Pigskin Pursuit

An eight year odyssey across the backroads of America during the ultimate College Football roadtrip.

Page 3 of 61

Stanford vs UCLA – Trees trounce timid Bruins…

While in years past, hitting a few games on a weekend meant a quick hop into the Jetta and a few hour jaunt down some winding county roads, this year things are different. While living the expat life in Paris certainly has its advantages, keeping my usual pace on the college football chase is a challenge. As such, any precious time back in the USA during the fall involves meticulous planning in order to maximize my gridiron intake. With a week long trip scheduled for mid October, I had planned to squeeze five games in the course of seven days, beginning with a triple header weekend on the west coast. This opening frenzy would take me to Stanford on a Thursday night, Fresno State on Friday night, and close out at San Jose State on Saturday evening.

Fortunately, my sister had recently moved to Palo Alto, which meant a roof over my head and easy staging for the weekday Stanford contest. While I had already visited Stanford Stadium before, the smashmouth Cardinals of 2015 vintage sported a lofty #15 ranking, and were hosting the #18 UCLA Bruins in what promised to be one of the bigger Pac 12 match ups of the season. Sister reluctantly in tow, we trotted off on foot, making easy work of the short walk to Stanford Stadium located only steps from her front door.

We stop for a quick bite at Kirks Steakburgers, a landmark burger joint that’s been slinging them out to scholars at “The Farm” since 1948. Located in an upscale shopping court across the street from the stadium, the original location is long gone, but the place is still hopping a few hours before kickoff. After a ten minute wait in line, I order one of their signature bacon cheese steakburgers and a pile of steak fries. Cooked over charcoal, the burgers have a hallmark grilled flavor that sets them apart from their fried counterparts and gives Kirk’s its namesake. The burger itself, however, is mediocre on a busy game day. Overcooked and dry, it’s a hockey puck between two buns, further insulted by lifeless and soggy steak fries. After 67 years in business, I’m sure Kirk’s reputation is well deserved, but today wasn’t one of them.

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From there, we amble across the street and into the Stanford Arboretum as tailgaters revel in the last few rays of a pristine afternoon. The arboretum is, quite simply, a breathtaking tailgating venue. Shaded by dozens of massive Eucalyptus trees, some of them over six feet in diameter, the natural beauty of the space is rivaled only by The Grove at Ole Miss. Generously spaced maroon and white tents line the natural promenades formed by the great trees, while the effervescent, minty twinge of eucalyptus fuses with grill smoke into an intoxicating alchemy wafting through the air. It’s a distinctive aroma, tailgating perfume, and completely unique among the college football landscape. Stanford should bottle and brand this scent…

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As dusk settles, I track down a pair of tickets for twenty bucks a pop, the market surprisingly soft even with a marquee Pac 12 opponent in town. Despite a half decade of sustained success extending back to the Jim Harbaugh era, evidently the Cardinal faithful are still getting used to big time football in Palo Alto. Settling into our seats as the final minutes of pre-game warmups are completed, I school my sister on the finer points of the disheveled mob of ragamuffin misfits comprising the Stanford University Marching Band. A motley assortment that remains, unrivaled, as the worst band in all of college football.

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Although billed as a competitive game on paper, once the football is kicked, however, the contest turns ugly in a hurry. The Cardinal decimate the hapless Bruins, stuffing them into a locker like a schoolyard bully with their signature brand of punishing, physical football. Watching the juggernaut Stanford offensive line blast the Bruins five yards into the backfield on every snap is a thing of beauty for purists of the traditional power game.

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The standout for the trees on the day is running back/kickoff returner/athlete extraordinaire Christian McCaffrey, son of Pro-Bowl NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey. The blisteringly quick McCaffrey racks up 243 yards (a Stanford rushing record) against four touchdowns on the ground, while darting for another 122 yards of kickoff returns. Stating a strong case for his Heisman candidacy, McCaffrey was completely unstoppable on this night.

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While McCaffrey stuffs the stats box, its wide receiver Francis Owusu that steals the highlight show. He has only one catch on the night, but it’s a circus grab. At the opening of the third quarter, on a reverse -backtoss gadget play, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan unloads a 41 yard rainbow into the endzone. As the ball spirals down towards Owusu, he leaps into the air with the cornerback blocking him and proceeds to catch the ball with his arms bear hugged around the back of the defender, while still clutching the football to complete the catch as the duo tumbles into the turf. The incredulous grab draws barely an audible cheer from the crowd, as nobody in the stands realized exactly what had happened until they saw it replayed from several angles on the jumbotron. Without a doubt one of the most magnificent grabs I’ll ever witness…

Check out the catch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDzfvVwJ1qI

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In the end, it was an impressive, dominating win for the Stanford squad and further cemented their position as the team to beat in the Pac 12 conference once again this year. Their tough, physical brand of football is truly a delight to watch in the age of ADHD inspired, basketball on grass, spread option offenses. With a looming date on the calendar in late November with Notre Dame, the result of that contest could likely determine one of the final four playoff spots. Let’s hope that McCaffrey sleeps through his alarm on that day….

Special thanks to my sister for hosting me for the weekend, and (reluctantly) agreeing to come along for another year on the PigskinPursuit!

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Charlotte vs Presbyterian – 49ers Show No Love For Dem’ Hose…

Breakfast is served at Zada Jane’s Café in Charlotte, North Carolina. Heavy tattoos creep below his shirt sleeves as the nonchalant waiter plonks my omelet down, trotting off in an identical pair of grey Chuck Taylors that all the servers wear. The eclectic walls are painted bright canary yellow, accented with purple ductwork, and a few shuffleboard courts flank the patio outside. In addition to the usual breakfast favorites, the menu also features an array of vegetarian, free range, hormone free (pick your toxin to avoid) fare. Most of the items sport uber hip names like the “blazing saddles” omelet or the “bunny rancheros” eggs, and a full bar starts serving at 11am. This quirky little diner would be perfectly at home in cities like Austin or Portland, but in a conservative town like Charlotte, it’s a stand out.

While a hipster joint like this might not be my usual artery clogging greasy spoon, the recommendation came highly endorsed by my Irish cohort Ron, who assured me it was one of the best breakfast haunts in town. True enough, the biscuits are fresh baked and fluffy, served warm with an array of local preserves waiting to adorn them. A satisfactory chorizo omelet fills the belly, crowned with a side of locally sourced bacon and a helping of home fried potatoes; I’m topped up for an afternoon of football in the Queen City.

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I’m in town to see the Charlotte 49ers, the newest member of the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision. The game on this Saturday would be their first foray into the torrid world of big time college football, having made the jump up from the FCS ranks at the start of the 2015 season. I’d also be bringing a newcomer with me on the pursuit – Kristina – who, appropriately, would be attending her first ever college football game. A college football newbie and an FBS rookie both making their debut on the same day. These two, mixed together with a swampish September game in the South, promised for an interesting afternoon.

In addition to the jump into the FBS ranks this year, nearly everything else about the ‘Niners program is squeaky new. The school has only fielded a football team at all for two years, kicking off their first season in 2013 after the student body began petitioning for a squad in 2006. Similarly, the mortar is still drying between the bricks of Jerry Richardson stadium, an intimate 15,000 seat venue that first opened its gates in 2013. Fresh concrete sidewalks surround the stadium, flanked by young tree saplings and recent landscaping. Everywhere you look, the facilities are new. Remarkably, for many Charlotte fans, they have dogs older than the football program itself.

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Yet, beautifully, the spirit of college football sprouts proudly in the Charlotte program. Fans line the sidewalks around campus, buzzing on an early Saturday morning. Shaded by green 49ers tents and matching chairs they set their tailgate spreads out in the parking lots, the snap of footballs and squawking kids ringing in the air. A massive alumni tent greets returning visitors, many of whom may be experiencing football on their campus for the first time. There are even a few custom tailgating wagons to be found, ramshackle vehicles that fans outfit in team colors and regalia, driven to each home game for Saturday festivities.

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For their part, the school tries to indoctrinate the students into the spirit of the fledgling program. They provide a sprawling green lawn adjacent to the stadium dedicated solely to student tailgating. The manicured green spills over with a few thousand revelers, beer cases are stacked beneath the tents (kegs are banned), and some pop tunes crackle over the loudspeakers. The bustling village comes complete with University supplied tents and tables, which the student body then claims with various flags or fraternity letters. While there are a few rules against excessive drinking (beer pong is banned), it’s a deft move by the Charlotte administration to foster this kind of student spirit, the lifeblood of any successful football program.

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One of the most magnetic aspects of college football for me, is unearthing all of the pageantry and traditions that make each school so unique. In the case of Charlotte, it’s fascinating to literally watch them nurture and develop those traditions in real time…

We scan the grounds for ticket resellers, but there are none to be found. Evidently the scalpers haven’t found a market in the Charlotte program yet, and I’m forced to ply my trade at the stadium box office. For thirty bucks apiece, I grab a pair of tickets on the fifty yard line, one row in front of the swelling Charlotte student section – all of them decked out in monochromatic green T-shirts. Delightfully sitting in front of the most vociferous mob in Jerry Richardson Stadium, I’ll be able to get a first hand feel for the true energy these college football neophytes can muster. Kristina shifts nervously as the rabble behind us continues to swell…

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Before the final pre-game festivities kick off, the PA announcer requests a moment of silence over the loudspeakers for departed offensive line coach Phil Ratliff. Ratliff, a two time all American on the offensive line at Marshall, died at age 44 of heart complications only three weeks before the start of the 49ers 2015 season. Beloved by his players for the intensity he brought to the program, he also routinely held barbecues at his home in nearby Harrisburg to instill comradery amongst the young squad. His presence clearly left an impact on the early foundations of the Charlotte program.

As the visiting team takes snaps in front of us, I get an up close look at the opponent on the day – the “Blue Hose” from Presbyterian University in Clinton, South Carolina. Sneakily sporting what might be the funniest mascot name in college athletics, the “Blue Hose” moniker was coined by sportswriters in the early 20th century when referring to the blue socks or “hose” that the athletic teams wore. Proud as the Presbyterian program may be, on this day they were scheduled as cannon fodder for the 49ers inaugural FBS contest.

As a shower of green fireworks explodes into an overcast afternoon sky, the Charlotte squad comes streaming out of the tunnel beneath the fresh brick archway of the Judy Rose Football Center, named after the current, and 25 year tenured, Athletic Director that brought the program to UNCC. The Niners’ soon make quick work of the visiting Blue Hose. Decidedly overmatched for their southern foes, the Charlotte squad runs down the field unabated, putting on a show for the 16,631 that showed up at Richardson Stadium (an attendance figure I might question given the blocks of empty seats). Meanwhile, lackadaisical freshman still amble into the stands throughout the first quarter. Something they’ll have to remedy when a bigger opponent marches into town.

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In the end, the 49ers have their way with the hapless Blue Hose. Junior wide receiver Austin Duke is the standout on the day for Charlotte, amassing 166 yards and a touchdown catch on the afternoon. With a comfortable 34-0 lead after three quarters, head coach Brad Lambert takes his foot off the gas, and the Niners’ skate away with a comfortable 34-10 victory that was never in question. But as they enter the teeth of their Conference USA schedule in the coming weeks, things are going to get decidedly more challenging for the young squad. Welcome to the FBS Charlotte…

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After the game we pull into the South 21 Drive-In for a throwback slice of Americana. The classic car hop is a time warp back to the 1950’s, and remains nearly unchanged since they first opened their doors in

1955. An original red neon sign out front touts their “curb service”, a perfectly preserved homage to the golden age of 1950’s roadside decor. More neon accents the bright red and white color scheme that lines the flat roofed car ports spreading out from the tiny brick cook shack in the middle. A few patrons precariously squeeze their lumbering SUV’s into tight parking spaces between the white painted columns of the structure. With parking dimensions originally designed to comfortably house the smaller family cars of the 1950’s; the South 21 Drive-In is ill equipped to deal with today’s soccer mom and her hulking suburban school bus.

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I order their signature “Super Boy” burger, shouting my order into the galvanized metal speaker box that swivels out from the menu board. Paired with a chocolate shake and a portion of crisp golden onion rings, the entire feast costs about ten bucks. While roller skates would be more appropriate, the waiter hustles the order out to my car window on foot a few minutes later, setting it down on the rotating stainless steel tray while we square up the bill.

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The Super Boy is a simple, no frills burger – two thin patties, fully dressed with all the condiments, sandwiched between a soft, white sesame seed bun. It’s a delightful throwback to the times when just a modest, fire grilled, 100% American beef burger was enough for a man. Before the days of elaborate chipotle turkey burgers garnished with exotic cheeses, slathered in frilly aioli’s or foie gras, and capped with all other manner of hipster adornment. Simple food that never falls out of fashion.

Your grandfather ate this burger. And he probably washed it down with a quart of Old Crow whiskey before driving his entire family home without seatbelts. You should too.

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And that’s representative of exactly what a football weekend in Charlotte is all about. The old, and the new. The delicate balance of honoring the old world of pageantry and tradition that underpins the fabric of the game, yet intelligently blending it with the new world, as a fledgling program rises to carve out its own niche and create tradition within the modern landscape of the sport.

Special thanks to Kristina for a positive attitude and vociferous cheering during her first college football experience!

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Notre Dame vs Texas – Irish thrash the Longhorns…

I generally don’t write much about Notre Dame at this point, because I’ve spent so many weekends there that I don’t have much to add to the site.  This trip was a fortuitous one, to witness the Irish host the Longhorns in a rare matchup between two of the most historic programs in the sport.  Despite the heavy billing of the contest, the Longhorns are in the midst down cycle in their program, and didn’t put up much of fight on this day.  The Irish easily handled the sputtering Longhorn squad on this day, running away with a lopsided 38-3 blowout.  I earnestly hope the Texas program bounce back to it’s historical dominance, and the game next year in Austin can live up to the hype of these two legendary programs.

Nevertheless, it’s always a treat to be back in South Bend for the weekend, touring the magnificent campus, and downing a few meatball subs from Polito’s.  With a few marquee names coming to South Bend in the future like Georgia and Ohio State, I look forward to more of these powerhouse games in the House that Rock Built.

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Special thanks to my friends Bryce and Geoff for meeting up, providing lodging, and an overall excellent weekend.  Look forward to seeing you at the next big Irish game!

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Western Michigan vs Michigan State – Broncos broken by the invading Spartans…

As the 2015 college football season kicks off, big changes have been underfoot during the off season here on the Pigskin Pursuit. While my seventh season of intensive travel was intended to be the biggest ever, delving even further into the most remote corners of the sport, a new career opportunity thwarted all of those plans. In May, I accepted an expat assignment with my company to go live and work in Paris (the French one) for the next few years, so I packed up the schooners and relocated to the City of Light.

For an intrepid traveler and bon vivant, this was both a personal and professional dream that was simply too enticing to pass up. So while the unbridled gluttony portion of the “Pursuit” will still operate at peak capacity, evidenced by my initial cheese intake here in France, the “Pigskin” aspect of it (at least the American football aspect) will be slightly more subdued for the next year or two. Undaunted, I still have a few tricks up my sleeve for this fall, and I’ll be traversing the Atlantic to take in a handful of games.

While originally I hadn’t intended to return to the USA until October, a fortuitous early September work trip would bring me back to the friendly shores of lady liberty just as the 2015 college football season was kicking off. With a flight locked into Chicago, I’d be in town early enough to kick the season off with an exciting doubleheader: 1. a Friday night kickoff in Kalamazoo, Michigan to see the Western Michigan Broncos host formidable Michigan State and 2. Shoot down to South Bend, Indiana the next day for the historic Notre Dame vs. Texas season opener under the Saturday lights. Not a bad little doubleheader to kick off the season.

After the wheels of a nine hour transatlantic flight hit the tarmac, it’s a three hour drive to Kalamazoo from O’Hare airport. Equipped with a comically underpowered Toyota Corolla, I set off along the agonizing, painful stretch of Interstate 80/90 that skirts the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Eighteen wheelers clog the narrow lanes, Illinois State Troopers proliferate the medians, and frequent tollbooths sporting the latest in 1970’s technology, all grind traffic to a sluggish crawl.

The unmistakable waft of sulfur hovers thick in the humid summer air like a mist over the withered manufacturing bones of Gary (Indiana). In the distance, the hulking, industrial silhouette of Gary Works – U.S. Steel’s largest manufacturing plant in the country – puffs white plumes from their towering blast furnaces into the clear blue sky. It’s my first time behind the wheel of a car in three months, and instead of a leisurely cruise down a winding county road, I’m grinding my teeth and limping along one of the most nightmarish, dystopian stretches of road in America. A stroke would be a welcome respite right now.

Although Michigan isn’t exactly a state synonymous with great BBQ, after a few months of living abroad, any place with pork ribs looks like Pecan Lodge and I’d happily scrape the brisket trimmings off a Dickey’s carving block right now. So I pull into the first BBQ joint I can find in Kalamazoo – Hogzilla BBQ – which is little more than a takeout stand in a seedier part of town. Someone should take my car keys, because clearly, in my state, judgement is significantly impaired.

Hogzilla proves a thoroughly craptastic affair. The ribs are undercooked and chewy – and by chewy, I mean I’m literally attempting to tear them away from the bone like a jackal yanks at a water buffalo carcass. Brisket doesn’t fare any better. The grey lifeless protein lies somewhere between roast beef and sawdust, and I deign to the ultimate insult of dunking it in sauce to choke it down. Appallingly, for nearly twenty bucks, my meal doesn’t include any sides and there are no bathrooms available to patrons – even ones that have just driven three hours from Chicago. The fact that Hogzilla has foisted not one but two of these abominations on the Michigan dining public is both a sham and an affront to common decency. The good people of the Mitten State deserve better.

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Fortunately, my spirits lift a few minutes later when I pull into the Western Michigan campus. The sun is out, sidewalks are lined with fans clutching cases of beer, the aroma of burning charcoal wafts through the air like an autumn perfume and tents line the grassy medians, neatly arranged into tiny villages. The spirt of college football blooms for a new season in Kalamazoo.

After easing the little rental Corolla into some free street parking on Forest Street, I wade through the rabble assembled in the shadows of Waldo Stadium and press further into the main campus for a quick tour. The Western Michigan grounds are neither offensive nor noteworthy. It houses the usual assemblage of unremarkable higher education architecture, many of which seem to resemble hospitals or corporate office parks. Judging by the amount of newer buildings, the campus appears to have grown considerably in the past decade or two.

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From there, I work my way back towards Waldo Stadium. Carved into the side of a wooded hill, the stadium occupies a massive sports complex that also houses the baseball, softball and track facilities for the Broncos. The sidewalks are lined thick with game day fans pouring out of remote parking shuttle busses, all shuffling towards the stadium as kickoff nears. Half of the fans wear black Bronco t-shirts accented with the 2015 team slogan “row the boat”, a phrase coined by new head coach P.J. Fleck meant to bring solidarity and spirit to the football program. The other half of the mob wears green and white, as many of the Michigan State contingent braved the 1.5 hour ride down from East Lansing to witness the season opener for their promising 2015 Spartan squad.

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Unfortunately, the influx of in-state fans has driven ticket prices to absurd levels for a Mid American Conference game. Previously, I’ve been able to score the majority of my MAC tickets for free. The scalpers tonight, however, are having a field day ripping off unsuspecting fans. They’re demanding prices upwards of $150 a pop – over double face value of $68, for a Western Michigan game. Comical. For perspective, I paid $200 for my Alabama vs LSU ticket when the teams were #1 and #2 in the country – easily the biggest regular season game of the past decade.

Frustrated when the scalpers obstinately refuse to budge, I opt to canvas the parking lots instead, trotting up and down the rows with a single finger raised in the air. After an hour of searching, I finally haggle a fan in one of the parking lots down to $70 for a choice 40 yard line seat, grumbling as I fork over face value for the privilege. Western Michigan tickets are a hot commodity on a Friday night…

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As the Michigan State band begins its march into Waldo stadium, fervently pumping out brassy regalia, it signals the start of my 2015 season and I file in shortly behind them. As anticipation builds towards kickoff, the Western Michigan squad assembles in the Northwest tunnel while the packed house of 30,885 rises to their feet. A few seconds later, Triumph, a white spotted American Paint horse mounted by a member of the WMU Equestrian team bursts out of the tunnel. The horse dashes across the field at full gallop, while the Broncos players sprint behind, leaping and bounding with the vigor of a fresh season coursing through them. After a quick coin flip, the Spartans line into a neat row on the 35 yard and await their kicker to drop his arm.

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The game kicks off with a bang. Broncos return man Darius Phillips sprints 70 yards through the Spartan coverage team before being tripped up on a shoestring tackle at the MSU 30 yard line. The Bronco crowd explodes with the initial surge, but their hopes are short lived when the offense stalls and a field goal attempt is botched four plays later. After a Michigan State touchdown, the speedy Phillips strikes again, however, this time streaking a full 100 yards unabated for an exclamatory Western Michigan touchdown. Clearly, the plucky Broncos don’t intend to roll over for their bigger in state brethren.

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After the initial onslaught, however, the Spartans assume more control. They settle into a grinding offensive pace and tighten the grip on defense, shoring up the special teams mishaps that opened the game. To their credit, the Western Michigan crowd is a vociferous bunch, amped up for the season opener; they rise to their feet on every third down wailing away at MSU quarterback Connor Cook.

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As the half draws to an end Michigan State leads 27-10, but with the fight in the Broncos squad, it’s hardly a comfortable margin. After the usual band marches at halftime, Waldo Stadium explodes in a shower of fireworks. Bursting high above the south scoreboard, the night sky is ablaze with streaks of green, red and orange, the crowd cheering with each successive report. A grizzled old Broncos fan next to me remarks “they must have wanted to light em’ off at halftime, because it would look strange to light off fireworks after a loss…”

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The second half kicks off under a thick cloud of pyrotechnic smoke, still hanging heavy in the humid night air as the acrid smell of sulfur wafts over the stands. The Broncos mount a determined charge in the second half. Quarterback Zach Terrell zips a pair of touchdowns, drawing the Broncs to within 10 midway through the fourth quarter, and the crowd swells with anticipation of a miracle. But with 1:41 remaining, Terrell makes his second mishap of the day, floating a soft pass into the corner of the endzone for an easy interception by Spartan defender Vayante Copeland – sealing the fate of the Bronco faithful. A few victory formations later, Sparty escapes Kalamzoo with an uneasy 37-24 win, and a few hard lessons for their upcoming battle with the Oregon Ducks. To their credit, the Broncos players and fans never fold in this one, and they “row the boat” until the final whistle…

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It’s a rare treat for a MAC program like Western Michigan to host a traditional power like Michigan State, and with an electric crowd for a season opener, it was a fantastic start to the Pigskin Pursuit in 2015. With a few winks of sleep I’ll skip down to Notre Dame in the morning, the Irish are kicking off their season against Texas – a historic matchup involving two of the most storied programs in the sport, and that’s exactly where I intend to be….

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