Pigskin Pursuit

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

Tag: 2013 (page 1 of 7)

Michigan State vs Minnesota: Spartans spear the Gophers…

During Thanksgiving weekend in Ann Arbor, I opted instead for a trip over to East Lansing to see one of the few remaining Big 10 schools that I have left on my travels: Michigan State.  With a conference game against Minnesota to finish out their regular season, the Spartans were only a couple of wins away from a trip to the Rose Bowl, or, given their lone defeat on the season, perhaps even more.  They made things more interesting than they needed to be against an opponent like the Gophers, however, slinking away with a narrow 14-3 win on the strength of their noted stingy defense.  After the game we walked the nice campus grounds of MSU across the banks of the Red Cedar River before grabbing a thick burger and a few pints at the landmark Crunchy’s Pub.  We then chased the burger with a few scoops of ice cream from the Michigan State Dairy Store, an on campus dairy that features their own ice cream and cheeses.   East Lansing is definitely a place I’d like to return to, especially as they continue their recent dominance in the Big 10.

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Spartan Stadium Wide

 

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Central Michigan vs Eastern Michigan: Chips ground the Eagles…

Visiting my sister on a whim in Ann Arbor, Michigan for the long Thanksgiving weekend, I naturally poured over the college football calendar looking for some action in the mitten state.   With a Saturday contest had already scheduled in East Lansing (yes, intentionally bypassing the Michigan vs. Ohio State game in the Big House), Friday afternoon would enable me to catch my 4th MAC conference game in the last two weeks.  The Central Michigan Chippewas were hosting their cross state rival Eastern Michigan Eagles for a Wolverine State showdown.

I make quick work of the two hour drive up to the college football hotbed of Mount Pleasant, Michigan.  The roads in the state are surprisingly amicable to drive. Wide open and straight, with 70mph speed limits, I zip across flat, frozen plains of harvested corn fields and ramshackle white barns.  A few inches of snow dust the ground, but road crews had been out in force, laying a carpet of salt overnight and the tarmac is smooth sailing.  As I pull into Mt. Pleasant,  I sniff out some free parking in a retail lot on the corners of Broomfield and Mission Streets and bundle myself in winter clothing.  A grey blanket hovers low in the sky blocking the sun, and with the mercury dipping to 23 degrees, it portends a bitter afternoon.

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It’s a quick walk to Kelly Shorts Stadium, where a handful of tents and RV’s are scattered about the main parking lot.  Between the frigid weather and Thanksgiving holiday, the numbers are noticeably subdued and the tailgating scene is nearly a ghost town.  With most of the students out of town for the long weekend, the game itself will be a quiet one as well.  I scoop up a ticket at the little wooden box office for face value of $15, as the sidewalks are completely void of ticket resellers.  Grabbing a bucket of hot cocoa for the chilly afternoon ahead, I settle into a nice seat on the empty aluminum bleachers near midfield.

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Shortly after the game kicks off, the Chippewas take to the ground.  They feed workhorse running back Zurlon Tipton a steady diet of handoffs, and the 6-0” 220lb juggernaut produces.  He runs roughshod over the hapless Eagles defense, breaking soft tackles with his pair of Clydesdale quads while stiff arming hapless safeties into the turf.  All told, he streaks for four touchdowns on the day, amassing 216 rushing yards in the process.  The Chips’ add some more excitement for the meager 5,214 person crowd in the second half, when speedster Courtney Williams takes the ensuing kickoff to the house on an 84 yard sprint.  Upon each successive Central Michigan score, the PA announcer excitedly bellows “Fire up Chips!!!”  His vocal chords get a workout for the day, as the Chippewas eventually run away with an unchallenged blowout 42-10 victory.   The win evens their record at 6-6 for the season, and grants them bowl eligibility for the second year in a row.

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Kelly Shorts Stadium Wide

Full Clickthrough Gallery Below:

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Northern Illinois vs Western Michigan: Huskies finish the season the “Hard Way”…

Another week, another mid week MAC Conference game.  This time, my travels take me to glamorous Dekalb, Illinois to see the undefeated Northern Illinois Huskies.  The Western Michigan Broncos would be their final test of the regular season. With a lofty #14 ranking in the polls, the Huskies had an outside shot at getting into a BCS game if they could win this one and the proceeding MAC Championship game.  But with the mercury dipping well into the teens (single digits with wind chill) and a dusting of snow on the radar, this would be far from a comfortable affair.  I packed enough winter clothing for a polar expedition into the Jetta, loaded up on sunflower seeds, and sped off to Dekalb for a 4-1/2 hour ride.

As I make my way north along I-55 in southern Illinois, I gingerly set the cruise control at moderate 70mph.  From experience, Illinois is a state riddled with overzealous state troopers, and today proves no exception.  During the 90 mile stretch between Saint Louis and Springfield, IL I gaspingly count over 30 cruisers craftily tucked into blind medians and bridge abutments.  That’s one cruiser for every three miles of road. While I’m sure it’s paramount to public safety to so aggressively patrol a highway that bisects mile upon mile of fallow cornfields, perhaps the brilliant political minds in Illinois should consider redeploying those resources to better good.  Like, for instance, the south side of Chicago; a place which enjoys one of the highest violent crime and murder rates in the country.

Political musings aside, I make a stop for lunch in Springfield, Illinois at the infamous Maid Rite sandwich shop.  While there are a handful of Maid Rite locations spread throughout the Midwest, this one enjoys some historical significance.  Located along historic Route 66, Springfield was a key stop between the Chicago and Saint Louis corridor of the “Mother Road”.  Shortly after first opening its doors in 1921, this Springfield Maid Rite opened a drive thru window for hungry wayfarers looking to grab a quick bite on their way.  A seemingly innocuous innovation at the time, this proved to be the first drive-thru window in the country, earning itself a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and spawning an entire “food in the car” culture.  So the next time you pull into Taco Bell at 3AM with a chalupa hankering, you can thank the little Maid Rite in Springfield, Illinois for making it all possible.

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I opt for dine in to stretch the legs a bit, and order a pair of their signature “loose meat” sandwiches – spiced, finely ground beef served on a soft white bun.  Naturally, I wash it down with a frosty mug of their home made root beer.  Combined, I think the entire order costs five bucks.  This is simpler food, from a simpler time, but it’s cheap and efficient, and has me back on the road ten minutes later.

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I plod the remaining few hours through the sweeping cornfields of northern Illinois and pull into Dekalb about an hour before kickoff.  Snow flurries trickle from the sky, and a fresh white layer blankets the parking lots.  I don enough layers for Shackleton’s voyage and set off towards the beckoning lights of Huskie stadium.  Incredibly, tailgaters are out in droves in the parking lots adjacent to the field.  Wearing colorful, insulated snowmobiling gear they huddle around garbage can fires, clutching beers and steaming cups of Irish coffee as the wind whips through the frigid night.  A few of the more reasonably minded retreat into the inviting yellow glow of their cozy RV’s, sheltered from the harsh elements.  Uncle Eddie would be proud…

I plow through the flurry outside Huskie Stadium on the hunt for tickets, but even the scalpers are smart enough to stay home on a night like tonight.  After a futile search, I huddle into the warm confines of the Yordon Athletic Center, chatting up a handful of other Huskie fans with the same idea.  After hearing my story, they hand over a free ticket from a fistful of extras, as a few of their fair weather family member declined to show up.  As an added bonus, the game tonight is general admission seating, so I’ll be able to sit wherever I please.

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I crowd into the stadium and stake out a choice spot along the fifty yard line, while the frigid aluminum bleachers immediately suck what little warmth remains.  With a little sunshine, day games in the cold can be quite tolerable, but at night the bitter air is unrelenting, there is no escape from its chilly grasp. Before the game kicks off, each senior is honored at mid field as part of the final home game ceremonies.  Heisman contending quarterback Jordan Lynch in particular, gets as rousing a standing ovation as the 17,679 person crowd can muster.  Even the Huskies mascot – a Siberian Husky named “Diesel”- is honored before the game.  After nine seasons of loyal service, the majestic Husky is retiring, and “Mission” a new two year old purebred pooch will replace his position howling away on the sidelines.

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On the field, the game is, quite simply, the one man Jordan Lynch show.  With the frigid temperatures and snowy conditions thwarting air attacks, he takes to the ground, and runs roughshod over the hapless one-win Broncos.  Lynch carries the ball an astounding 27 times, and amasses 321 rushing yards alone – good enough to break his own FBS record for Quarterback rushing yards in a single game. He would eventually rush for three touchdowns, and pass for another; bringing his season total to 22 passing touchdowns against 20 rushing touchdowns.  Only five quarterbacks in FBS division football history have ever had 20/20 seasons, and a few of those guys have a big bronze trophy sitting on their mantle at home.  While the merits of his Heisman consideration are still debatable, Lynch is easily one of the most impressive players in the country to watch.

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At halftime, I hang out in the bathroom for warmth, crowded into to the only heated space in Huskie Stadium with dozens of others retreating from the 3 degree wind chill temperatures.  As the feeling returns to my fingers and toes, a moment of clarity washes over me in that cramped little concrete restroom. Tonight the Huskie squad is sporting alternate black and chrome jerseys, emblazoned on the back is the team slogan “The Hard Way”.  The words have become a sort of mantra for the Huskie program, as the entire roster is filled with players that went overlooked by some of the bigger programs. Everything they’ve accomplished to date – the unbeaten record, playing in the snow, and hopefully getting to a BCS bowl game – they’ll have to do the Hard Way.  Nothing will come easy for them.  It’s an appropriate slogan for the crowd on a night like tonight too. As I emerge from the heat of the bathroom, with the Huskies comfortably in control and the outcome never in doubt, it would be easy to split.  It would be easy to jump in my warm car and jaunt back to St. Louis, avoiding another two hours of frigid football.  But this little pursuit of mine isn’t always about the easy games – the big games between two SEC juggernauts slugging it out in a 100,000 seat stadium.  Anybody can stick around for those.  If I want to keep exploring every corner, every facet, of this beautiful American sport, sometimes it will mean driving 5 hours each way, to stand alone in a 15 degree blizzard, in a tiny stadium in Dekalb, Illinois, on a Tuesday night, to witness a blowout.

Sometimes…I’ll just have to do it the Hard Way.

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And with that, per my usual form, I stay for the entire contest while most of the crowd withdraws for warmer pastures.  The Huskies roll to a 33-14 victory to complete their unbeaten regular season.  Lynch’s play states his demand for the Heisman on the field, and with a final MAC Conference Championship game remaining at Ford Field in Detroit, the Huskies will make their case for BCS Bowl consideration.  And, as always, they’ll have to do it the Hard Way too.

On the way home after the final whistle, however, tragedy ensues.  My trusty steed “White Lightning”, a 2002 white Volkswagen Jetta TDI, craps out on the highway only 40 minutes outside of Dekalb.  After over 170,000 miles of flawless service, the engine inexplicably dies at 70mph, and I coast the wounded warrior off the nearest exit ramp as dozens of dash lights flicker red with ominous warning symbols.

Now breaking down is never fun.  But breaking down at 11:30 at night, when it’s 15 degrees outside, over 230 miles from home in Oglesby, Illinois reaches a whole new level of suckitude.  I pop the hood in frustration and root around in vain for a broken fan belt or some other easy explanation, all the while spewing a steady stream of profanity like the furnace fighting Old Man in “A Christmas Story”.

Luckily, Officer Knoblauch of the Oglesby Town Police pulls up behind me a few minutes later.  He follows me with the flashers on while I push the car into a secluded side street, and offers a ride to a nearby Best Western in the back seat of his cruiser.  The next day I’m forced to return to St. Louis unceremoniously – behind the wheel of a rumbling UHaul truck, the Jetta dejectedly chained to a trailer in tow.   The “Hard Way” indeed.

Fortunately, I’ll be boarding a plane for my final two games of the season – a doubleheader in the frigid north country of Michigan.  And with any luck, White Lightning will be back in action next year, with another 170,000 miles of faithful service left in her…

Huskie Stadium Wide

Full Clickthrough Gallery Below:

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LSU vs Texas A&M – Johnny Football swamped in Death Valley…

People often ask me about the best college football destination in the country. I’m usually reticent to answer because there are so many variables to that question, and, depending on the circumstances, there are a handful of places across the country that could be considered the “best” on any given week. Invariably, however, I always list LSU as one of the most sublime places in the country to spend a college football Saturday. Having caught a few games here before, I can personally attest that between the Cajun food, ample drink, authentic hospitality, a rabid fan base, ear splitting 93,000 seat stadium and smash mouth SEC football, LSU is one of the premiere destinations in the land.

So when my friend, and Texas A&M ring bearing alumni, Federico texted me over the summer about the November 23rd matchup in Baton Rouge, I immediately circled my calendar. While he had done the circuit of Big 12 destinations back in the Aggies long forgotten past, with their move to the SEC conference came a whole new list of road destinations for him to experience. Appropriately, LSU was at the top of that list.

I fly in to New Orleans early on Friday morning to give myself a day of exploration in the city. Despite the breadth of my travels, I had never actually visited NOLA before. While the allure of the infamous French Quarter and a few giant Hurricane drinks has a certain croc wearing, touristy appeal, I opt to spend the day a bit more tastefully. I pull into the National WWII Museum on Magazine Street as the doors are opening for the day, and shell out eight dollars for parking. An avid WWII history buff, I’ve traveled to sites of historical significance all over the world, but this museum in New Orleans is reputed to be among the best.

It costs me $32 for an all access pass for the day, which grants admittance to all the features spread throughout the several buildings on campus. Up first is the 4D movie “Beyond all Boundaries”, a 40 minute historical overview of both the European and Pacific campaigns that was produced and narrated by Tom Hanks. As the film plays on the screen, guard towers and gun turrets rise out of the stage, and later smoke fills the entire theater as a bomber fuselage is lowered from the ceiling as part of the “4D” effects. I spend the rest of the afternoon casually wandering the extensive displays and historical artifacts spread throughout the galleries. In addition to some of the smaller pieces, the museum boasts an impressive collection of recovered machinery. In the US Freedom Pavilion alone, a Sherman tank sits proudly on the floor while a collection of old warbirds hang from the ceiling; including a B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell and the seductive, sweeping lines of a P-51 Mustang, among others.

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I break only for lunch, and take a quick stroll down the street to Cochon Butcher – a casual lunch offshoot of the infamous Cochon Restaurant. Translated literally “Cochon” means “Pig” and, accordingly, the small café features a bevy of house made charcuterie offerings available plain, or stacked into well crafted sandwiches. Naturally, I opt for both; the ever popular pork belly sandwich and a personal charcuterie sample platter. The rich belly sandwich is served with mint and cucumber, the crisp flavors offsetting the unctuous, fat laced pork into a perfect balance. The charcuterie sampler features a range of their daily specials, neatly arranged on a wooden tray: duck liver mousse, country terrine, soprasseta, duck pastrami and coppa di testa. It’s a carnivores dream come true.

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After my WWII touring is done for the afternoon, I brave the rush hour traffic in New Orleans to pick Federico up at the airport, as a log jam of cars flows out of the terminal. From there, we hustle west an hour along I-10 and pull into the overstuffed parking lot of Mike Andersons in Baton Rouge. Evidently, we aren’t the only ones with the same idea, as the Cajun seafood joint is jammed for the big game, and it’s an hour and a half wait for a table and oyster po’boy. The A&M faithful have come out in droves, and when the Aggie War Hymn pipes in over the loudspeakers, more than half the restaurant collectively rises to their feet, locking arms and swaying while they confidently belt out the chorus. From there, we enjoy a few nightcaps at The Chimes pub on the outskirts of the LSU campus, edging past a few collar popped frat boys squabbling on the sidewalk. I work my way through a handful of the flowing Chimes taps, opting for a selection of the local Abita seasonal brews while Federico samples from their equally impressive whiskey selection.

As the gameday morning rises, the weather turns foul and an ominous mist hangs in the sky like smoke. We slip into some free parking on Lake Shore Drive, and shuffle over to campus, passing by Mike the Tiger’s plush habitat as hordes of onlookers try to snap a photo of the LSU mascot. It’s there that we meet up with my friend Mandy, the same host from my visit back in 2010 and a die hard LSU fan. Soon after we shake hands, we’re corralled onto the median of the street as the crowd parts for the LSU player walk (which like every other SEC school, LSU claims to have invented). Blue lights flash and police sirens whale away as two busses pull up, the doors swaying open as the crowd roars. Head coach Les Miles steps off first with a police escort, followed by two single file lines of players from each bus – offensive players on the right, defensive players on the left. Garbed in neat coat and ties, the players walk purposefully towards the stadium but stop for the occasional high five and handshake with kids. The famed, and highly talented, LSU Golden Girl squad follows after the players. Teeth chattering as they promenade, their scantily cut leotards do little to allay the drizzle.

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Following the player procession, we meet up with Mandy’s aunt Karen, host of the infamous Van Geaux tailgating rig. If there is such a thing as professional tailgating, Karen would rank among the best, and she welcomes us with the same gracious hospitality I enjoyed back in 2010. Their converted DHL truck overflows with provisions, and I make several raids on an overflowing tray of incredible home made tamales. Soon, the weather grows angry, and ask the sky turns fowl and we’re forced to find shelter and take refuge under a bus shelter as an afternoon of blissful LSU tailgating is ruined.

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We file into Tiger Stadium early to escape the deluge, huddling into the crowded concrete concourse as it’s mobbed by thousands of others retreating from the rain. Fed buys a flimsy plastic poncho for $8, and I hunt down the boudin vendor for a tube of the Cajun meat delicacy. It’s a safe bet that Tiger Stadium is the only college football stadium in the country that offers fresh boudin and jumbalaya among its food vendors. Waiting until only a few minutes before kickoff, we finally emerge from the tunnel and are blasted by an icy wind that whips the drizzle in sideways. Fed’s cheap poncho is immediately tattered, revealing his crimson Aggie shirt to bare in a sea of purple and yellow slickers – Louisiana natives all better prepared for the elements. As the ball slides out of receivers hands during the final minutes of warmup, the greasy weather portends a miserable afternoon. Fed and I shiver in the mist, an unseasonably cold fall afternoon in the giant belly of Death Valley.

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True to form, the game proves a tough one for the visiting Aggies. Already nursing a hand injury, electric Aggie quarterback Johnny Manziel is stifled by the misty weather. He sails errant passes over the heads of his receivers, the ball fluttering in the mist as he completes only 16 of 41 attempts. On the ground his feet slip on the grime, failing the normally surefooted and elusive captain, and he is stuffed into the turf repeatedly by the dogged LSU pass rush. It’s one of the worst performances in the Heisman winner’s short two year career, as he tosses two interceptions against only 224 yards, and the imposing confines of Tiger Stadium lay claim to yet another victim.

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The LSU offense proves better built for the elements. Pounding the ball on the ground relentlessly, the Tigers amass 324 yards of rushing offense. Senior running back Terrence Magee chews up 149 yards alone, averaging over 11 yards per carry as he streaks through the porous Aggie defense. Quarterback Zac Mettenberger plays a serviceable, mistake free game – flipping short passes to his receivers who break free of the flimsy Aggie arm tackles for extra yards. In the end, LSU walks away with a confident 34-10 victory, eliminating any last hope for a Johnny Manziel appearance in a BCS bowl game.

Thank you to Mandy and Karen for their always gracious hospitality and incredible setup!  Hope to see y’all again next year, and folks like you are the reason LSU is such a special place!!!

Special thanks to my friend Federico for making the trip down to Baton Rouge.  Can’t wait to hit another game with you next year man!

Tiger Stadium Wide

Full Clickthrough Gallery Below:

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