Updated at 10:17 a.m. Dec. 19
The first iteration of the Wasabi Fenway Bowl was supposed to happen two years ago. But that December 2020 game was canceled. Then the 2021 game was scrapped because of a COVID-19 outbreak among one of the teams scheduled to play.
“Look, we’ve been planning for this game for the better part of three years,” Brett Miller, executive director of the Fenway Bowl, said earlier this week. “I think to finally get this thing launched is going to be an exciting time for myself, everybody on our team that’s been working so hard on this, and really Fenway and Boston overall.”
The third time was the charm. On Saturday, the Louisville Cardinals took down the Cincinnati Bearcats 24 to 7 in an event that organizers hope becomes a tradition of Boston sports.
For Miller and Fenway Sports Management, part of the attraction of hosting a bowl game at Fenway Park was having a consistent winter event to play in the ballpark when the Red Sox aren't drawing in crowds, and getting in on the unique tradition that is bowl season. (It helps that the Yankees’ Pinstripe Bowl, which Miller credits as a model, has been going strong for over 10 years.)
But another important aspect was creating a bowl game for a region that typically has not had easy access to one, because the vast majority of bowl games are played in warm weather locations or indoor stadiums far from the bite of a Northeast winter.
Miller said people who would not have driven or flown to see one of those other bowl games will now have post-season college football entertainment right here in "New England's heart."
Along with the unique college football flavor, the first edition of the Fenway Bowl brought some extra coaching spice to Boston: About two weeks before Louisville and Cincinnati were set to play, Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield announced that he was leaving the Cardinals to coach the Bearcats. (Satterfield didn’t coach in Saturday’s game. Instead, the Bearcats were helmed by interim coach Kerry Coombs.)
It could have all made for one big awkward silence if the Louisville coaching void wasn’t filled by former Patriot Deion Branch, who was thrilled to get a chance to coach in his old neck of the woods.
“This is amazing not only for the team, but also for myself,” Branch, who played college ball at Louisville, said at Friday’s pre-game press conference.
Saturday’s weather was mostly windy, wet and dreary for the approximately 15,000 in attendance — a reminder as to why most bowl games are hosted in warmer locales. But Louisville didn’t look out of sorts offensively, finishing with 419 yards, 287 of which came on the ground, all of which came despite four turnovers. On defense, the Cardinals held the Bearcats to just 138 total yards.
After the game, both coaches raved about getting to play in Fenway.
“For me, that’s a neat place to be and to have a football game,” Coombs said. "The whole experience ... it was a great, great experience for us."
For Branch, who helped bring back the Keg of Nails, a rivalry trophy between the Bearcats and Cardinals that hasn’t been awarded since 2013, to his alma mater, it was a special moment.
“Coming back to Boston, man, it was great,” he said. “I think everything aligned exactly how it was supposed to.”
Correction: This story was updated to correct a quote from Deion Branch.