Pigskin Pursuit

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

Tag: 2012 (page 1 of 3)

USC vs Notre Dame – Comin’ straight outta Compton…

I’ve been waiting for this game for a decade.

As a lifelong Notre Dame fan, the annual rivalry contest against Southern Cal is easily the biggest date on the calendar.  A historic series dating back to 1926 when the teams used to take week long train journeys to face each other, the Irish enjoy a 44-35 W/L record all time against their most heated adversary.  For over a decade, however, the rivalry has been a lopsided one with the Trojans dominating the series 9-1.  While Notre Dame has shown brief flashes of competitiveness against USC in 2005 and 2010, any Irish fan would be quick to tell you that it’s been a long, painful decade in this storied war.

Despite its status as one of the preeminent destinations in the college game, I’d been avoiding a trip to USC for good reason.  I’ve never wanted to fly across the country to watch the Irish get shellacked in front of 95,000 hostile fans.  At long last, 2012 has been a different story.  Entering the contest at an unblemished 11-0, the Irish were finally fielding a competitive football team again, and, perhaps, one that could finally compete in South Central Los Angeles. This final, giant hurdle stood between the Irish and a date with infamy in Miami for the BCS National Championship.   Sporting a lofty #1 ranking and BCS Title shot on the line, this trip to USC was arguably the most significant game for Notre Dame since Florida State in 1993.   What more appropriate backdrop for my inaugural trip to the Coliseum.

I touch down in LAX airport the Friday after Thanksgiving and the airport is a ghost town.  I make quick work at the rental car counter, and speed a silver Kia rental to our hotel in downtown Los Angeles.   My cohort in this adventure – Dylan, the ever urbanite Manhattan resident, had curiously picked a hotel in downtown Los Angeles despite scores of beachfront options overlooking the postcard sunsets of the Pacific Coast.  Evidently his pasty, Northeast skin had revolted at the thought of staying near sun and sand. Fresh of a week long vacation stint in El Salvador, I’m sporting a glorious tan, but the beaches of Santa Monica would have to make due without my bronze magnificence.  To his credit, however, Dylan has a knack for showing up for the big games.  He was with me for the epic #1 LSU vs #2 Alabama game last year and now found himself along for the ride at the biggest Irish game in a quarter century.

Saturday morning wakes to a typical Southern California morning, sunny and clear with a brilliant blue sky overhead, a welcome respite from the Midwest gloom of late November.  Donning shorts and flip flops after thanksgiving, one could get used to this climate.  We lope the Kia onto Interstate 710 South, skirting the serpentine concrete confines of what little remains of the LA River – a meager brown trickle down the center of a grey, lifeless expanse.  Bored after a season of highway driving, visions of the opening chase scene from Terminator 2 flash through my mind.  I imagine careening the silver rocket off the nearest bridge into the concrete chute below, swerving and splashing through the spray at 100mph, firing shotgun blasts out the sunroof at evil cyborg pursuers.

But we’re headed to Compton, and that’s a gun toting adventure of its own.  We cruise past exits for Rosecrans and Compton Blvd, passing by handfuls of churches and barred window liquor stores on the way to Long Beach Blvd. With the top down and a few hydraulic switches, we’d be in an Ice Cube rap video.  Thus far, I’d even have to say, today was a good day.  Unlike the esteemed rapper, however, I fully intend to eat hog – mountains of BBQ in fact.

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Without incident, we arrive at our stop: Bludso’s BBQ.  Started by transplanted Texan, Kevin Bludso, the non descript Compton fixture is rumored to have some of the best cue’ in Southern California.  After surveying the puffing black iron pit in the parking lot, the enticing waft smells promising, and we huddle into the tiny storefront to place our order.  A few minutes later, they push our tray through the sliding glass service windows, and we retreat to a picnic table in the alley for a carnivorous breakfast.  Unwrapping the foil feast, our picnic table is heaped with slabs of pork ribs, beef ribs, fiery red sausages and smoky beef brisket.  While it’s not up to Central Texas standards, it still has the hallmarks of proper BBQ, and we devour the smoky protein before hustling north towards the USC Campus.    

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With the BBQ situation worked out, we jump into the Kia and chirp out.  Streaking onto the highway like a silver comet, our progress is quickly halted by a five mile stretch of infamous LA traffic.  After an exhausting thirty minutes of choking down smog, we limp off the 110 highway and slip into the Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot on Hope Street, an insider tip from my friend Larry.  A haggard looking vagrant taps on the drivers window and informs me it’s $40 to park here.  Wearing no orange vest, uniform, or identification of any kind, I’m confident it’s a complete scam.   But this is South Central Los Angeles after all, and I quickly realize I’m not paying for a parking space.  I’m paying for the privilege of not having my windows smashed.  Ever the negotiator, I offer him twenty dollars for the parking spot, making my donation to his general alcohol fund in exchange for an extorted modicum of security

We walk across the street to the half full parking lot of Mercado La Paloma.  The hot asphalt is shaded with a handful of cardinal and gold tents, and I struggle to fight back my gag reflex.  We’re greeted by my friends Larry and Katie. Both grad school chum from Notre Dame, we’d shared more than a couple of beers together at some rowdy tailgates I’d hosted from the back of my Dodge Ram pickup during our two year stint in South Bend.  With a new baby at home in San Diego, Larry and Katie had made the short drive up the coast for the afternoon to take in the epic Irish contest.

They welcome us to a USC friends’ tailgate, and wearing a bright green shamrock t-shirt, I’m nervous about how these sinister Trojans might respond to an infiltrator recklessly quaffing their beer and grabbing fistfuls of any snacks I can get my hands on.  Despite my preconceived notions of uppity Southern California tailgate spreads consisting of a cornucopia of lettuce wraps, wheatgrass smoothies and hummus – they actually have real food here and, delightfully, fizzy yellow light beer.  What’s more, everyone is actually nice – welcoming in fact.  They must be plotting something.  I survey the parking lot for makeshift weapons should the need arise.  A tent leg, if broken off properly, could make a nice spear.  Dylan will have to fend for himself once they jump us…

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On top of being confoundingly nice, this USC crowd is knowledgeable to boot, which is completely ruining it for me.  I’d always envisioned SC fans as the front running bandwagon types. With the Trojans already sporting a few losses, I’m surprised these guys even bothered to show up.  These USC loyalists are confusing me. Wires are short circuiting in my brain with this sudden influx of new information, politeness and actual fandom.  Or perhaps it’s the 12 pack of Busch light I’ve downed.  Either way.  These vile, gutter trash fans are supposed to represent the axis of evil in my mind, yet here they are shotgunning beers with me.  I still won, of course, but the point is that they’re making it impossible for me to hate them.  Perhaps I should hate them for that instead…

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After a few hours soaking in the parking lot atmosphere, we make our way towards the stadium.  I make one final assault on the cooler before leaving, stuffing my pockets with a few cold ones for the inevitable agonizing walk to the stadium.  The sidewalks are flooded with hordes of slow walkers, all lethargically crawling towards the campus at a break neck, open mouthed, Wal-Mart shopper pace.  But the scene on the Exposition Park lawn outside the stadium is impressive.  The grounds are suffocated with tents and revelers, concession stands, and the usual serpentine port o potty lines of heavy consumption.  From the looks of the ample green shirts and pasty complexions, the Notre Dame fan contingent is well represented here too.  With the Irish in the hunt for a BCS National Title berth, clearly a few old ND hats were dusted off to show up for the historic contest.

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Finding our seats in the cavernous LA Coliseum, the space immediately impresses.  It is an absolutely massive facility; our flimsy plastic chairs in the 50th row are barely halfway up the towering rows of the concrete bowl.  I’ve been to the “Big House” before, and the Coliseum feels even larger than that.  If they were to fill the South end of the stadium with seats, the place could probably hold 120,000 fans.  As it stands the 93,607 fans on this night made it the largest venue on my schedule this season.   While arguably the second most renowned stadium in the LA Metro area, behind the Rose Bowl perhaps, the Coliseum is not without a history of its own.  Featured in countless movies and host to all manner of huge sporting events through the years, it remains the only stadium in the world to host two separate Olympic games, in 1932 and 1984.  In fact, the Olympic Cauldron perched atop the East façade still burns during the fourth quarter of each Trojan home game.

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As we settle into our seats, “Tommy Trojan” – the Roman Centurion garbed USC mascot – prances out onto the field mounted on “Traveler” a pure white Andalusian horse as part of Southern Cal’s ceremonial entrance.  Shortly after, a slick pregame video featuring USC football players posing for the camera flashes across the jumbotron.  The blustering crowd, perhaps up to 20% Irish given the high stakes contest, takes its feet as the football team streaks out of the tunnel.  Players run drills, hooting and hollering at one another across the green fold.  The song girls prance away on the sidelines listlessly in their pleated skirts and classic varsity sweaters, easily most talented group of cheerleaders in College Football.   The Coliseum turns electric in the dry SoCal night.

As the game kicks off, the Irish immediately take charge.  Asserting themselves on the ground, running back Theo Riddick carves up the Trojan defense.  He rushes for the sole Irish touchdown in the first quarter, tallying 146 yards of rushing on the day.  Irish Freshman quarterback Everett Golson plays efficiently, tossing safe sideline routes and converting a few key third down completions.   But the Irish offense is hamstrung in the red zone, routinely stalling inside the 20 yard line and settling for field goals.

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The culprit is a baffling empty backfield offense the Irish employ inside the 20 yard lines, removing the threat of their two talented running backs (Theo Riddick & Cierre Wood).  I scream across the cavernous Coliseum at head coach Brian Kelly in frustration, drawing glares from the detached USC faithful around me.  But the Trojan team is a nefarious bunch, and only touchdowns can satisfy 10 years of pent up frustration and heartache.  I don’t want to merely win, I want their throat.  My cries go unnoticed by the Irish coaching staff, and place kicker Kyle Brindza gets a leg workout as a result, booting five field goals on the night against six attempts. 

My fears come to bear late in the fourth quarter.  Despite handily beating the Trojans on both sides of the ball, the Irish cling to a paltry 9 point lead with six minutes left on the clock.  The game – still nervously in question.  Visions of 2005, Notre Dame’s soul crushing last second defeat to USC, flash through my mind.  The last decade of mediocrity brings out the cynic in me.  With a BCS National Championship berth on the line, visions of an epic meltdown race through my mind.

After a blistering kick return that quite nearly broke for a touchdown, USC starts with the ball near the 40 yard line.  Assuming their offensive set, the Trojans immediately streak another 53 yards down the field on a crisp throw to standout receiver Marquise Lee.  The aloof Southern Cal faithful jolt to their feet in excitement, haughty swagger renewed.  A lump forms in my throat as the rest of the Irish crowd is hushed.  They’ve nearly gone the length of the field in two plays.  After a few penalties and some shuffling, it’s 1st and goal on the Notre Dame one foot line.  The Trojans hav

4 plays to punch in the easy score.

But then it happens.

Boasting the stoutest scoring defense in the country, this is no ordinary Irish squad. This is a band of warriors. Battle hardened, they’d already proven their mettle in a heroic overtime goal line stand against Stanford.  As the home crowd hushes for their team, we scream ourselves hoarse towards the Irish defense stretched across the goal line directly below.  For three straight plays the Trojans run headlong into the teeth of the imposing Notre Dame front seven.  For three straight plays they are rebuffed.  The Irish refuse an inch.  Finally, on fourth down, with the game on the line, the Trojans take to the air.  USC freshman quarterback Max Wittek scrambles, then fires a pass into the endzone that is bobbled for a moment, then dropped by tight end Soma Vainuku into the red turf below.  In a historic goal line stand, the Notre Dame defense holds.  The warriors have become legends.

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The Irish are going to the National Championship.

And with my flights and hotel room already booked nervously before the game, I’ll be joining them…

See you in Miami.

Thanks to my friends Larry & Katie – always great to catch up with you guys, and great to finally see you on the West Coast!

Thanks as always to my friend Dylan for showing up for the big ones.  Let’s see what 2013 has in store for us…

Special thanks to my friend Tyler for helping us out with some tickets to the game – hopefully next time you can get some tailgating in!

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West Virginia vs. Oklahoma: Coonskins and Conestoga’s…

The beauty of College Football lies far beyond the game itself.  It’s a chance to travel and explore, uncover unique traditions, cultural nuances, and be immersed into the energy and atmosphere of a raucous crowd.  Most importantly, it’s about people.  Each year offers a chance to gather once again with friends, enjoying the shared bliss of a crisp fall Saturday afternoon.  On special occasions, however, it can even be a conduit to reconnecting with old friends. Friends with whom the pressures of time, careers, geography and family can make it increasingly difficult to stay connected with.  On this weekend, that friend was Tyler.

Though we initially yearned for an SEC matchup, planning this for this debacle took place with the season already a few weeks underway, and the only date that matched up on our calendars was November 17th.  With the juggernauts of the SEC all hosting barnburners against cupcakes like Western Carolina, Jacksonville State and Georgia Southern, we set our sights on the most bonkers place we could think of: West Virginia.  Nobody goes to West Virginia right?  I mean those people are crazy, insane even.  You’d have to be nuts to go to a place like that.

But in mid September the Mountaineers were undefeated and averaging 65 points per game with an offense that resembled an ADHD 13 year old playing Madden.  No team had yet cracked the code on how to slow them down, much less stop them, and a late season matchup against perennial Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma was sure to be prime.  Morgantown – nothing short of a couch burning riot.

Perfect.

Best friends since childhood, this was the first season that Tyler was able to join me since the official four year Pigskin Pursuit began. Reflecting back on it, however, Tyler may be partially responsible for setting this entire odyssey into motion in the first place, many years ago when we were just kids.  Raised a staunch Irish Catholic, Saturday afternoons at Tyler’s house meant one thing; Notre Dame Football.  It was likely there, scrambling around the carpet in his parents living room where my initial baptism into Irish fandom was bestowed.  From the ages of eight to eighteen when we weren’t out in the yard chasing footballs like a pair of Labrador Retrievers, we were glued to Irish TV broadcasts, flipping through thick Saturday newspapers for player names and numbers.

A few years later, it was Tyler crammed into the backseat of a friend’s Volkswagen Golf with me for a 12 hour overnight drive to South Bend, Indiana – my first ever College Football game in 2001.  He had even selected the opponent for our trip; USC, a game which, incidentally, was the last time Notre Dame defeated the Trojans in Notre Dame Stadium, dating back to the tenure of former head coach Bob Davie.  After sneaking into the raucous Notre Dame student section on a majestic mid October afternoon, it was there, that day in 2001 – surrounded by 80,000 other boisterous fans – where something inside of me tripped.  Mesmerized by the power and energy of it all, I was immediately captivated.  Owned by the moment. Like a heroin addict, I’ve been chasing this dragon ever since.  Tyler was there at zero hour, easing the needle into my arm.

This season the impetus for our journey was certainly less dramatic, but a perfect opportunity to reconnect.  It was his wife Kristi’s idea actually, probably desperate for a weekend of peace and quiet with their newborn daughter.  As the manager of the household calendar, she even helped coordinate a few details.  She then sternly instructed me to take good care of her husband – lest she regret this decision.

Like any good friend, I lied and told her I would.

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Tyler greets me at the Pittsburgh airport on a chilly Friday night after picking up our shiny silver Dodge Avenger rental.  Still dapper in his work attire, he’s sporting khaki’s and a starched blue button down shirt, complete with French cuffs and the links to match.  Spit polished dress shoes, and hair neatly parted, I haven’t seen him this dressed up since his mother dragged us to church on Sundays in middle school.

“You better have brought a change of clothes” I remark, confident that Kristi probably selected the entire ensemble.

“Why?” he responds chidingly.

“Because if we walk into a bar in West Virginia with you wearing that, we’re getting the shit kicked out of us”.

Five seconds into the trip and the wisecracking is immediately underway.  We make a beeline for Primanti Bros, the infamous Pittsburgh institution.  Featured on scores of TV shows, their towering sandwiches may be the most famous in the country.  I direct Tyler towards the original location in the Strip District, flanked by long rows of old brick warehouses and loading docks. We settle into one of the creaky wooden tables, nursing a few Yuengling Lagers while perusing the painted menu board.

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Ordering up a classic steak sandwich and a corned beef, they’re both among the best sellers at Primanti’s.  Beer is the #1 seller, in case you were wondering.  The goliaths emerge a few moments later, quivering towers of meat, coleslaw, tomatoes, and french fries piled between two thick slices of white bread.  The sandwiches are so large they explode with every bite.  By the end, our wax papers (there are no plates) are lumped with disheveled piles of meat and coleslaw.  But they are hearty, filling offerings, and we wrestle with consciousness during the hour long drive South to the hotel in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

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The next morning, I rouse us early and we shoot down the undulating highway towards Morgantown.  After a couple missed turns that don’t exist, courtesy of the new and improved iPhone Apple maps, we sling open the door to Ruby and Ketchy’s diner on the outskirts of town.  Pine paneling covers every wall in the homey small town gem, and a stone fireplace crackles away in the corner.  A few West Virginia fans chat over their diner mugs of coffee, garbed in bright yellow sweatshirts.   We fold into a table and squawk about our cushy white collar careers, a conversation oddly out of place in a diner like this. Ordering up a couple of standard greasy spoon breakfasts, we toss the waitress a $20 on the way out, shocked at the remarkably affordable prices.

Loaded up on bacon and eggs, we poke our way down progressively thinner, bumpier roads towards Pinchgut Hollow Distillery for an encounter with the iconic West Virginia cultural institution of moonshine liquor. Winding down the final stretch of hilly dirt road before the distillery, a hunter decked out in Realtree camo ambles along the shoulder, a Mossberg pump shotgun straddled across his shoulders.  Tyler casts me a sheepish glance. Movies about West Virginia start this way, and they usually don’t end well. After giving the hunter a wide berth on the gravel shoulder, we arrive into the confines of the parking lot without incident.

Huddling into the cozy Pinchgut Hollow tasting room, we’re greeted warmly by sample girl Stacey who takes us through the array of glass and ceramic bottles arranged neatly on the pine counter.  They produce two kinds of moonshine here, traditional corn and a rarer buckwheat version – Pinchgut claiming to be the only legal buckwheat moonshine distiller in the US.  We sample both.   The raw, clear, 100 proof liquor burns the tongue a bit, but it’s surprisingly smooth, with a discernible difference in taste between the two grains.  We also sample the sugary Apple Pie and Honey Peach flavored varieties, cut down to a paltry 70 proof for softer palettes.   All four versions are available for purchase in 750ml ceramic pig bottles, a clever design inspired by a 19th century glass Suffolk Bitters Whiskey bottle the owner keeps proudly shelved in a glass display case.

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They make Bourbon here too, naturally, as the raw moonshine is poured into charred oak barrels and aged on premise for two years to give it that amber, earthy glow.  We sample those too, both the familiar corn bourbon and their exclusive buckwheat “bourbon”. (*bourbon dorks – no need to chastise me here, I am well aware that technically buckwheat liquor cannot be called real “bourbon” – it’s a descriptor, relax).    Like any spirit, the aging really brings out some depth and complexity to the flavors, and it’s remarkably smooth sipping bourbon.  They offer a tour of the small, family owned operation, already expanding with the explosion in consumer demand for craft distilled spirits.  I revel at the neat stacks of numbered oak barrels shelved in all corners, the dense, yeasty smell of grain mash wafting through the crisp morning air.  It’s a tempting place to stay for an afternoon, sitting on their porch, swapping pulls of Bourbon – but a big game beckons.

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Warmed with our white lightning sampler, we speed on into Morgantown and press into Mario’s Fishbowl, a crowded landmark pub known for their giant “fishbowl” sized frozen schooners of beer.  It’s a dark, cramped space alight with character.  The walls are littered with thousands of cards and messages handwritten in magic marker, some of them witty, others a bit simpler minded like stenciled fraternity letters.  There are records posted for the fastest fishbowl chug – 3.63 seconds, and a few fellas next to us fling quarters at a small vase perched on a dusty shelf high above the bar.

“The secret” the portly guy next to us proclaims “is to bank it in off the back wall” as he flings another quarter skyward.  We watch it tumble clumsily, rattling off a few bottles before rolling to a stop on the floor behind the bar.  If they manage to sink one, they get a free schooner full of a beer of their choice.  For the next few minutes, he and his cohort keep peppering quarters at the vase wildly, the bus boy dodging them like an incoming mortar barrage each time they ricochet off the back wall.  All told, the duo aimlessly flails twenty dollars in quarters at the tiny vase, all for a five dollar mug of beer.  None of them connect.  We toss a dollars worth of our own.  The vase remains empty.

The bartenders at Mario’s are all young, perky coeds sporting grey t-shirts imprinted with the slogan “Take Me Home” on the back, a nod to the John Denver song Country Roads and defacto alma mater for The University of West Virginia.  The entire bar even erupts in a Denver chorus a few times, swaying and clanking their foamy mugs back and forth.  But the girls don’t abide bullshit from the rough and tumble game day crowd.   When a precariously young looking patron orders two beers, one for himself and a friend, she sternly warns him “If you’re friend isn’t 21, I’m going to punch both of you in the stomach…”  I doubt she was the kidding sort.

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We politely order up a few signature fishbowls of Yuengling Lager, watching intently as the bar girl pulls a fresh, frosty bowl from the freezer with each order, chipping a solid disk of ice off the top of each glass before filling the vessel with the amber nectar.  If there is a beer served colder than this, I haven’t found it.  Like a couple of regular bar flies, we camp out on stools for a few hours, drinking a handful of fishbowls, dodging quarters, and soaking in one of the great Morgantown pubs before moving on.

From there, we wander into Kegler’s, a cavernous sports bar close to campus.  With the usual array of wings and light beer, we perch on a few bar stools watching the afternoon games before making our final ascent to Milan Puskar.  As we near the stadium, I thrust two fingers in the air signaling my need for a pair of tickets.  Swarmed by a gaggle of sellers with fistfuls of them, I haggle a guy down to thirty bucks apiece for two seats on the 30 yard line, about half face value.  Pressing the final stretch before the stadium, we elbow our way through the “Blue Lot”, hallowed tailgating grounds at West Virginia.  The broad swath of asphalt is a borderline riot.  Blue and gold tents pack the expanse with columns of grill smoke rising between.  Coonskin cap adorned fans huddled beneath, spilling out of tents on all sides, clutching fresh beers while empties roll around the pavement like fallen leaves in the breeze.  It’s an impressive scene.

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Entering Milan Puskar for the first time, it’s a large space, but compared to the other goliath stadiums I have been to, nothing extraordinary.  Although capacity is a humble 60,000, when full, the stadium itself is actually the largest city (by population) in the entire state of West Virginia.  But that’s not what has my attention.  What stops me dead in my tracks is that of all things, unbelievably, they sell beer here.  Beer.  Here.  In West Virginia.  If you polled college football fans across the country, of all the places where they absolutely should NOT sell beer – West Virginia would be at the top of that list.  This is a whole new level of danger.  But as I think about it, god only knows what these delightful lunatics would be sneaking into the stadium otherwise.  So encouraging them to consume beer instead, I’m guessing, is actually a clever ruse sober them up.  Wicked smart.

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The game kicks off to Oklahoma, and the Sooners immediately respond by marching 75 yards down the field on a touchdown drive.  In predictable Big 12 fashion, the contest turns into a track meet.  For four quarters, the two teams trade touchdowns, although at one point the Mountaineers battle back from a 31-17 half time deficit. The animated crowd bellows with each sway in momentum, and the Mountaineer faithful are a vociferous, inebriated bunch.  At half time the cacophony quiets for a moment when a public service video pipes in over the jumbotron encouraging fans to “celebrate with class”.  It pleads with them to not burn couches – a time honored Mountaineer victory tradition recently banned by city ordinance because of its prevalence.  That’s right, the city of Morgantown had to pass a law expressly banning couch burning.  These are my kind of fans.

All told, the two teams rack up nearly 1,500 yards in total offense as receivers and running backs streak through porous defenses unabated.  For a moment, West Virginia clings to victory, when they punch in a touchdown to take a 49-44 lead with only 2:53 remaining.  But the Sooners know better.  They march down the field unhurriedly on the final drive, chewing through the final minutes of the clock knowing they can score at will.  With 24 ticks remaining Oklahoma QB Landry Jones slings an easy five yard touchdown pass to receiver Kenny Stills, and the Sooners confidently slide away with a 50-49 victory.     Milan Puskar is hushed in frustration, the blue and gold faithful make for the exits in teeth grinding silence, “Take Me Home” is only sung in victory.  The couches will live to see another day.

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A barnburner of a game to begin with, the contest was further enhanced by the most electrifying individual performance I have ever witnessed on a college football field.  West Virginia senior wide receiver Tavon Austin, playing in his final home game in Milan Puskar Stadium, was given a few snaps at running back for a few extra touches on senior day.  What followed was nothing short of remarkable.   Austin rushed for 344 yards (on 21 carries – a 16.4 ypc average), caught another 82 yards in the air, and racked up 146 more on kick returns.  All told, he finished the day with a pair of touchdowns against 572 all purpose yards – only 6 shy of the all time record for all purpose yardage in an NCAA game.  Shortly after a few of his initial runs, it was obvious that the Sooner defense had no ability to contain his blistering speed.  Literally every single time he touched the ball, he was a threat to score.  I have never witnessed its equal.  It certainly arouses some suspicion with Mountaineer offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, that he waited until the final game of Austin’s 4 year career to truly unlock his talent…

Sunday morning, our adventures are hardly over.  We stretch down the winding, hilly back roads of Southwest Pennsylvania to pay our respects to Fallingwater, easily the most famous house ever constructed.  Designed by fabled American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939, the dwelling sits perched atop a waterfall on the Bear Run River.  Wrights’ crowning jewel of a long and distinguished career, the work is a masterpiece of cantilevered concrete, stone and glass.  Each painstaking detail cleverly designed and expertly crafted.  It’s an awe inspiring work, and, as a former architect, completely humbling.  After the tour, we snap a few quick photos outside before pressing Northward.  We’re allowed outdoor photos exclusively, as the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has irritatingly banned indoor photography.

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Motoring back into to Pittsburgh, we make one final stop before boarding our respective flights.  Beyond Primanti’s there is another famous sandwich that put Pittsburgh on the food map; the Turkey Devonshire.  Akin to the “Hot Brown” sandwich in Louisville, the Turkey Devonshire consists of slices of roast turkey piled atop toast points, stacked with bacon and tomatoes, and finished with a generous slather of a proprietary cheddar based cheese sauce.  It’s been a belt busting staple of the Steel City since 1934.  We pick the Union Grill for our Devonshire’s, a fixture of the Oakland neighborhood, purported to have the best one around.  Ordering up a pair of the luxurious sandwiches, they are dished out 15 minutes later on a piping hot ceramic skillet, the cheese sauce still bubbling.  Indulgent to say the least, we make fast work of the creamy, hearty fare. After a quick waddle to the plane nap time ensues quickly.

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After a whirlwind weekend in West Virginia, Tyler is sold on another adventure next fall, and I’m already circling the calendar in anticipation.  So look for us coming to a SEC hotspot in 2013.  Kristi, I promise I’ll take good care of him…

Special thanks to Kristi for pushing for this, and allowing Tyler a weekend out on the road…

Special thanks of course to Tyler for sticking the college football needle into my arm decades ago and setting all of this in motion, looking forward to the trip next year…

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Pecan Lodge – Finding Real BBQ in Dallas…

Staying in Fort Worth for the epic Notre Dame vs Oklahoma tilt, I needed my routine fix of proper Texas barbecue.  Traditionally this entailed an exhausting three hour (one way) jaunt down to Austin, such are the levels of my depravity.  Since bursting onto the Dallas BBQ scene three years ago, however, Pecan Lodge has been dishing out epic smoked meats that rival anything Central Texas has to offer.  Initially bestowed with an elusive 5 star rating on Full Custom Gospel BBQ, the frenzy around the tiny storefront in the Dallas Farmers Market exploded following a visit from Guy Fieri on the Food Network hit Diners Drive-Ins and Dives. Waiting times for a few morsels of their BBQ have swelled proportionally. Stretching up to 2 hours during peak times, my father, friend Bryce and I brave the lines for a Friday afternoon lunch with eager appetites.

After exchanging a few tweets, the man himself, the BBQ Snob of Full Custom Gospel BBQ fame, agrees to join us for lunch, greeting our crew at one of the rickety metal tables.  I had lured him from his brisket fortress of solitude with the promise of a massive Pecan Lodge beef rib, and irresistible offering for anyone, much less a BBQ fanatic.  The ruse works, he surveys our formidable tray discerningly, an epic offering of brisket, pork ribs, sausage, and beef ribs.  An eyebrow noticeably rises above his rimless glasses, a most subtle gesture of praise.  He approves of the hefty meat pile, and settles into a chair.

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Though he refers to himself as the BBQ “Snob”, in person Daniel is anything but.  The conversation is amicable, and despite the notoriety that he has garnered over the past couple of years while personally surveying over 500 different BBQ joints, he remains notably humble and approachable. From even a few minutes of conversation, it’s clear he is far more than a critic.  BBQ is his passion.  He lives it.  To boot, his knowledge on the subject matter is remarkable.  Beyond chatting about a few of our favorite joints, he drops terms like “phenols” and “nitrogen dioxide”, expounding on the science of great barbecue down to the molecular level.  He even offers a few tips for the group, as we discuss the particulars of our amateur BBQ attempts on Big Green Egg smokers.    I learn more about barbecue in fifteen minutes with Daniel, than most people would in a year.  It even turns out he’ll be attending the same Oklahoma vs Notre Dame fiasco tomorrow too, though the table collectively grumbles when it’s revealed he’ll be garbed in crimson and cream.

As his belt busting tales of Texas BBQ road trips can attest, the man can eat.  Like an epic clash of titans we exchange blows, each of us grabbing fistfuls of smoked goodness, waiting for the other to show even the slightest flinch of appetite.  Neither does.  After fifteen minutes our pristine tray of red ribboned beef is ransacked. Picked over like a pack of wild hyenas, the flimsy plastic tray itself is lucky to survive unscathed, and sits disheveled, heaped with stacks of bones and greasy butcher paper. It’s complete carnage.

If you’re wondering, the food at Pecan Lodge is, quite simply, remarkable.

I’ll spare the hyperbole.  This is best BBQ in Dallas.  Period.  And second place isn’t even close.  It rivals anything to be found in Central Texas.

The brisket is silky, pull apart tender, enveloped in a jet black bark and laced with robust notes of mesquite smoke.

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*Smoking over mesquite is one area Pecan Lodge differentiates itself, as most traditional Texas BBQ joints espouse post oak

**On even more elusive days, Pecan Lodge features smoked Waygu (American Kobe) beef brisket, which, although expensive at $25lb, might be the single greatest thing you could ever put in your mouth.

Beef ribs are massive, quivering mountains of velvet beef.  Perfectly broken down until tender, a thick red smoke ring belies their time and attention in the smoker.  While these aren’t an everyday item from what I understand, if they have them – buy them.

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A bright red sausage features a coarse grind with a good snap and peppery building heat.  Perfectly smoked to juicy perfection, it’s also house made, a refreshing departure from the Sysco crap that pervades so many menus.

The pork ribs, well smoked and lightly sauce glazed, are probably the fourth best thing on the menu.  Which is saying something, because they would be the best thing on the menu anywhere else in the DFW Metroplex.

Even the sides here are good, not that anyone should care.  But still, the attention to detail is nice.

If you find yourself in the DFW Metroplex in the near future, your lunch time decision just became an easy one: Pecan Lodge.  The food is second to none, and you might just get to break brisket with a BBQ legend…or snob….

www.pecanlodge.com

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Miami vs Virginia Tech – Say goodnight to the bad guy…

“What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be? You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through! Better get outta his way!”

-Tony Montana, Scarface

Every story has a bad guy.  A heel.  A villain.  The truth is, whether we admit it or not – we need the bad guy. In places that we don’t talk about, or scarcely even acknowledge, there are demons to be found. There’s a dark side to all of us.  “Some men”, in the words of Alfred from Dark Knight “just want to watch the world burn”.

In the world of college football, that team is Miami.  Since the early 1980’s, no other team has been so polarizing, drawn as much ire and enmity, as the Miami Hurricanes.   While most of the college football world undoubtedly skirts NCAA rules, conferences like the SEC hide their cheating behind a façade of gentile southern mannerisms. An “aw shucks, we didn’t mean it” dismissive flippancy.  Not Miami.  Miami flaunts it.  They’re brash, arrogant and in your face.  They’re a big, throbbing middle finger to the establishment.  To many, Miami represents the epicenter for shameless, “me first” self promotion and braggadocio that has pervaded the modern commercialized game like a cancer.  They’re thugs.  They scare the shit out of white people.

Although these thuggish labels persist to this day, and I am as guilty as any for letting the rampant transgressions of the 1980’s inform my bias of the school, the reality is that the University of Miami is a far different place than historical perceptions of their football team would belie.  The school itself is actually a smaller, elite private university that ranks atop the major Florida schools.  Standing university President Donna Shalala, a former Clinton advisor, has made strides to restore integrity to the program despite her dubious ties to the Nevin Shapiro recruiting scandal which implicated over 72 former players for past violations.  Under her watch, however, the graduation success rate (according to official NCAA statistics) among football players at Miami has swelled to 94% in 2012.  Read that again – 94%.  Miami.  If those are thugs, than they are smarter classroom thugs than both Duke (92%) and Stanford (90%).

But whatever perceptions you choose to believe about Miami, and it’s a polarizing place to be sure, college football is better when the Hurricanes are good at being bad men.  At their best they play tough, cocky, perhaps even dirty football.  But they win. A lot.  During a decade long stretch from 1985-1994 they won 58 home games in a row, the longest such streak in NCAA history.  Nobody is indifferent towards Miami, and with morbid fascination, I wanted to stare into the belly of the monster first hand. The Hurricanes were hosting Virginia Tech for a Thursday night primetime tilt, and it would make the perfect front end of a Sunshine State weekend doubleheader.

I rolled into Miami on a Thursday morning, navigating a few exhausting miles of moveable walkways at the airport before reaching the rental car center.  A few hours later I meet Chrissy in South Beach, and we cruise the tiny Ford Focus northward up Highway 1A, the main artery on the island.  The road is flanked by sparkling South Beach glamour.  Palm trees line the medians, while brilliant yellow Ferraris and pearl blue Maseratis speed by our tiny shitbox.  A line of massive yachts are moored alongside the highway, deck crews out polishing the brass and steel detailing on the floating fiberglass palaces.

We stop for lunch at Le Tub Saloon, a burger joint I’d been assured was the best in Miami from Sports Illustrated writer Andy Staples.  Situated in the Hollywood area, it’s a bayside shack that looks like a Jimmy Buffet inspired nightmare, with goofy beach kitsch adorning every surface.  A bright green iguana keeps us company while we settle into a creaky wooden table, opting for the one least speckled with bird shit.  The burgers are excellent though, wrist thick 13oz monsters, expertly cooked medium rare.  Paired with an orange sun settling over the water and an ice cold Yuengling Lager, it makes for a fine late lunch.

Driving over to Sun Life Stadium, home of both the Dolphins and Hurricanes I begrudgingly fork over 30 bucks to park in the featureless lots surrounding the venue.  Like most NFL stadia, the place is completely sterile.  Situated over twenty miles from The University of Miami campus in Coral Gables, the venue is well removed from the bustle and energy of a college campus.  Culture is distinctly absent.  The stadium itself is an unfortunate concrete eyesore, a giant octagonal fortress plopped coldly into a sea of asphalt like an invading spaceship.  Even the “Sun Life” branding is tacked up on vinyl, easily torn down for the next highest bidder on naming rights.  NFL stadiums are soulless.

We meet up with James, a friend I’d met through the website after he’d heard about my adventures and invited me for a few cold ones at his tailgate.  A Notre Dame undergrad and Miami law school grad, I grimace at the internal conflict James must endure being a fan of such two polar opposite schools. A practicing attorney in Miami, his delightfully rowdy tailgate resembles a Miami Bar Association meeting, including the gin box and beer pong table.  James welcomingly thrusts a beer into my empty hands, and, along with his gracious family, we chat about some of the adventures he’s had chasing the Irish and Hurricanes around the country.  Following a shot of gin, another beer is forced into my empty hand, the can lying on its side this time with a quarter sized hole punched near the base.  Following the usual rabble of smack talking, the entire Orange garbed group encircles, pounding the brews in unison “shotgun” fashion.  After 13oz of burger, I chug mine deliberately.  It’s impolite to spew the contents of one’s lunch onto an esteemed tailgate such as this.  Especially in mixed company.  Despite my caution, the fizzy beer still traces a small trail of foam down the front of my green shirt, specially chosen to blend in with the Hurricane crowd. My stomach rumbles in agony.  With that, we make ready for kickoff.

Ambling our way into the stadium, we find our seats in front of an elderly grandmother.  An obvious transplant with an insufferable New York brogue, she’s intent on chewing my ears off and continually reminding the portly fellow a few rows below to “sit down in front” – including key 3rd downs.  Along with the senior citizens surrounding us, the entire atmosphere feels more like a bowl game.  While Thursday night games may satisfy our weekday urge for televised football, in person they are decidedly second rate.   Despite the official attendance of 37,219 on this night, the stadium feels empty and lifeless.  Most of the crowd noise comes artificially pumped in over the loudspeakers during key third downs.  The upper tiers of the giant bowl are nearly uninhabited.  Even the student section stands listlessly in the endzone, their numbers clearly diminished.

Shortly after the Scorpions’ “Rock you Like a Hurricane” pumps through the loudspeakers, the Miami squad takes the field, emerging from a giant inflatable helmet in a haze of smoke (the now ubiquitous smoke entrance is a tradition Miami claims to have invented).  They make fast work of the Hokies early, jumping out to a 14-3 lead after the first frame.  The Hurricanes take advantage of a few rare miscues by Virginia Tech special teams, or “Beamer Ball” as it’s colloquially known for head coach Frank Beamers renowned emphasis on special teams play.  Miami blocks a Hokie punt on one drive then returns another kickoff for 81yards on the next drive. Despite the early onslaught, they play sloppy from there.  The offense struggles to find a rhythm and sputters on key third downs, but they do enough to chip in a few intermittent field goals.  Although the Hokies outgain Miami in total yards, they cough the ball up three times.  Despite two of the ACC perennial powerhouses on the field, it’s a sloppy game punctuated by a few key special team gaffs that make the difference.  In the end, Miami prevails 30-12, in front of a largely aloof Thursday night crowd.

Admittedly, I feel like I need another visit to truly get the entire Miami football experience.  I was warned by James that a Thursday night game would be rather tame, and he was certainly correct.  I came in expecting the place to be intimidating and dangerous, a hard world of hard men, maybe even borderline criminal.  I wanted to see the beast.  Instead, what I saw was soft.  It had all the actors of a football game, but was hollowed by two mediocre teams playing on a Thursday night in front of half a crowd.  Indifference is not a true hallmark of Miami.

I know Miami is far badder than that.  So I want to see them again, but at their apex. The monsters unleashed.  When they are good at being bad again.  Indeed, when they’re at their very worst

Thank you to James along with his wonderful friends and family for the great hospitality and warm welcome at their tailgate.  Look forward to seeing you guys on January 7th!

Special thanks again to Chrissy for sharing another adventure this fall!

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