occupying the sideline that usually belongs to Michigan or Ohio State or Wisconsin. But by the end of the night, the Sooners fit right in.
Quarterback Nate Hybl even stuck a rose between his teeth.
"Isn't that what the Pac-10 guys do?" he said.
If the Sooners did anything wrong, it was playing so well that this game wasn't a contest. They're about defense, and when they're on they can shut down any party. Send them to Mardi Gras and they'd swipe all the beads.
Washington State, with its lame-duck coach and gimpy quarterback, was no match. The Cougars crossed into Oklahoma territory exactly once in the game's first 25 minutes -- and then Jason Gesser threw an interception on the next play.
Oklahoma didn't have much going offensively, but a 51-yard punt return by Antonio Perkins gave the Sooners a 17-0 lead at halftime and got them on the right track.
Then the defense was able to really go after Gesser, who was sacked six times.
The Sooners enjoyed themselves so much, they took their time leaving the field, reluctant to let the whole Rose Bowl experience go.
"It was awesome," defensive lineman Dusty Dvoracek said. "I've never been to L.A. before. I'm from Dallas. Awesome atmosphere, everything's great about it.
"Playing in this stadium, the best stadium in the country, biggest bowl game there is. It's the granddaddy of them all, isn't it? It's the biggest one."
At least, it used to be.
J.A. Adande can be reached at: email@example.com