Pigskin Pursuit

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

Tag: 2014 (page 1 of 6)

Connecticut vs SMU – Huskies blow the battle for the American Conference basement…

If I’m being honest here, I don’t hold much love for Connecticut. As a native Massachusetts boy (masshole), the entire state of Connecticut occupies that strange, soulless, transition area between the brash arrogance of New York, and the coarse, blue collar sensibility of the Bay State. Perpetually congested with traffic and void of the natural beauty of states like New Hampshire or Maine, I doubt many would lose a wink of sleep if the Nutmeg State seceded from New England entirely. Already soured by other visits to Northeast schools, frankly, I had low expectations for a trip to UConn.

But as the College Football season dwindles into December, pickings become slim, and with a Saturday home game on the calendar, this would be a perfect opportunity to sample a game in Storrs, without having to sacrifice a pristine October weekend. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t even get to visit Storrs, because UConn had made the brilliant decision to ship football games off campus into the barren wasteland of East Hartford – a half hour drive from the flagship campus. They are hardly an exception here; a similar mindset has infected a few schools in the Northeast, as Rutgers and UMass have made similar blunders with their respective programs.

To put it bluntly, the 2014 version of the UConn squad is hardly an attractive draw. Sporting a 2-9 record, the Huskies are a far cry from their 2010 glory year where they finished the regular season 8-4 and snuck into a Fiesta Bowl berth while a member of the now dismantled Big East conference. Led by first year head coach Bob Diaco, the former defensive coordinator of Notre Dame, the Huskies were hopeful for their third win on this weekend as the visiting SMU Mustangs sported the worst record in the FBS. Winless in their first 11 games, the Ponies had fired head coach June Jones, and interim coach Tom Mason would be manning the headset. If there was a single silver lining on the day, at least one team had to win.

My friend Tyler would be along for the adventure, and after joining me for the Oklahoma & TCU doubleheader earlier in the year, he was seasoned enough to lower expectations for UConn Football. The drive from his house in Suffield is a short one, and with tickets already secured ahead of time, we spend a few extra minutes “tailgating” inside his Ford Explorer with a bottle of whiskey and bag of Doritos while a steady drizzle turns the grass parking lot into a mud pit. As the clock winds down towards kickoff, we set off toward the grandstands of Rentschler Field, still getting frisked on the way in by inane security proceedings. Clearly, a scarcely attended football game on a rainy Saturday in December is a prime target for terrorist activity.

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While the UConn basketball programs (both men’s and women’s) enjoy considerable fanfare, even on a national level, it’s obvious that the football program here gets a distant second billing at best. The grandstands are all but vacant on a grey, misty Saturday afternoon and half the concession stands are abandoned. We have our choice of seating options, and take shelter under an overhang during heavier bouts of rain.

Surveying the stands I, shockingly, cannot locate a single Mustangs fan that had made the sojourn from Dallas for this heated American Athletic conference rivalry tilt. It’s proof positive of the ridiculousness of conference realignments that pit teams with no historical or geographic nexus against one another. The same money grabbing, incongruent, logic which put Rutgers and Maryland into the Big 10. I’d also love to get a whiff of whatever paint can the bean counter at the turnstiles was huffing, because the official stated crowd of 22,921 has the comma in the wrong place.

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On the field, the game proves to be an entertaining mess. The ball slick with rain, special teams errors abound – punters fumble with the ball, and kickers whiff on extra point attempts. All told, there are eight turnovers between the two squads, each of them doing their best to thwart victory. Fortunately for the few fans willing to brave the elements, UConn controls the first half. They punch in three touchdowns on a couple of sustained drives, and enter the locker rooms comfortably in command 20-6.

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In the second half, however, the Huskies collapse. They cough the ball up three times in the second half alone, adding further misery to their woes with a botched field goal. On the other side of the ball, SMU dual threat quarterback Matt Davis explodes. He scrambles for 191 yards and a touchdown, while feeding rumbling rusher Prescott Line for another pair of touchdowns. The Ponies reel off 21 unanswered points to upend the Huskies, trotting away with the first win of their dismal season to end up at 1-11. In a fitting end to a sloppy game, however, SMU incurred not one but two procedural penalties while trying to line up in victory formation. With their last win dating back to November of 2013, evidently they were a little rusty…

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After the game, we herd into Bears Smokehouse in Windsor for a post game feast. Founded by Kansas City native Jamie “The Bear” McDonald, the smokehouse is reputed to be one of the finest BBQ establishments in the state. Served cafeteria style, the menu features a standard array of barbecue offerings, along with a few novelty items like “Paw Paws Poutine” and “Moink Balls”. Perhaps the most interesting item on the board is the “Bears BBQ Sandwich Challenge”- an 8lb, $75, quivering mass of meat that comes free for the select few able to tackle it within the 45 minute time cap. For those daring enough, there’s also a $500 prize attached to the sandwich if you can “Beat the Bear” (McDonald himself) at quaffing the offering, no small feat considering he is one of the top ranked competitive eaters nationally.

I order a bit more restrained, opting instead for my usual humble combination of pork ribs and brisket (they were out of sausage). My request for slices off the brisket point (the fatty end) flummoxes the surly counter woman, however, and we spend the next few minutes debating the finer points of brisket butchery to accommodate my audacious request. Patiently enduring a few of her audible groans, the matter is finally settled and I slide on down the line. The food might be southern inspired here, but the hospitality is decidedly New England gruff. Unfazed, I add a massive beef rib to my burgeoning aluminum tray – a rare treat outside of Texas, and too tempting to pass up.

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Retreating to a table, we dive into the carnivorous offering while Tyler’s kids provide entertainment by smearing mac and cheese all over their faces. Bites of brisket are well rendered with a pronounced black bark, but could use a bit more punch from the smoke (they use a gas fired Southern Pride). The massive beef rib falls effortlessly from the bone into strands of unctuous morsels. The texture is there, but, once again, the smoke is lacking. Regardless, this is decent barbecue that could do well anywhere, and by pedantic New England standards I’d call it excellent.

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In the end the trip to UConn was exactly what I expected it to be, mostly mediocre. It’s never going to be a college football hotbed, and to think otherwise would be delusional. But spending a weekend with a lifelong friend is never a bad thing, and I’d gladly endure another miserable December game in East Hartford again if it means drinking whiskey in a muddy parking lot with a best friend.

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Special thanks to my friend Tyler and his wife Kristy, as always, for their incredible hospitality and loyal following.  Can’t wait to hit another road show with you next year!

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Georgia Southern vs. Louisiana Monroe – Eagles soar over the Warhawks…

Although any conversation about college football in Georgia inevitably starts with the beloved Dawgs, and perhaps the Ramblin’ Wreck shortly thereafter; there’s another proud program to be found in the Peach State: Georgia Southern.  After moving up from the FCS ranks to join the Sun Belt Conference in 2014, the Eagles were enjoying considerable success in their inaugural FBS season.  Soaring their way through the Sun Belt, they sported an unblemished 7-0 record in conference play, and a final showdown with Louisiana Monroe was all that stood between them and the conference championship hardware.  Ineligible for bowl consideration during their first two FBS seasons, this was the final contest for the Eagles 2014 season, and Paulson Stadium would be primed on a Saturday night.

While flying into Savannah would have been the more palatable alternative, with Thanksgiving weekend flight prices reaching north of $1,000 I opt for the cheap Southwest bird into Atlanta and hoof it 200 miles into Statesboro in a rental Ford Focus.  Things aren’t always as glamorous as they seem here on the pigskin chase.

An hour south of Atlanta, I detour into Jackson, Georgia – home of legendary Fresh Air Barbecue.  The oldest BBQ joint in Georgia, the fires have been burning here since 1928 and I sling open a rickety screen door while the cashier is still taking down the last chairs off the tables for lunch service.  The familiar aroma of oak and hickory smoke wafts through the building, and the ancient brick pits bear a distinctive patina from eons of char.  They smoke hams (the hind quarter of the hog) here exclusively, and chopped pork is the only protein on the menu – served plain or sandwich style. Naturally, I opt for both, retreating with the plastic tray to one of the folksy wooden tables.  I add in a side for good measure, a steaming styrofoam cup of hearty “brunswick stew” – a chunky, tomato based stew loaded with beef and vegetables – a fixture of Southern BBQ joints.

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Peeling out of the gravel parking lot of Fresh Air with plenty of time to spare before a night kickoff, I cruise backroads the remaining 150 miles into Statesboro.  Winding down Georgia State Highway 57, I pass through small towns like Irwinton, Wrightsville and Kite; each of them dotted with a selection of pristine, white washed, First Baptist churches.  During longer stretches the road bisects vast swaths of Longleaf Pine habitat – lush grasslands shaded beneath canopies of slender pines extending as far as the eye can see; one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America.  The roads are all but empty on a Saturday morning, save a few deer scampering across. It’s a pleasant drive, and a gentle reminder of the rural beauty that Georgia offers outside of the suffocating metropolis of Atlanta.

Arriving in Statesboro, the campus is quiet in the early Saturday afternoon.  I slip into some easy free parking at the Georgia Southern Performing Arts Center and take an obligatory tour of the grounds.  Strolling along a tree lined walkway skirting Lake Wells, the grounds all but vacant during Thanksgiving holiday, the campus resembles a country club carved into the Southern Georgia woods.  New buildings abound, accented by crisp new bricks and gleaming galvanized metal, all of them constructed in a massive, $300 million dollar expansion for the school since the early 2000’s.  The shiny new part of campus is offset by the traditional, lived oak lined promenade bisecting “Sweetheart Circle” – the old part.  GSU lettered topiary greets visitors at one end, while the South side is anchored by the imposing white columned, plantation style, Pittman Administration building at the other.

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With the sun dipping lower into the late afternoon sky, I wander my way towards the beckoning light towers of Paulson Stadium to find a more vibrant scene.  The numbered parking spaces surrounding the stadium are swarmed with revelers, tents are spread out on grassy medians, and blue Eagles flags flap with the brisk gusts arriving in the evening chill.  The lines at the two small box offices are stacked forty people deep, and ticket resellers are noticeably absent.  I press my usual carpet trading tactics in the asphalt lots instead, making a few passes with a raised finger before tracking down a single ticket for five bucks.

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As far as small program go, the Georgia Southern fan base is one of the liveliest I’ve seen.  For a Sun Belt game during the post-Thanksgiving hangover, a time when most stadiums are hibernating, the Eagles crowd is a delightfully raucous one.  They exchange alternating chants before the game – “Who’s house…..Our House!!!” and “Georgia…….Southern!!!” while a bird handler settles into position midfield, leather glove ready at the wait.  With one of only two live eagle mascots in college football, the other being Auburn, of course, Southern fans quietly enjoy one of the best entrances in the sport.  The crowd hushes for a moment once the signal is given, and “Freedom” the live Bald Eagle mascot of Georgia Southern, swoops down from the top of the press box.  Circling over the field at dusk, the wings of the great raptor outstretch like fingers brushing the rust colored horizon, it’s a magnificent entrance.

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In addition to Freedom the Eagle, for a school of recent vintage in FBS college football landscape, Georgia Southern is a charmingly tradition rich program.  The most integral part of that tradition is, simply, – winning.  One could forget that the Eagles claim six national championships at the FCS level since 1985 (the most of any school) before making the jump to FBS this season.  And the program today cultivates those humble, hungry roots.

They still take yellow school busses to the stadium, a tradition which began in 1981 when nearby Bulloch County school district donated the busses to an Eagle program that was too poor to afford its own.  The squad dons minimalistic uniforms of simple blue and white, free from garish accoutrements and frivolity – the anti-Oregon approach, if you will.  Their flat navy blue helmets are numbered, similar only to Alabama, and feature a white stripe down the middle.  The white stripe is a holdover from the early days of the program resurrection in the 1980’s under coach Erk Russell.  The skipper had ordered solid blue helmets because budgets were too tight and simply instructed the players to put a white strip of tape down the middle.  The same coach then rebranded a muddy, mosquito infested, drainage ditch outside the stadium to “Beautiful Eagle Creek” – and carried jugs of the “magical water” to sprinkle on opposing team’s field prior to away games.  While his methods may have been quirky, the traditions stuck, and Russell’s influence still celebrated in the program today.

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As the ball is booted into the Georgia night 16,283 fans belt in unison “Go!!!…….Blue! One more time!!!” a cheer dating to 1986 after the Eagles won their second straight national championship.  Despite the vociferous opening, the Southern squad starts out slow, however.  The offense sputters in the first half, eeking out a lone field goal and botching a second attempt.  Momentum comes in infrequent spurts, and their powerhouse, methodical running game – one which led the country in rushing average at 379ypg – falters. Despite their relentless ground onslaught, they are unable to penetrate into the second level of the defense and break off chunks of yardage.   The invasive Warhawks manage a touchdown in the second quarter, and at halftime the Eagles trail 7-3.

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But the ever passionate Georgia Southern crowd, the best I have witnessed at a smaller school, remains unfazed.  On their feet for every key play, they bellow the “Who’s House……Our House!!!” chant with renewed vigor as the eagle handler parades “Freedom” through the stands to rouse them on.  Finally, midway through the fourth quarter the Georgia Southern commitment to principle pays off.  They reel off two straight touchdown drives, steamrolling the gassed Louisiana Monroe blockade.  With 59(!) rushing attempts on the evening, the Eagle offense demonstrates a textbook example of a dogged, relentless running game wearing down a defense until it breaks.  Assuming control at 22-16, the Eagles defense holds on the final drive of the game, and they run out the clock to take home the Sun Belt Conference Championship.

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After the final whistle, fans remain in Paulson, cheering the culmination of their initial FBS season.  The PA announcer invites the audience onto the field for a post game celebration, and thousands of them descend onto the turf for the trophy presentation.  Standing on the patio near the east endzone, head coach Willie Fritz triumphantly hoists the Sun Belt Trophy high in the air.  Mobbed by players, and surrounded by a few thousand fans, the team enjoys a few minutes of public celebration before retiring to the locker rooms.

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In the end, Georgia Southern is the pinnacle of small program college football.   Where the program doesn’t benefit from 120 years of history, they create their own traditions, reinforcing them with a culture of winning.  Many smaller schools chuck the ball all over the field to fill the stands, but Southern sticks to their principles, pounding it out on the ground, a discipline instilled under the tutelage of great former coaches like Erk Russell and Paul Johnson (current guru of the Georgia Tech triple option).  The fans respond in kind, standing on their feet for all four quarters.  Southern supporters are among the most boisterous, loyal, and passionate fans I’ve encountered in my varied travels and they would be the envy of any program in the country.   I left enamored with my Georgia Southern experience.  “Southern” as it’s loyal followers refer to it, is truly a credit to this beautiful and varied sport.

Pound for pound, Georgia Southern is one of the best college football experiences in the game, and I’ll happily make the sojourn back to Statesboro to watch the Eagles soar again….Hail Southern!

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Marshall vs Western Kentucky – Herd drop a heartbreaker to Hilltopper Heroics…


It’s Friday morning in Huntington, West Virginia, the day after Thanksgiving.  I flew into Columbus, Ohio last night, and made the two and a half hour jaunt down winding farm roads of southern Ohio; watching the flat expanse of the Midwest transform into the undulating foothills of the Appalachians. Crossing over the Ohio River into Huntington, billowing clouds of steam emerge from the river valley, towering, rust colored smokestacks of Steel of West Virginia rising into the orange dusk sky. The proud river once formed the backbone of the U.S. steel industry; railroad tracks, bridges, and barges stretching from Pittsburgh to Illinois all forged in those same roaring furnaces.

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An exceedingly difficult place to get to, I’m in town to see the unbeaten Thundering Herd of Marshall University.  Their record sitting at a sterling 11-0 as one of only two undefeated teams in the country (the other being Florida State), the “Herd” fields one of the most explosive offenses in the game under the tutelage of aptly named head coach Doc Holliday.  While the formidable squad had climbed to #24 in the rankings, the equally high flying Western Kentucky Hilltoppers were in town for a Conference USA matchup that was sure to light up the scoreboard. With the pursuit of perfection comes the allure of an automatic bid to a major bowl game, and, should they win, the Thundering Herd could find themselves in the prestigious Peach, Cotton or Fiesta bowls – and the big prize money therein. As far as games in Huntington go, they don’t get much bigger than this…

 
I take a quick breakfast at Tudor’s Biscuit World, a chain to be sure, but a West Virginia staple with most of their fifty plus locations scattered about the Mountain State. They have about twenty different sandwich options on the menu, all served between one of their flaky, buttermilk biscuits. I order the signature “Thundering Herd” which comes stuffed with sausage, egg, cheese and a crispy hashbrown. The delightfully savory sandwich comes wrapped in yellow wax paper, turning translucent as it soaks up grease while I retreat to an open table to make short work of it.

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From there, it’s a quick drive up the road to Kenova, WV to knock out another long standing local favorite – Griffith and Feil Drugstore. Occupying the same location on Chestnut Street since 1892, the little 122 year old pharmacy provides all the conveniences of modern medicine, coupled with the old fashioned nostalgia of a main street pharmacy doling out hand mixed soda’s and cherry topped sundaes. I opt for a chocolate shake myself, watching gleefully as the counterwoman pumps syrup into the stainless steel mixing cup before plonking the decadent affair in front of me in a “Coca Cola” branded Styrofoam cup.

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Before heading over to campus, I pay my respects at the Marshall plane crash site. Unfortunately, no mention of the Marshall Football program comes without the memory of the tragic plane crash that took place on November 14th, 1970 claiming the lives of 75 players, coaches, fans and crew. Tucked off the side of an abandoned stretch of Old State Highway 75 due west of Huntington Tri State Airport, the site is marked with a small plaque, American flag and a few Marshall University mementos. Certainly one of the most somber moments in athletic history, the Marshall story projects an uplifting tone – a story about rebirth, and the power of sport to comfort a small community like Huntington in the face of such tragedy.

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Driving into campus, the town gown juxtaposition is an interesting one. The sprawling greens of the college lawns are flanked to the North by an enormous Steel of West Virginia complex that stretches nearly the entire length of campus, the imposing weathered steel structures a constant reminder of the proud heavy industry that supported Huntington (and other towns along the Ohio River valley) for decades.

 
The streets already coming alive with kelly green garbed fans, I slide into a parking space on the corners of 17th Street and 6th Avenue while a few bloodshot eyes stagger out of the ramshackle student houses nearby. Dusted with an overnight blanket of snow, the tidy campus is anchored by “Old Main” an impressive gothic inspired brick building featuring four castellated towers, a structure which serves as the icon of Marshall University. Pressing further into the heart of campus stands the bronze mass of Memorial Fountain, dedicated to the memory of the 1970 crash victims. The fountain on this day runs dry, for each year on November 14th the water is turned off for the winter season, and a memorial service is held to remember those that were lost.

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Finding my way over to Joan C. Edwards stadium, named after the philanthropist donor that gave over sixty five million dollars to the university, I raise a finger in the air and wander through the expanse of green tents parked in front of the stadium. Despite being the biggest contest of the year for the unblemished Thundering Herd, I track down a choice seat on the fifty yard line for twenty bucks. Shortly after finding my seat, white smoke billows from the green inflatable tunnel at the North end of the stadium, as the crowd rises to its feet. The Thundering Herd squad bounds onto the field, trotting behind the roar of a Harley Davidson motorcycle costumed with a buffalo head and hide – one of the stranger mascots (?) that I’ve encountered…

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The contest on the field lives up to its explosive billing. In fact, the word “explosive” is a complete understatement as a handful of FBS records are eclipsed on the day. In the first quarter alone, 49 points are scored, each team sprinting down the field unabated by any semblance of defense. The Hilltoppers, domed with gleaming chrome helmets, run wild in “The Joan” as the Marshall crowd hushes in disbelief when the ‘Toppers run out to a 42-21 lead early in the second quarter.

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The Thundering Herd’s breakneck offense sputters. Led by standout senior quarterback Rakeem Cato, one of the most accomplished passers in Marshall history, he uncharacteristically fires three interceptions in the first half alone (4 total), to hamstring The Herd. Despite the initial adversity, however, they persevere, bringing the score to within a touchdown before halftime. At the end of the first half, the scoreboard reads an astonishing 49-42, all of the points coming from 13 combined touchdowns and nearly ½ mile of total offense (832 yards).

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In the second half, the game slows into a more traditional pace. Each team trades drives, but the defenses adjust, and the punters finally make a few rare appearances. As the contest presses on, the Marshall crowd roars back to life, exchanging alternating chants of “We are!”…..”Marshall!” Finally, deep into the 4th quarter the Thundering Herd stage their final drive trailing only by a touchdown. Cato redeems himself, leading a methodical 12 play, 82 yard touchdown drive that knots the score at 59 -59 with only a few ticks left on the clock. A WKU interception shortly after the ensuing kickoff cements the tie, and the rollercoaster contest heads into overtime.

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Marshall wins the coin flip in the extra frame, and in two quick plays Cato fires a 25 yard touchdown pass to assert control – their first lead of the entire game. The Thundering Herd faithful, all of them on their feet, roar with delight, visions of the prominent Fiesta, Peach or Cotton Bowls (and their lucrative pay days) are in their grasp. A perfect 12-0 season and a sunny bowl destination only a few plays away. But the Hilltoppers have a spoiler in mind, and they promptly respond with a two play, 25 yard touchdown of their own as the green crowd shrieks.

 
But then, WKU head coach Jeff Brohm makes one of the gutsiest calls any coach can make – in lieu of safely booting the extra point for a second overtime, he signals his squad for a two point conversion. The contest, and Marshall’s perfect hopes and dreams, will be decided by the next play. Hilltopper quarterback Brandon Doughty rolls out after the snap, the entire play unfolding in slow motion as 23,576 fans collectively hold their breath. Doughty finds wide receiver Willie McNeil alone in the corner of the end zone, unfettered by the Marshall defense and before he even releases the ball the crowd sees it too. A few Herd fans next to me bow their heads while the ball is released, they already know the outcome. McNeil gathers in the soft pass easily, tapping two feet assuredly in the back corner of the endzone to complete the two point conversion before erupting in celebration as his teammates swarm him. The Hilltoppers just pulled off an incredible 67-66 overtime win in one of the most electric games I’ve ever witnessed.

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After the game I file into Jim’s Steak & Spaghetti House for a warm post game meal. Located on 5th Avenue in downtown Huntington, the red neon marquis jutting out over the sidewalk beckons pedestrians inside. A city staple since 1938, Jim’s is a delightfully preserved holdover from the era of great American diners. Not much has changed here since JFK once sat down during a campaign trail in 1960, his charismatic, toothy grin enshrined on the wall above the booth in a black and white photo. Stainless steel sparkles behind the linoleum countertops, swiveling stools and plush booths upholstered in green leather line the floral wallpapered walls, while an old timer gently nurses a cup of unpretentious black coffee from a ceramic diner mug. The place is closed on Sundays, they don’t take plastic, and the waitresses still wear uniforms – crisply pressed white skirts accented with matching green aprons, their hair neatly pinned up in buns.

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My paper placemat reads “smile” in big green letters, while I observe a steady stream of customers piling into Jim’s for to-go orders. Some of them are greeted by name, before greedily sniffing their take out bags and backing out the door as a bell chimes overhead. I browse over the laminated menu briefly, before settling on a namesake platter of spaghetti. While a plate of pasta isn’t my usual carnivorous fare, when everyone in Huntington urges you to get the spaghetti at Jim’s, I kindly oblige. It comes in three sizes; small, medium or large, and is topped with a heaping portion of chunky meat sauce and accompanied by a basket of soft Italian bread. I finish the meal off with one of their signature house made pies – chocolate, naturally, dressed with a healthy layer of genuine whipped cream.

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It’s comfort food in a comfortable place, a perfect wind down from the afternoon frenzy of an adrenaline filled college football shootout. Now it’s time to jump on a plane to the next barnburner – Statesboro, Georgia – to see if the Georgia Southern Eagles can lay claim to the Sun Belt Championship crown in their inaugural FBS season…

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Houston vs Tulsa – Cougars rock the Golden Hurricanes…


It’s Saturday morning in Houston, and I’m on the third leg of a tripleheader weekend in Texas – an American Athletic Conference matinee featuring the University of Houston pitted against the University of Tulsa. The previous two nights had brought me to Texas State and Rice, both of them pattered with intermittent bouts of rain. A quick glance at the black sky swirling above the Space City portends yet another menacing afternoon.

 
The good folks at the Cougar scheduling department felt the same way, when, only a day before the contest, they moved the late afternoon tilt against the aptly named “Golden Hurricanes” up to an 11AM start time.  Were it not for the hot tip from my college football brethren at College Football Quest I might have missed the third installment of my Texas Trinity weekend.  While TV networks have been known to wreak havoc on a schedule only weeks before the game, this is my first such encounter with a weather change the day before.

 
As if my general contempt for early morning start times wasn’t enough, a refrain which I have echoed on this site many times before, some extra Ziegenbocks at the Rice game the night before has left me knocking a few cobwebs out of my head.  But as Brian, my host for the weekend, dons his best apron and deftly doles out a generous helping of scrambled eggs loaded with jalapeño cheese sausage from Kreuz Market, spirits improve quickly.  Just as the talking heads from ESPN College Game Day start their morning shtick, we head out the door for kick.

 
Taking another Uber through one of the seedier parts of town (Houston is one of the largest cities in the world without a subway system), we roll past hot chicken stands and colorfully painted bodegas. Broken concrete sidewalks flank some of the dilapidated houses propped up on concrete blocks, while vacant lots in between are overgrown with weeds and cluttered with debris.  Located in the Third Ward of Houston, an area which boasts one of the worst violent crime rates in the country, the neighborhood surrounding the UH campus isn’t a place that you’d want to wander around much after dark, or even daylight for that matter.

 
Approaching Cougar Stadium, dubbed a tongue twisting TDECU Stadium, the grandstands sparkle in stark contrast to the ramshackle neighborhood as the newly constructed erector set architecture rises high above the surrounding buildings. Opened earlier this year in 2014, after replacing 70 year old Robertson Stadium on the same ground, it’s the newest stadium I’ve attended on my travels. The smell of fresh paint and concrete still wafts through the air in TDECU, and concessions are plentiful. Shorthand for Texas Dow Employees Credit Union, the backers shelled out 15 million bucks over the next ten years to have their name emblazoned on the side of the building.

 
Despite the shiny new building, however, the Houston program enjoys some rich tradition given its relatively small stature in the college football world. Cougar fans have been treated to some of the most prolific quarterbacks in the college ranks during the past few decades. 1989 Heisman winner Andre Ware wore the Scarlet Red, setting 26 NCAA records during his campaign season in the early days of the Run and Shoot offense. His successor in the early 1990’s, David Klingler, tallied even greater mind boggling numbers under the same offense – at one time chucking 11 touchdown passes in a single game, and setting career NCAA records for yardage and touchdown completions at the time (he still ranks in the top 10 today).

 
Recently, gunslinger Case Keenum smashed the NCAA career yardage mark in 2011, tallying over 19,000 yards during his career and eclipsing former Hawaii great Timmy Chang by over 2,000 yards. He also went on to set NCAA career records in touchdowns (155) and completions (1,546) during a career that spanned six seasons and two redshirts in Houston. Even the past two head coaches have used the Cougar program as a stepping stone to higher profile jobs. Offensive guru Art Briles (2003-2007) was plucked out of the high school ranks prior to taking over the reins in Houston, and currently oversees the revival of the high octane Baylor Bears. His successor at the helm, Kevin Sumlin (2007-2011), graduated to the Texas A&M job down the road after a successful four year stint in Cougartown – a stay which was capped by a 12-0 regular season in 2011.

 
Back on the street, I grab a pair of tickets from a scalper for ten bucks a pop, a deal I probably could have negotiated better, but they’re the first tickets I’ve paid for all weekend and it’s too early in the morning for protest. Finding our seats on the 5 yard line, the Cougars storm out of the tunnel while the listless crowd continues to file in, some folks still clutching a morning coffee. With darkened skies and low overhanging mist, the stadium lights are turned on, even in late morning.

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Fortunately, the lone bright spot on this dark day is the action on the field. The Cougars come out screaming, kicking off the first quarter with a nice pair of sustained, eighty yard touchdown drives. Running back tandem Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson trade carries, marching down the field as quarterback Greg Ward Jr. manages the game efficiently. Despite the offensive struggles this season from the historically prolific Cougar offenses, embroiled head coach Tony Levine has them running productively today.

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Despite coughing the ball up three times, however, the Tulsa squad hangs around – refusing to be put away. Deep into the 4th quarter, with seven minutes remaining, they knot the game at 28 apiece. Cougar fans grow restless, groaning at the late score, but their team has an answer. Assuming control of the ball deep in their own territory on an ill-advised kickoff return, Houston begins their march at the 11 yard line. They methodically rip off chunks of yardage down the field, balancing crisp passes with well timed runs when the defense leans on their heels. With the ball on the Tulsa 40 yard line, the Cougars break the Hurricane defense, connecting on a beautiful 38 yard pass to wide receiver Kevin Dunbar down to the Tulsa 2. Punching in the touchdown one play later, Houston caps off an 10 play, 89 yard drive that snaps the remaining spirit of the Tulsa squad. They roll on to win by a final of 38-28.

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Immediately following the game, Brian and I bee line to Killen’s BBQ in nearby Pearland.  While truly world class BBQ has historically eluded the city of Houston, Killen’s has been receiving high praise since opening its doors earlier this year. Started by Houston steakhouse owner Ronnie Killen, the confident pitmaster set his sights firmly on BBQ that could rival Aaron Franklin’s in a well-publicized conversation with the Houston Chronicle, and the entire staff dons black t-shirts embellished with the phrase “the best barbecue, period.” Judging by the behemoth reverse flow Lang smoker parked out back accompanied by a healthy stack of post oak cordwood, the place certainly shows promise.

 

Arriving in later afternoon, we’re well past the lunch rush line, and stride directly up to the cafeteria style counter. I order my usual “Texas Trinity” of beef brisket, pork ribs, and house made sausage – the three main criteria upon which all BBQ joints should be evaluated. They’re unfortunately sold out of beef ribs, but a few slices of smoked pork belly catch enough intrigue for an order, along with a couple bottles of ice cold Big Red soda.

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Watching a few juicy slices of brisket fold off the carvers knife, and it’s apparent this place is legitimate before the food is even tasted. Carnage ensues as Brian and I retreat to a nearby table, grabbing fistfuls off carnivorous delight off the heaping tray. The pork belly is impossibly rich, almost too much so, as the buttery fat drips from every bite. Pork ribs feature a quarter inch pink smoke ring around the meat, while the sausage snaps with each peppery bite. The brisket steals the show. Slices from both the point and the (trickier to cook) flat are moist, perfectly rendered and bursting with smoke. A nice peppery bark caps all the slices, pairing perfectly with offset pulls from the sweet nectar of Big Red. This is, by any measure, some of the best BBQ in Texas – and therefore the world.

 
Gobbling down the last few morsels of Texas barbecue, it’s a fitting end to a three game parlay in the Lone Star State – a place which boasts twelve FBS teams in all. Fortunately, I still have a few schools left to see here, and I’ll gladly take that excuse for another weekend full of meat trays and football…

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Special thanks to my friend Brian for hosting me for the weekend, and can’t wait to catch a few more games with you next year man!!!

 

Full Clickthrough gallery below:

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