Pigskin Pursuit

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

Tag: 2013 (page 2 of 7)

Toledo vs Northern Illinois – Rockets Grounded by the Huskies…

In between my evening MAC doubleheaders in late November, I had an afternoon to kill in Columbus and looked for a few cultural diversions to keep me out of trouble. With BBQ in central Ohio out of the question, the most obvious choice was exploring a few of my other favorite things: meatballs and booze.

As faithful readers of the blog already know, I am a purveyor of the finer things in life and you’ve heard my familiar schtick about the greatness of barbecue, chocolate shakes and burgers. Predictably, I also happen to be a connoisseur of meatballs too, and I appreciate the subtle artistic nuance of a perfect meat sphere. I’ve eaten them across this great country of ours, including handfuls of them at the infamous Meatball Shop in New York City.

With those credentials out of the way, allow me to introduce you to perhaps the greatest meatball on the planet: Marcella’s. While it’s a tad more upscale than my typical haunts, Marcella’s Italian Kitchen in Columbus dishes out the meatball of the gods. About the size of a regulation softball, a single meatball is a sizeable portion on its own. The behemoth is served in its own cast iron pot, and arrives garnished with parmesan cheese. One bite and you know you’ve gotten into something transcendent. The ball is incredibly light and fluffy, almost spongy in texture and yields easily with a fork. Well spiced with Italian seasoning and grated cheese folded in, the ball arrives slathered in a thick red tomato sauce. This is the holy grail of meatballs. You will, quite simply, never surpass this; you can only hope to find its equal.

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Following the epic meatball, it’s time for a little post lunch digestif. Fortunately, as the national explosion of micro distilleries swells, two such places have opened up within the city limits of Columbus: Middle West Spirits and Watershed Distillery. I make a visit to Middle West first, tapping on the door until one of the distillers answers and happily gives me an impromptu tour. These smaller operations are a far cry from the pristinely manicured grounds and professional tours that I had earlier this fall in Kentucky bourbon country, and getting a personal tour is a warm touch. He proudly shows off the gleaming copper Kothe still. Custom ordered from Germany, it features more knobs, dials and windows than a Virginia class submarine. The strong aroma of fermenting mash permeates the humid air in the warehouse, accented by the sweet, intoxicating scent of oak and bourbon. While they make an array of award winning vodkas, I opt for a few small samples of their equally esteemed wheat whiskey and reserve bourbon, both crafted from locally sourced Ohio grains. Naturally, I pick up a jet black bottle of the OYO Reserve Bourbon before heading out the door.

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Following Middle West Spirits, I head to the other upstart in town, Watershed Distillery. Things are a bit more formal here, and the counter girl insists on the $10 fee for a tour despite the place being empty. I decline the tour, but fork over five bucks for a couple of tastings of their different spirits – vodka, gin and bourbon. The bourbon barrel aged Gin is a refreshingly unique departure from the norm, and if you’re a gin fan it would be worth a try. A staunch traditionalist, however, I ultimately pick up a bottle of their traditional oak aged bourbon. Between the Watershed and Middle West bourbons, I’ll be returning home with a nice haul of craft spirits.

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From there, I brave the two hour drive to Toledo over the flat expanse of northern Ohio. Occupying the west bank of Lake Erie, and located only sixty miles from Detroit, Toledo has an overwhelmingly industrial feel. Cranes and smokestacks jut into the skyline, and the rusting dreck of factories and bridges dominate the landscape. I make a brief stop at Tony Packo’s Cafe, a Hungarian hot dog house considered an institution in Toledo since 1932. I order up a combo plate of their signature chili dog and stuffed cabbage, admiring the eccentric collection of signed hot dog buns adorning the walls. Comfort food served on red and white checkered table cloths never tires in my book, and after a quick meal I head towards the University of Toledo.

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The lights of the Glass Bowl beckon, and after easing into a five dollar parking space, I head towards one of the more unique stadiums in college football. Named after the city of Toledo’s prominence in the glass manufacturing industry, the Glass Bowl was constructed in 1936. The stadium features impressive traditional stonework, craftsmanship which has been deftly preserved throughout several modern upgrades over the years. Two stone towers on the south end pierce high into the night sky. Like medieval ramparts they stand in stoic contrast to the blaring, garish jumbotron pumping out ads for the local tire warehouse. A blend of the old and the new, the Glass Bowl is one of the finer venues in the sport – architecturally speaking.

I pass by a few revelers as they spill out of a converted party ambulance, the lights flashing above while they clutch red solo cups. Aside from them, however, the lots are pretty quiet on a chilly Wednesday night. A 25 foot blue and yellow rocket sits perched on a stand outside the Northeast entrance to the Glass Bowl. Bought in 1961 from the U.S. Army missile program, the one ton projectile points directly towards the fifty yard line of arch nemesis Bowling Green State’s Doyt Perry Stadium.

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I pick up a $35 face value ticket for 20 bucks from an old lady pawning a single after her nephew elected to stay home on a brisk night. As the game kicks off, the Rockets take the field garbed in garish pink and blue uniforms – an admirable salute to breast cancer awareness, but a trend that I find thoroughly tired at this point. But they play spirited football for the first half, holding the explosive Northern Illinois onslaught to a single touchdown and carry a 10-7 lead into the locker rooms at halftime.

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The second half would ground the Rockets, however, as the Huskies make a few halftime adjustments – most of which consist of letting Jordan Lynch run wild with the offense. Lynch, the outside Heisman hopeful, explodes for three rushing touchdowns in the second half and the rout is on. Racking up 160 yards on the ground and another 200 through the air in the process, Lynch would pad his already impressive season statistics and his case for the bronze trophy. The Huskies would eventually roll to a 35-17 win, improving their unblemished record to 11-0 and an outside shot at a BCS Bowl bid still possible. Rocket fans start filing solemnly out of the Glass Bowl with a few ticks remaining in the fourth quarter. Per my usual, I hold on until the final whistle, admiring the fine stonework of the historic venue for a few extra minutes.

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Glass Bowl Stadium Wide

Special thanks to my friend Becky for her hospitality in Columbus, and agreeing to my finicky meatball requirements…can’t wait to catch you at an Irish game next fall!

Full Clickthrough gallery below:

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Ohio vs Kent State – Bobcats thrashed by the Golden Flashes…

During my travels I’ve generally made a point to visit to some of the biggest venues in the colorful world of college football.  Understandably, I tend to focus my exploits on the major conferences and stalwart institutions that make the sport a national treasure.  However, as I press further into the depths of the sport, and constantly seek new adventures and venues to investigate, the Middle American Conference had eluded any of my travels thus far.  With the conference beginning mid week play in November, this made for the perfect opportunity to sample a few MAC games with my weekends already booked at larger venues.  A quick glance at the schedule revealed Ohio University and Toledo playing on consecutive Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and I decided to launch my inaugural MAC doubleheader from Columbus.

Touching down in the Capitol city, the crown jewel of Ohio, I bee line for the newly opened Melt Bar and Grilled location in the upscale Short North area.  Since opening its first location in Lakewood, OH in 2006, Melt has fast become a sensation in Ohio, even garnering considerable national exposure.  Specializing in massive, indulgent grilled cheese sandwiches with dozens of combinations, the decadent menu is the very definition of comfort food.  As if the alluring fare weren’t enough, the bar features over twenty different taps of local beer, and the menu boasts 150 different varieties of bottled swill for the hopheads.     

While deliberating over the various heart stopping choices, I finally settle on a “Dude Abides” sandwich, chosen exclusively for the Big Lebowski movie reference.  After an agonizing forty minute wait (the location is new and still had a few kitchen kinks to work out), the massive offering is dropped in front of me.  Thick slabs of toasted white bread are layered with home made meatballs, fried mozzarella wedges and layers of Provolone and Romano cheeses.  The hefty sandwich stands nearly six inches tall, and after a disastrous attempt at picking the creature up, the hand to hand melee soon devolves into a gooey, depraved, fork and knife conquest.  Face smeared in marinara and gluttonous shame, I slink off the barstool and waddle out the door…

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From there, it’s an hour ride down winding US33 into Athens, Ohio.  The drive is surprisingly picturesque, as the undulating road winds through hilly state park and national forest land.  Athens seems like quite a pleasant village, cozy streets are flanked by shops, restaurants, and the usual assortment of college town watering holes.  Every Halloween, the place explodes, as the small town nearly doubles in size with nearly 20,000 visitors for the Athens Halloween Block Party.  Obviously, Ohio University is the mainstay in town, and the well manicured campus grounds are flanked by classic Georgian brick architecture across sprawling quads.  It seems like quite an agreeable place to spend four or five years… 

As I approach Peden Stadium, I’m reluctantly forced to shell out five bucks for parking.  The entire area surrounding the stadium Ohio University campus, and they’ve got all the lots on lock down.  A few big shot donors enjoy a tailgate right outside the main entrance to Peden, their set up complete with a custom bright green Ohio Bobcats tent.  Apart from them, however, the closest lots are mostly empty on a chilly Tuesday night.

I make up for the five dollar parking ripoff by securing a free game ticket.  As I approach the ticket window for one of the fifteen dollar seats, a gentleman taps me on the shoulder and hands me a freebie on the 40 yard line – row 3.  I’m starting to like the MAC already.

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Shortly after I find my seat, the game kicks off as the mercury drops into the low 20’s.  While cold games during a sunny afternoon can still be quiet tolerable, at night they are sheer misery, and a constant battle to keep warm.  Despite the cold, the Bobcats come out competitively in the first half.  Quarterback Tyler Tettleton connects for the Cats’sole touchdown, and they head into the tunnels at halftime trailing 17-13.  I head into the tunnels myself for a piping Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate.  

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In the second half, however, the Kent State Golden Flashes take command.  In one of the stranger plays I’ve seen this year, 260lb. Flash defensive lineman Nate Terhune takes a direct snap on a 4th down and 4 and rumbles 61 yards for a touchdown.  Visibly wheezing in the endzone after the lumbering run, it’s the longest play from scrimmage the entire night.  The Golden Flashes would tack on a few more touchdowns in the second half, and run away with a 44-13 blowout win.         

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Before I leave, I snap a quick photo with Rufus the Bobcat mascot.  While I don’t usually make a point of getting mascot photos, Rufus became a national sensation in 2010 when he relentlessly pursued and wrestled Brutus the Buckeye to the ground during a tilt against the Ohio State Buckeyes (VIDEO).  That he did this during the Buckeyes revered pre game entrance in front of 105,000 people, immediately made the story a front page scandal.   Brandon Hanning, the student inside the Bobcat costume at the time (since excused from the school), premeditated the entire fracas and made no bones his vitriol towards Brutus in this interview (LINK).  As a fan of any mascot altercation, I simply had to get a photo with one of the best brawlers in the biz. 

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In the end, my first MAC conference game was an interesting diversion from the usual lineup of heavy hitting premier programs.  To be clear, the atmosphere is a far cry from a typical Big 10 game, and drawing a comparison to those types of programs would simply be unfair.  If I had to put my finger on it, a MAC conference game has a similar feel to a minor league baseball game – in a good way.  The stadiums are smaller, family friendly and more accessible, with easy parking and almost zero traffic congestion.  Tickets are cheaper and plentiful, and you can generally sit wherever you prefer. The entire atmosphere is noticeably more relaxed, although fans are still passionate and prideful about their chosen school.  The game itself is slower and less precise than the big time schools, but that’s exactly the appeal.  The vast majority of players are here simply for the love of the game, and suit up knowing that few of them will ever play on Sundays. Absent is the semi-professional machinery that comes with seven figure coaches and bloated TV contracts.   It’s here, in conferences like the MAC, where the true amateurism and mission of college athletics is still alive and well.   And I’ll be back for more…

Peden Stadium Wide

Full Clickthrough gallery below:

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South Carolina vs Florida – New Englanders invade the heart of Dixie…

Shortly after an epic weekend in Morgantown, West Virginia last year (story here), my friend Tyler immediately set his sights on one of the premier destinations in the SEC for a 2013 college football excursion.  During our epic run through the Mountain State, we sampled jarfuls of moonshine, slammed beers out of giant fishbowls, and waded through the near riotous tailgating of the infamous “Blue Lot” before witnessing an incredible shootout in Milan Puskar Stadium.  Clearly, the expectations were set high for 2013.  And, perhaps even more inexplicably, his wife Kristi even allowed him to come along for another adventure this year.

With only a narrow weekend open in November, the South Carolina versus Florida matchup looked to be the most compelling SEC tilt we could find as we poured over the conference schedule early in the year.  At least it was the most compelling when we first picked the game about nine months ago, as it would likely have implications in the SEC East Division race.  While the Gamecocks held up their end of the bargain through the first few months of the 2013 season, Florida had floundered.  Fresh off a 34-17 drubbing at the hands of Vanderbilt, the Commodores first win in Gainesville since 1945, the Gators were sporting an unsightly 4-5 record.  What was supposed to be a marquee matchup in Columbia, might now turn into a lopsided affair.

As Tyler, a nuclear engineer by day, shared the upcoming football exploits with his Connecticut co-workers, a few eyebrows were raised.  College Football in the Deep South has a shadowy, mysterious intrigue to native New Englanders – a barren college football landscape dominated by professional sports.  As legends of raucous 80,000+ seat stadiums, tailgating lots filled with inebriated, unruly southerners and stunning, sun dress draped coeds were told; so to did interest grow in Tylers adventure.  Before long, six of his pencil necked engineer coworkers had signed up for this excursion, and planning reached new heights of detail.  Spreadsheets were created, as well as timelines, stress tests and contingency planning.  Hell, there was probably even a regression analysis and some six sigma witchcraft thrown in there for sport too.  In one particular stroke of genius, they even rented a thirty foot RV for the pilgrimage, and the full blown excursion was on.    As a true marketer by trade, I booked a plane ticket and a rental car, and left the rest of the meticulous planning to the experts…

I meet up with the merry band on Friday afternoon at our hotel, after they had driven the RV through the night from Connecticut and played an early round of golf at the Oak Hills Golf Club.   The round of golf was mostly obligation I presume.  You see, for native New Englanders, there’s no such thing as a trip to South Carolina that doesn’t involve golf or fireworks (or both).  They arrive at the hotel in the afternoon already sporting a handful of rosy, sun burnt faces, and shoehorn the RV into a dedicated lot out back.     

In the hotel Tyler first introduces me to the other 6 members of the crew (and I’ll use nicknames and/or aliases here because frankly I don’t even know their real names): Kirby, Stack, Meat, Dave, Thibs, and, predictably, Murph – because in any group of guys from New England there always has to be at least one token “Murph” or “Sully”….it’s the rules.  We swap a few beers and stories, while a few of them gingerly sample the apple pie moonshine I had bought at Palmetto Distillery in Anderson, South Carolina earlier that afternoon.

After a quick break, time enough for Tyler to put his face on, we hit the town on Friday night.  Strategically located only a few blocks from our hotel, many of Columbia’s finer watering holes line the streets in the shadow of the state capitol building.  We start the night with dinner and house microbrew at the Hunter Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse on Main Street, crowding around a few creaky wooden tables in the rustic reclaimed warehouse building.  From there we move to Flying Saucer, one of a small chain of pubs famed for having hundreds of beers on their menu.  For those brave (and wealthy) enough to try 200 of them, your name and accomplishment can be forever enshrined on a golden saucer tacked up on the walls.  We take country tours of the offerings from Germany, Belgium and the good ole USA, all of which flow continuously while we bounce a few quarters off the wooden tables.  After the Saucer, we bounce to a handful of pubs until the revelry ends in a fog in the early hours of morning.

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The wakeup on Saturday morning is a bit groggy for Tyler and I, but we’re pleased when a few early rising go-getters have already loaded the RV down with provisions for the afternoon ahead.  The rest of us soon pile in for the short 1.5 mile ride to Williams Brice Stadium, making a quick stop at a campus book store on the way for some black and garnet South Carolina garb.  Having northern accents is bad enough, but the last thing we’d want is for anyone to mistake us as infiltrating, jort wearing Gator fans…

We park in the fairground lots across the street from Williams Brice, one of the few lots accessible to RV’s.   Forking over a jaw dropping $150 for an RV parking hang tag, the attendant waves our lumbering fiberglass palace into the grassy field.  As the orange vested attendant guides us in, he notes the young (and inexperienced) looking Dave nervously gripping the wheel.  Peering through his mirrored aviator shades, the attendant sizes him up…

“Can you back this thing up?” he chides…

“Yessir” Dave responds. 

“Yeah, but can you back it straight?” The attendant fires back in a thick southern drawl, as a sarcastic smile flashes across his face. 

After some final fidgeting, we maneuver the whale into position between the white lines painted carefully onto the grass.  While in the hotel parking lot our thirty footer looked like a luxury palace, once flanked by some of the opulent land yachts that lumber in beside us, it suddenly looks like a toy.  We’re immediately struck with a case of RV envy, as the garish, coach bus sized, mobile estates unfurl carpets, outdoor kitchens and satellite connected flat screen TV’s.  Inside, they’re luxuriously appointed with marble floors, granite countertops, leather upholstery and every posh modern convenience you could possibly imagine.  From what I’m told, the American Coach behemoth next to us retails for nearly $500,000 alone. 

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While our crew may be newcomers to the nuances of RV ownership (or rental), they certainly aren’t rubes when it comes to tailgating.  They unload an impressive spread from the various storage compartments of the RV, with every detail considered.  After setting up the requisite tent, tables and chairs, we set to work tossing bean bags into a custom ordered “Gamecock” cornhole game.  Dave puts together an impressive four course feast for the day – burgers, home made chili, pulled pork and grilled chicken – an aromatic lineup which got him accosted by hungry admirers as he scurried it out of the hotel elevator.  The coolers brim with refreshing domestic light beer, and a few intellectual bon vivants exchange a riveting squabble over the merits of Miller Lite versus Bud Light.  75 degrees and sunny, a crystal blue sky sets in for the afternoon, and with a 7:00pm kickoff time scheduled, we have plenty of time to put in a solid shift of tailgating.    

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Despite a big time SEC conference adversary in Florida, the parking lots are surprisingly quiet on this pristine afternoon.  We take a stroll close to stadium, along some of the prime tailgating real estate lining George Rogers Blvd only to find the lots half vacant, the entire atmosphere noticeably subdued.  Even the infamous “Cockaboose Railroad”, a collection of old cabooses converted to extravagant tailgating rigs, is nearly deserted.  The sun decks and patios on them are vacant, and the entire area surrounding the East side of Williams Brice Stadium is uninhabited.  It’s inexplicable.   

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As the afternoon winds on, consumption accelerates and details become foggy.  The few hours leading up to the game devolve into aggressive bouts of beer pong, flip cup, shot gunning beers, and daring, outlandish physical challenges – like who can climb onto the roof of the RV without a ladder.  Before long, the jar of Palmetto Distillery moonshine is produced, and we swap pulls straight from the jar like a band of misfit hillbillies.  What started as a clean cut band of genteel engineers has now deteriorated into a disheveled   rabble of drunken degenerates.  In other words – fun.

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As often happens with great tailgates, the time passes in an instant.  Before long, the sun dips below the horizon and our beer supply dwindles.  We ransack the RV, searching every last crevice for a few remaining drops of alcohol.  The inside of the unit now resembles a meth house after all night rave.  Cushions and cans are strewn about, and the bathroom door lies defeated on the floor – ripped off at the hinges.  I swish my hands through the icy slush remaining in the final plastic cooler, and, after coming up empty, decide it’s time to head towards the beckoning lights of Williams Brice Stadium.  Fortunately, one member of the group had procured 8 consecutive seats ahead of time, so I could bypass the impossible task of trying to scalp 8 tickets off the street.    

The inevitable downside to finding 8 consecutive seats, however, is that those seats will be nosebleeds – a far cry from the front row 50 yard line seats I swindled during my last visit to Columbia in 2010 (Story Here).  In the towering concrete grandstands of Williams Brice stadium, sitting in the third deck would be like watching the game from the moon.  Upon entering the gates we begin our ascent, winding up the dizzying corkscrew ramp into the high night air.  I’ve hiked to Macchu Picchu before, and that was childs play compared to this….

Panting and lathered in sweat, we find our seats just in time for “Cocky” the South Carolina mascot, to make his signature entrance to the theme song of “2001 Space Odyssey”.  As tension builds and the symphony reaches its crescendo, Cocky bursts out of his cage while red fireworks explode skyward, 83,853 thousands fans maniacally erupting.  Shortly after, as kickoff looms, the entire crowd bounces and waves white towels to the pumping beat of the jock rock anthem “Sandstorm” while rhythmically chanting “U…S…C…U…S…C”.  While it may seem contrived, South Carolina simply has one of the most energetic entrances in the sport.             

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Despite the Gators injury riddled, lackluster season thus far, the game proves a lot closer than anticipated.  With starting quarterback Tyler Murphy injured, Florida pounds the ball on the ground in the first half, piling up 169 yards of rushing.  Gator running back Kelvin Taylor streaks through great gashes in the Gamecock defensive line for a pair of touchdowns, while standout Defensive End Jadaveon Clowney is nowhere to be seen.  The South Carolina offense is stymied for the entire first half.  Quarterback Connor Shaw sails the pigskin over open receivers, and the Gamecocks manage a measly pair of field goals.  At the half, they trail 14-6.

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In the second half, the “Ole Ball Coach”, former Heisman winner and Gamecock head coach Steve Spurrier makes a few defensive adjustments.  While usually known for his offensive schematics, in the second half the South Carolina defense takes charge.  They hold the Florida ground attack to only 31 yards in the second half.  Quarterback Connor Shaw finds a bit of rhythm for the garnet and black, connecting for a 32 yard score – the only touchdown of the day for the Cocks.  Kicker Elliot Fry is the true hero for South Carolina, however.  He continues his field goal onslaught, booting another pair of them in the 4th quarter, one of them from 43 yards, to give the Gamecocks the lead.  Ultimately, South Carolina squeaks out a 19-14 win over the reeling Gator squad, good enough to keep them in contention in the SEC East Division.

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In the end, this was one of the best weekends on the season.  A primetime tilt in the heart of SEC country is one of the great experiences in the sport, and this game proved far more competitive than expected.  But ultimately, it’s the people that made the weekend such a memorable one, and a reminder that college football is best experienced in large groups.  To a man, the entire Connecticut crew was a welcoming, raucous, fun loving bunch that put on a helluva show.  For most of them, this was their first experience in the SEC. Witnessing the sheer delight and joy spread across their faces under the lights in Williams Brice harkened back memories of my own first SEC experience, a misty Saturday night in Baton Rouge that’s had me hooked ever since.  Welcome to the SEC gents, can’t wait to hit another one with you next year…    

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Thanks to the Connecticut crew for making the weekend such a memorable one, and hope to share another one with you next year!

Special thanks to my friend Tyler and his ever patient wife Kristi for connecting for another year of adventure.  It’s not often you get to spend weekends with best friends, and I’m glad we can make this an annual tradition.  Can’t wait to see you again on the road next year man!

Williams Brice Wide

Full Clickthrough gallery below:

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Clemson vs Georgia Tech – Tigers tame Tech in the roar of Death Valley…

With a Saturday trip to Columbia, South Carolina booked months in advance with friends, a Thursday night tilt in Clemson was a fortuitous stroke of luck.  On my short list for quite some time now, Clemson was one of the most highly regarded game day atmospheres that I had yet to experience.  Sitting at #8 in the country with an 8-1 record, the 2013 vintage of the Tigers was looking formidable.  Their only blemish came from a 51-14 shellacking at the hands of the undefeated Florida State Seminoles.  While Thursday night games are decidedly second rate, especially in a top tier environment like Clemson, this ACC contest against Georgia Tech would allow me to sneak in an elusive Palmetto State doubleheader for the weekend.

Things start slowly on Thursday afternoon, when after landing I’m delayed at the Atlanta Hartsfield car rental center for a while where the girl informs me that they are out of midsize rentals.  She offers a shiny new silver Dodge Caravan as a replacement, touting the extra cargo space and captains chairs up front.  I promptly reject the lumbering suburban swagger wagon, and coax her toward a candy red Dodge Challenger as a replacement instead.  For a moment, I imagine myself hammering down South Carolina county backroads, winding through pine forests and mashing the accelerator as the throaty Hemi V-8 growls under the hood.  My dreams are quickly crushed when the girl chuckles dismissively at my counter offer, and I’m forced to wait twenty minutes for the next Toyota Corolla to come available.

From there, I beeline to Community Q BBQ in Decatur for a carnivorous lunch before heading out of Atlanta.  I order up their two meat combo of pork ribs and brisket.  Then, after spying a beef rib on the menu, a rare find outside of Texas, I promptly order one of these Jurassic sized offerings as well.  Two full meals and $25 worth of damage later, I settle into a nearby booth to prep for the carnage ahead.

A few minutes later an older fellow in a greasy apron lugged a haul of two aluminum trays over to me, visibly straining under its weight.

“Okay I’ve got a beef rib platter, and a two meat combo platter here…..who’s tray is who’s?” the waiter inquires.

“Umm those are both mine” I reply, matter of factly.

The waiter chortles, and chidingly remarks “Son, I hope you’re not planning on going back to work today”.  Little does he know that with the amount of BBQ and college football that I consume, this might as well be a career.

I was impressed with the BBQ scene in Atlanta on a previous visit earlier this year, and Community Q proves no exception to the inspired cue’ in the city.  The massive beef rib was the star of the show.  Perfectly rendered, with ribbons of unctuous fat glistening between the layers of beef, it’s impossibly savory and a prime example of a beef rib done right.  The pork ribs were well smoked and had excellent texture as well, pulling cleanly from the bone with only a slight tug. Next time I’ll order them dry, however, as they had been bathed in an unsolicited sticky sauce with an overpowering celery kick to it.  Brisket was the only protein that still needs tinkering.  It was completely trimmed of fat, and the flat cut portion was sawdust.  Fortunately, the sides compensated for the brisket.  Community Q’s three cheese (cheddar, Monterey Jack and parmesan) mac and cheese in particular, is worth the visit alone.

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Belly full, I make the drowsy two hour drive northeast along Interstate 85 into Clemson.  Arriving a few hours before the 7:00pm kickoff, the streets are already thick with gameday traffic, fans spill out of pubs and restaurants lining the streets in a torrent of orange.  I find free parking along Perimeter Road skirting the edge of campus, and walk through the various pockets of tailgating scattered throughout the well manicured university grounds.  A few purple and orange tents pop up in a choice lot, the entire area shaded by massive old oak trees, some of them at least 4 feet in diameter.  While the lots are only about ¾ full, a symptom of the Thursday night game, there is ample tailgating space on the sprawling lawns and asphalt lots of the Clemson campus.  During a big Saturday matchup, this place would be prime for tailgating.

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I make a brief stop at the Esso Club, a landmark bar in Clemson that occupies an old Esso gas station.  A live band wails away on an outdoor stage, and the bar is backed five deep waiting for a drink.  After waiting 20 minutes against the overcrowded rail unable to get a drink, I give up and head towards campus to pick up my prearranged ticket.

As I walk, tickets are for sale everywhere.  People thrust fistfuls of them in the air for sale, and scalpers ride up and down the street on bicycles proffering their wares.  Fortunately, I had set up a student ticket earlier in the week through my friend Ann.  Her little brother George, a senior at Clemson, would be unable to attend the game and offered me the unique opportunity to sit in the fraternity block student seating in the stadium.  Like most southern schools, where fraternity life tends to be more prevalent and influential, each fraternity has their own reserved block within the student seating section.  While I had witnessed the blazer clad chaos of fraternity seating at southern schools before, for the first time, I’d be smack dab in the middle of it.

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With kickoff looming, I follow the orange paw prints lining Williamson Road towards the hulking brick façade of Clemson Memorial Stadium.  After entering, I head towards the East side of the stadium to get a glimpse of Howards Rock – the iconic symbol of Clemson Football.  The rock, a chunk of white flint, was picked up in Death Valley, California by alumnus S.C. Jones in the early 1960’s.  Jones then presented the rock to head coach Frank Howard, as a tribute to Clemson Memorial Stadium, which had earned the moniker “Death Valley” from opposing foes.  After serving as a doorstop in Howard’s office for several years, the rock was then mounted on a pedestal and placed atop the hill of the players entrance to the stadium in 1966.  For nearly 50 years, Clemson players have a tradition of rubbing “Howards Rock” as they strut into the stadium during their traditional run down “The Hill”.

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As the night air starts to fill with fervor and electricity, “Death Valley” as it’s dubbed, roars to life.  In what has been described by some as the “most exciting 25 seconds in College Football,” the Clemson player entrance on to the field is one of the most revered in the sport.  Team buses are unloaded at the open East end of the stadium along Williamson Road.  Massive black iron entrance gates are then thrust open like the gates of Mordor, as the players gather atop The Hill.  Locking arms, they bounce and sway as tension builds.  Adrenaline courses through the crowd, and what starts as a boisterous chorus of cheers and whistles, reaches its zenith as deafening din.  After a few moments, fireworks boom above the cacophony, while thousands of orange balloons are released into the smoky grey sky.  Clemson players streak down The Hill, leaping and high fiving fans as they energetically bound onto the field.  It’s a magnificent entrance.

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Watch a full behind the scenes video of the Clemson entrance here:

From there, I find my designated seat on the cold aluminum benches of the Clemson student section.  While I have an assigned number on my ticket, like most student sections the entire area is generally open seating, although fraternities have their own reserved blocks.  As the contest kicks off, I’m soon swarmed by frat boys pressing into the rows, a few of them with neatly dressed dates in tow.  While there is no uniform for Clemson fraternities, swoop haircuts, navy sport coats, croakies and khakis may as well be the defacto outfit.  Rubber bottomed LL Bean boots also appear to be the footwear choice dujour on this brisk November evening.

The unruly bunch surreptitiously pours flasks of liquor into cups of soda, and swap pulls of cheap bourbon from well concealed plastic water bottles.  Half football game and half social event, the entire student section is one giant, shifting, social organism – constantly in a state of flux.  Students shuffle between rows, moving about, chatting with different friends and sending gawky fraternity pledges out for concession runs.  Occasionally, the entire rowdy horde erupts in fits of celebration at a Clemson score, drinks are flung into the air while the flimsy aluminum bleachers fold and flex under the collective weight of bodies jumping up and down.  I’ve sat in dozens of the best student sections across the country; Clemson can hold their own with any of them. It’s a raucous affair.

On the field, the game is never really a contest.  Sporting an 8-1 record, Clemson has been dominant nearly the entire season and they make easy work of the ACC middling Yellow Jackets.  Heisman contending Tiger quarterback Tajh Boyd erupts for 340 yards of passing, and sprints for the first down marker on several key third down conversions.  He fires four touchdown passes on the night, two of them to speedy standout receiver Sammy Watkins.  The grinding Georgia Tech option offense is stymied in the red zone.  While they still pile up nearly 440 yards of total offense, the Yellow Jackets never put enough points on the board to keep the frigid crowd in their seats in the 4th quarter, and hordes of purple denizens head for the exits.  The Tech defense surrenders over 550 yards to the Clemson blitzkrieg, and the Tigers run away with a lopsided 55-31 victory.

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In the end, Clemson is without question one of the premier destinations in the ACC conference, and the small college town is delightfully accessible.  Given its fervent fanbase and geographical location in the heart of the south, the football atmosphere at Clemson is easily on par with some of the finer venues in the SEC.  While “Death Valley” never quite filled up on my visit, and the Thursday night atmosphere was decidedly subdued compared to a big Saturday afternoon there, those are the realities of weekday games against mid tier opponents that I have learned to expect at this point.  That being said, my short time in Clemson was a brief window into one of the great venues in the sport, and I can’t wait to come back for an entire weekend to soak in the full Orange and Purple experience.  With Notre Dame beginning ACC play in the coming year, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of cohorts willing to make the journey with me when the Irish come into town….

Special thanks to my friend Ann and her brother George for coordinating the ticket hookup, and hopefully one of these days we can all meet up back in Clemson for an afternoon of tailgating and big time football…

Clemson Memorial Stadium Wide

Full clickthrough gallery below:

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