Three days ago, I drove to the McDonald's at the Toltec exit off Interstate 10, hoping a hunch would pay off.
Sure enough, Sparky Sun Devil and Wilbur Wildcat were sitting in their usual corner booth, picking at their food.
But there wasn't a Happy Meal anywhere around.
"One minute we're going toe-to-toe with LSU and USC, the next we're trying to avoid a losing season," I heard Sparky moan while sliding into an adjoining booth. "How did this happen? Even if we beat you guys, a 20-minute bus ride to the Insight Bowl isn't exactly what we had in mind."
"At least you've still got bowl hopes," Wilbur said, sliding a pickle around in his leftover ketchup. “I can't remember the last time the ASU game wasn't our bowl game. I seriously thought of hopping a plane to Maui to catch some hoops and forgetting all about this one.”
"I hear ya," Sparky said. "But you still have basketball to look forward to. This was the show for us. Rob's got some young kids that try hard, but we're going to have to be content with Charlie's Angels again when it comes to any March Madness. Pretty depressing."
I couldn't hold my tongue any longer. "Come on, you guys, it's rivalry week. Let's get a little life into the conversation. Let's work up a lather. It's the Devils and the Wildcats, the Territorial Cup, the Big Game!"
Sparky and Wilbur looked at each other and snickered. "Right, the Big Game,'' they monotoned in unison.
"Come on guys," I said. "Wilbur, if Arizona wins, you finish the season with three wins in the last four games and a good head start on next year with a budding star at quarterback."
"Yeah, I guess that's true."
"And Sparky, if ASU wins, you'll finish 3-1 with a chance to make it 4-1 against . . . well, OK, so it might be Rutgers. But you'll get all that extra practice time, and a little of the heat off Dirk Koetter.”
"Well, that would be nice."
"So let's make the best of it guys. Let's tee it up, knock some heads and play some football."
Both mascots nodded in agreement.
"It would be nice if this meant more," Wilbur said. “It would be nice if the stadium was full. Heck, it would be nice if one of us had a chance to be ranked when it's all over."
"But it's still ASU-UA," Sparky said. "And it still matters."
"That's more like it, guys," I said, getting up to leave. "That's the spirit."
As I headed for the the door, Sparky tugged the sleeve of my jacket. "Hey, where's the guy who usually comes down to eavesdrop on us? It's been awhile since we've seen him. We miss having him around."
"I know, Sparky. He's still under the weather. But you know there is nowhere he'd rather be today than at Sun Devil Stadium, walking the field before kickoff, taking the pulse of the rivalry."
"Tell him," Wilbur said, "that we all wish he was going to be there, and we're thinking about him. Especially this week."
"You got it, fellas."