Pigskin Pursuit

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

Tag: 2015 (page 1 of 3)

North Texas vs UTEP – Eagles grounded by the Miners…

I have no excuse for taking this long to see a game at North Texas. It’s shameful, really. During my four yearlong Dallas tenure, I was preoccupied with speeding across the expansive Texas plains to exotic destinations like College Station and Lubbock. I had also made a bevy of far flung road trips to schools in nearby Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, logging up to eight hours behind the wheel in the wild and intemperate youth of the PigskinPursuit. Even within the DFW Metro area itself, the soaring TCU program was one of the hottest tickets in the sport, and the Cotton Bowl slobber knocker between Texas and Oklahoma ranks as one of the biggest annual matchups in the NCAA. The North Texas Eagles, located only twenty minutes up the road from Dallas in nearby Denton, Texas had, quite simply, slipped below my radar.

Excuses aside, this weekend, that omission would finally change.

But the weather gods in Denton would make me pay for my tardiness. While I had specifically chosen southern destinations for my late November pursuits to find agreeable t-shirt weather, the wild tempest of North Texas called for something more sinister. Freezing rain and howling winds were forecasted all weekend, with bitter temperatures hovering just above freezing. This would not be a day for tailgating, or exploring sprawling campus lawns under sunny skies. In fact, having packed light for the preceding games in Florida and Georgia, I’d have to borrow a jacket from one of my Texas friends just to survive the afternoon in Denton. As such, my trip to the North Texas Mean Green Football Machine would be an abbreviated one.

Located just off I-35E in Denton, access to the stadium is a breeze, and I find easy free parking on the north side of the highway right next to Fouts Field, the former home of Mean Green Football. From there, it’s an easy walk over I-35 across a pedestrian footbridge that connects with the grounds surrounding Apogee Stadium. Opened in 2011, Apogee’s defining feature is a giant V-shaped grandstand that looms over its surroundings like a pair of great aluminum Eagle wings. This unique feature gives the stadium a distinct look to any other that I have visited, and its signature is easily visible to the thousands of motorists speeding by on 35 every day. With a stated attendance of nearly 30,000 fans, however, the stadium is hardly bigger than some of the colossal high school venues in North Texas like Allen’s Eagle Stadium (18,500) or Toyota Stadium in Frisco (20,000).

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But what it lacks in capacity, Apogee Makes up for in its sensitive environmental impact. The stadium is the only one in the country to achieve a LEED Platinum certification (a certification system for green building techniques), and encompasses such green features as runoff water retention systems, permeable paving, and three 120 foot wind turbines used to capture the howling prairie winds for power.

I collect an easy free ticket, a fancy plastic club level seat, from a member of the UNT Alumni Club who is standing outside the Alumni Pavilion with fistfuls of them in his gloved hands. Entering the stadium, I’m greeted on the concourse by a bright green Model A Ford, accented with a decal of a flying eagle. Similar to the “Wramblin’ Wreck” car at Georgia Tech, UNT has their own “Mean Green Machine” – a fully restored 1931 Ford Model A Tudor Sedan that serves as the pride of North Texas Mean Green athletics.

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Portending a miserable day ahead, I grab a bucket of hot chocolate from the concession stands, pull out a fistful of napkins to wipe down the aluminum bleachers, and settle into a wide open swath on the 40 yard line. It’s senior day today, so before the game begins each of the graduating players are announced individually on the PA. They run through a gauntlet of their teammates lined up on the field, greeting their loved ones at the end, embracing in tearful hugs with the mothers. I feel bad for the players. It’s a miserable day and a lackluster crowd because of it. Only a few muffled cheers are mustered for each of the departing seniors, the crowd so mummified in blankets they can barely rise. Hardly an appropriate send off for four years of sacrifice and dedication. The game kicks off a few moments after, when the remaining underclass members of the Mean Green football team storm from the gates on the south end zone, sprinting onto the frigid turf.

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The foul weather in the stands would magnify on the field, and with neither team remotely close to bowl contention, the effort between the lines is noticeably subdued. Neither team in North Texas wanted the football on this drizzly afternoon. There would be seven turnovers in all, the UTEP Miners owning five of those in fumbles alone. Aside from the frenzy of a few fumbles dancing across the slick turf, the first half is a snooze fest of sloppy play. The only scoring in the entire frame is a meager chip shot field goal by the Mean Green.

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Things pick up a bit in the second half, when we see nearly every kind of touchdown that a team can score without their offense actually touching the ball. In the third quarter alone, there is a punt return touchdown, and interception return touchdown, and a fumble recovery touchdown; all of them within a span of five minutes. The on field antics breathe a little life into the listless crowd, a few fans even manage to unfurl their blanket cocoons long enough to stand and cheer for a few fleeting moments in the sleet. But whatever hope the Mean Green Machine had for their second win of the season was dashed early in the fourth quarter, when the Miners punched in a touchdown to take the lead 20-17. With an offense that hadn’t moved the football all day, to the tune of only 205 yards of total offense, North Texas fate was all but sealed once they dropped behind. They would go on to lose 17-20, sending their seniors out even more unceremoniously after a dismal 1-11 season.

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Naturally, after the game I adjourn to my second home in Dallas; Pecan Lodge BBQ. Because nothing lifts the spirits after a frigid, dreary afternoon like the kiss of mesquite smoke across an unctuous beef short rib. An appropriate final meal for the close of the 2015 season.

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Full Clickthrough Gallery Below:

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Georgia State vs Troy – Panthers prowl past the Trojans…

If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably heard a familiar refrain by now about things in the college football world which are quick to draw my ire. Domed stadiums, for instance, are one such example. Their very existence is antithetical to a sport meant to be played and enjoyed in the elements. Under beautiful October skies, and brisk autumn winds. College games played in NFL stadiums are another such complaint. Sterile and cold, erected in the wasteland outskirts of town and crowned with garish luxury boxes, NFL venues lack the charm and heritage of their college brethren. Even big cities themselves diminish the college football experience. The jewels of the college sport aren’t surrounded by skyscrapers, and they aren’t to be found in places like New York and Chicago – places where a college football Saturday draws nary a wink from the average citizen. The true gems of the game are tidy college towns like Tuscaloosa, Athens, Madison and Norman. Places where Saturday’s are alive, the air electric, the entire town embroiled, consumed with the promise of a big matchup.

A trip to Georgia State then, which satisfies all three of the reviled criteria stated above, was a curious choice for me. Located in the heart of sprawling downtown Atlanta, they play all of their home games inside the antiseptic confines of the hulking Georgia Dome – primarily the home of the Atlanta Falcons. As if those three affronts weren’t enough, the Panthers have only fielded a football team since 2010 and Georgia State itself is a tight, urban, commuter school lacking a campus in the traditional sense. Located right next to the monolithic Georgia State Capitol building, the GSU grounds are vacant on a Saturday morning with the exception of a few wino’s milling about Hurt Park. Clearly, expectations had to be tempered for this particular visit.

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Before the game, I head over to the Krog Street Market, a hip, repurposed warehouse and former home of the Atlanta Stove Works, a cast iron stove and pan forge that closed up shop in 1988 after nearly 100 years in business. In 2014 those industrial bones were converted into a covered market for a handful of new hipster food shops. Browsing through the space, surrounded by exposed brick and heavy timber beams, an artisan chocolate maker offers me free samples of steaming hot chocolate from an outstretched recycled bamboo tray, a ruse to which I almost fall prey until I uncover the dirty truth: it’s vegan hot chocolate.  In other words, brown colored water.  Nearby, a few dozen bearded waifs wait in line for the craft beer store to open, key chains dangling from their belt loops, presumably lined up for some obscure, limited release, “sour beer” that tastes like a foot.

There’s a Chinese dumpling counter, an artisan charcuterie shop and a grass fed ice cream maker, among many others, all under the same roof. It’s a brilliant concept really, an incubator for food startups. Shared rents and lower barriers to entry make it much easier for anyone with a spatula and a dream to throw their toque into the ring, without the high risk gamble of a traditional stand-alone restaurant. Diners are the real winners, and for any foodie, the sheer craft and variety to be found in Krog Street Market is a dream come true. One could spend a month gorging in here without getting bored. Be warned, however, that the variety comes with a trade-off. The hipster influx here is palpable and the unkempt hordes of faux flannel wearing, mustache waxing, black rim bespectacled buffoons are nauseating.

Not nauseating enough, however, to deter my appetite for barbecue. I fold into line for Grand Champion BBQ, one of the stalwarts of the Atlanta barbecue scene since 2011. The small stand here is a satellite location for them, the proteins presumably shipped in from the main smokehouse in Roswell. Like any good joint, the ribs and brisket are still carved fresh, and the slicer delicately unwraps the black crusted delicacies from clear plastic as he attends to my order. Both the pork and beef offerings here are decent, but nothing extraordinary. It’s the delicious, yet standard and predictable barbecue that I have come to expect from a gas fired Southern Pride smoker. It always eats well but may not exactly deliver on “Grand Champion” level expectations.

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After lunch, I head straight to the Georgia Dome for the Panthers early afternoon kickoff against the Troy Trojans. Garage parking for ten dollars is the only option within a few blocks of the stadium, the entire area engulfed by the concrete expanse of the Georgia World Congress Center. I circle the dome briefly, and, far as I can see, tailgating is completely absent. No grills, no tents, no unruly students or tired jock jams emerging from loudspeakers. The only sound to be heard on a Saturday afternoon is the pinging of strings against a colonnade of aluminum poles, flags flapping in the breeze.

I bum a free ticket from a few ardent fans lined up at the entrance, loyally decked out in bright blue Panthers sweatshirts and hats. But inside, the Georgia Dome feels the same as any other dome – antiseptic, sterile. Only the first level is open for Georgia State Games, and less than half the concession stands roll up their aluminum grates for business. The atmosphere feels cold and empty, like having the entire building to oneself. Admirably, there are a few thousand passionate Georgia State fans in the building, cheering, screaming, and doing their damndest to give the Panthers a home field advantage. The best of what fandom should be. Despite their earnest effort, they are dwarfed by the cavernous confines, their voices faint and helpless in the vacuum, swallowed up within the belly of this concrete monster. I feel bad for them. Their fledgling program needs a more appropriate home.

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Despite the sparse crowd, the contest bears the hard fought passion of the college game. Helmets pop and echo louder in the giant space, and coaches can be heard on the sidelines audibly lecturing linemen about blocking assignments. On the field, the Panthers put on a good show. Quarterback Nick Arbuckle has a lively arm, and he tallies up 368 yards of passing while zipping a pair of touchdowns. His target du jour appears to be lumbering senior tight end Keith Rucker, who hauls in 10 catches for 154 yards during his final home game. Panther fans are treated to the team’s second straight victory, as the squad trots away with a serviceable 31-21 win.

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In the end, I’m not going to tell you that a trip to Georgia State is some hidden jewel just waiting to be discovered. Because it’s not. And even the most ardent of Panther fans would likely say the same. In fact, they may struggle to stay afloat in a market already dominated by a bevy of professional sports franchises, and a longstanding college football program in Georgia Tech.

But, there is hope on the horizon for the Panther program, and a stadium of their own to call home. They were recently selected as the winning bidder to take over the soon-to-be vacated Turner Field property nearby, former ballpark of the Atlanta Braves, and the cornerstone of a 300 million dollar redevelopment project for GSU. With over 50,000 enrolled students passing through the halls annually, this project, coupled with the sheer number of alumni, could lay the foundation for a sustained program in the future. When all of this comes to pass, I may just find myself in centerfield for a ribbon cutting ceremony at a new Panthers stadium sometime around 2020.

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Central Florida vs South Florida – Knights gored by the Bulls in pursuit of reverse perfection….

We all turn our heads at car wrecks. We run to the window when we hear screeching tires, or watch the news with morbid fascination, our mouths agape during videos of a train derailment or capsized ship. It’s a part of us, the dark side of humanity.

So when I tentatively penciled a late November game at Central Florida on the calendar, I signed up to watch a college football car crash. I didn’t set out with the intention to see an 0-11 football team, things just kind of played out that way. During my torrid end of season planning, a trip to UCF was one of the only options available on Thanksgiving, and the Knights were in the twilight of their worst season in history. So while I never aim to see a program on its knees, I’d be a liar not to admit the trip to Orlando came with that same dark fascination that compels us to stare at the morbid. Sometimes, we just want to see things on fire. Exactly what, I wondered, would the atmosphere, fans, and players be like at a program about to complete a winless season?

The 2015 fall from grace was a rapid one for the Knights program. They are only one year removed from a 2013 campaign in which they posted a 12-1 record, finished ranked 10th in the nation, and slapped around a gun slinging Baylor squad for a major BCS Fiesta Bowl win. They even defended their American Conference title again in 2014, and posted a respectable 9-4 record before the wheels came off this year. But after beginning the 2015 campaign at 0-8, twelve year head coach George O’Leary (the same O’Leary of Notre Dame resume scandal fame) resigned, sending the Knights football program into a tailspin. Clearly, for a group of fans and players with a recent history of winning, things were looking dour in the Magic Kingdom.

It was an odd juxtaposition, I suppose, for the Knights to be located in Orlando of all places, home of Disneyworld. The happiest place on earth. Given my aversion to all things gauche, however, I didn’t hold high hopes for uncovering cultural diversions in the “theme park capitol of the world”, which was, in my mind, simply another soulless Florida wasteland of beige strip malls and insufferable family vacation attractions. While I would certainly be foregoing a trip to the rug rat hell of Mickey Land, an easy hour drive eastward to Merritt Island revealed a far more palatable cultural option – the John F. Kennedy Space Center. So on Thanksgiving morning, I skip the turkey, and head into space.

For a “family” attraction, the space center is anything but affordable. It costs me ten dollars to park, and a whopping fifty dollars for admission. And, despite the holiday, there are still plenty of tour busses and minivans pulling into the lot, unloading packs of feral children to roam about the grounds in light up sneakers, filling the air with a cacophony of wailing and squealing. One can only hope they are drawn towards attractions like the “Angry Birds Space Center”, and away from the more historical and culturally significant pieces of space history.

But entry price and sticky fingered toddlers aside, there are few places that arouse such fervent American jingoism as a trip to the Kennedy Space Center. Here, the triumphant, determined, American spirit is condensed into a single, 144,000 acre beacon of human ingenuity. Living abroad has given me an outside perspective on the vast cultural influence that the United States has had on the world for the past seventy years. And our space program and subsequent moon landings are, arguably, amongst the most impactful and defining cultural moments of the twentieth century. It’s impossible not to feel an overwhelming sense of national pride in the achievements here.

Highlights of the park include the “rocket garden”, a collection of rockets from the early days of the space program. Encompassing the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, they showcase the systematic, iterative process by which NASA engineers pushed their way into the black abyss a little bit deeper each time. The Atlantis exhibit sits in a building nearby, showcasing the thirty year history of the reusable Space Shuttle Program, which gave rise to advancements like the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope.

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From the visitor center, I then board a bus which shuttles visitors over to the Saturn V complex. Along the way, the bus ride tours around the active part of the Kennedy Space center, known as Launch Complex 39. Highlights of the bus route include the Elon Musk funded Space X platform, the Vehicle Assembly Building (V.A.B) – which, at 524 feet is the largest single story building in the world – and, finally, the massive tracked crawler transporter that carries the towering rockets upright from the hangar to the launch pads. The sheer size and scale of the engineering here is almost impossible to grasp.

But the true gemstone of the entire complex is the Apollo/Saturn V Center. For even the casual space fan, the exhibitions documenting the lunar landings here are fascinating. Exhibits such as the Apollo 14 command module, the lunar landing module that the astronauts stepped out of and onto the moon (suspended from the ceiling because it cannot support itself on earth’s gravity) and the lunar rover are things that we’ve all seen in videos hundreds of time; but to see them up close and intimately adds a completely new dimension to the significance of those moments.

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But the biggest spectacle is the sheer mass and presence of the Saturn V rocket itself. Laid lengthwise on its side only 15 feet from the ground, suspended by heavy steel columns and extending over a football field in length, hovers a fully restored Saturn V rocket from the heyday of NASA’s 1960’s space race. 363 feet long and 33 feet in diameter, the Saturn V remains, to this day, the largest and most powerful rocket ever constructed. Beyond its dizzying size, this giant “flaming candle” may be the most complex engineering challenge ever built in human history. Walking beneath such a monument to man’s ingenuity is humbling to say the least, and sends the mind spinning.

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To step back and think about all of the minutia – every single button, switch, bolt and screw had to be accounted for, tested, and retested; then every little part of it painstakingly assembled into this hulking, explosive giant – perhaps the most complex machine ever constructed – all of it done manually and analog, without the aid of anything resembling a modern computer; and then hurled at thousands of miles an hour through temperatures of thousands of degrees, hundreds of thousands of miles from earth directly into the ice cold vacuum of space; and then have the entire contraption do a U-turn and come home again with its pilots in one piece (never mind that whole “landing on the moon” thing in between): the whole undertaking simply defies imagination. It’s impossible to grasp the extent of the engineering challenges encapsulated here by watching grainy videos on television; one has to visit this place to truly grasp the magnitude of the achievement. Attendance should be mandatory for every American.

Or at least make a visit here a prerequisite for entry into Disneyworld….

After a morning of space exploration, I take an afternoon appetite to one of the premier barbecue haunts in Orlando – Four Rivers Smokehouse. Boasting fourteen locations throughout the state, my expectations for a “chain” barbecue joint were pretty dim. Then again, nearly every bite of barbecue that I’ve had in Florida has been completely mediocre, (including a visit to famous BBQ loudmouth Myron Mixon’s “Pride N’ Joy” location in Miami), so I didn’t have anything to lose. Worst case scenario, I could always hit the “Beefy King” afterwards for a reliable steamed beef sandwich.

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An impressive selection of micro sodas greets me inside the doors of Four Rivers, and a mosaic of colorful bottles and flavors from small bottlers all over the country line the cooler. To my satisfaction, the aroma of smoke wafts through the shiny new restaurant, the menu features a full selection of Texas barbecue offerings, and beef ribs are even available on the weekends. Good signs so far. I settle on a combo of brisket and pork ribs, which, the cashier proudly proclaims, are smoked over hickory. As I move on down the ordering line, the meat carver happily accepts my request for slices from both the point and flat of the brisket. I raise an eyebrow in subtle approval…

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Retreating to a table, still skeptical of anything Floridian, I gingerly gnaw on each of the protein offerings. Both of them, to my astonishment, are well crafted. Ribs pull cleanly from the bone with only a slight tug, and the fat cap on the brisket is completely rendered into unctuous, tender morsels. This is quality barbecue. If there’s a fault, it’s that the meats lack a strong smoke profile, and the hickory profile is faint. If I had to guess, I’d bet that they are using a gas or electric smoker with wood assist – a setup which produces easily replicable, consistent results, but lacks a smoky punch. Regardless, this is actually good barbecue, and, by middling Floridian standards – it’s outstanding.

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From there I walk over to the UCF campus, one of the most unique pieces of landscape architecture in higher education. As one of only two campuses in the country designed as a series of concentric rings, (the other school being UC Irvine) the entire campus is arranged like a bullseye. Inspired by Walt Disney’s original plans for EPCOT, the campus was centrally planned from the beginning (as opposed to the organic outward sprawl of most universities) and intended to be pedestrian oriented. The Student Union and Library are located at the center of the bullseye, contained within the Pegasus Circle walkway. Progressing outward from the center, the rings become (appropriately) Mercury, Apollo and, finally, the outermost circle – Gemini – the only such circle accessible to vehicle traffic. The circles are further divided up into pie shaped wedges by other walkways radiating out from the center, what remains is a campus plan that resembles a dartboard. Different wedges of the pie then make up the different colleges within the University, interspersed with a handful of ponds, parks and fountains that offer respite from the hot Florida sun.

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Evidently “theme park” planning in Orlando even applies to higher education.

UCF itself is a juggernaut. With enrollment at over 63,000 students, it’s quietly the largest university in the country. Given its size, parts of the campus feel like a small suburban subdivision. There’s a shopping village on the perimeter of campus, where students can select from Jimmy John’s, Dominoes or Dunkin Donuts, among other chain eateries. Fraternity row looks like an upscale cul-de-sac in the subdivision, with giant plantation nouveau style homes flanking both sides of the street. There’s even a skating rink and ferris wheel set up on Knights Plaza. A few tailgaters revel across the street from the Plaza, their tent and coolers set up along a beautiful long stretch of Bermuda grass that penetrates all the way to the center of campus known as the “Memory Mall”.

I begin my walk towards Bright House Networks stadium along the brick lined promenade that connects the football stadium to the baseball park. A huge steel sculpture of a Golden Knight mounted on a horse rears proudly in the middle of the walkway, as the brassy regalia of the UCF Marching Knights files in towards the entrance gates. With a sole finger thrust in the air, I track down a free ticket to the contest quickly, a season ticket actually, made from thick plastic and attached to a lanyard. There’s a bar code at the bottom of it, scanned for each home game, but since this is the last home game of the year it’s an easy giveaway. On the front of the laminated plastic the slogan reads “Back to Back American Conference Champions 2013 & 2014”, a subtle reminder that the Knights are only a season removed from success.

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The stadium never fills up, as one would expect, and there are vast swaths of the aluminum bleachers vacant on a Thanksgiving night. But the fans that do show are of the die-hard ilk, and as passionate as you’ll find in the game. They do their best to rise and cheer, screaming when the Knights come storming out of the tunnel – some of the players for their last home game.

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As the contest kicks off, for a few fleeting minutes, the Knights faithful are given a glimmer of hope. For an 0-11 football team, the crowd is a surprisingly vociferous and passionate bunch, their energy and commitment a credit to the Central Florida fan base. UCF quarterback Justin Holman marches his squad down the field, grinding out 61 yards on nine plays before kicker Matthew Wright boots an easy 28 yard field goal through the uprights. The knights jump out to a quick 3-0 lead, the crowd cheers wildly and boisterously, as if they had forgotten about their 0-11 mark. For a moment they know the feeling of confidence.

But that would be the end of it…

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The remaining 55 minutes of the game is a thorough curb stomping at the hands of the South Florida Bulls. Aside from their 61 yard opening drive, the Knights only squeak out another anemic 140 yards of offense for the rest of the contest – cementing their position as the worst offense in the entire FBS for 2015. Holman would revert to form, tossing two interceptions and completing only 10 of his 26 attempts. His counterpart for the Bulls, however, stuffs the stat sheet on the night. USF signal caller Quinton Flowers accounts for all five of the Bulls touchdown, firing three of them through the air and scampering for another pair. By the time the final whistle calls mercy, the Bulls have gashed the Central Florida defense to the tune of 455 total yards of offense, running away with a 44-3 blowout.

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If the Knights 0-12 finish tells us one thing, it’s that clearly, not every story in the Florida fantasy land has a happy ending….

Looks like Knights fans will have to hope for something better in the sequel.

But if there’s a single takeaway to be taken from my trip to UCF, it’s that even for smaller programs at the end of catastrophic seasons, there are still fans that don their jerseys, pack their trunks, and motor in on a holiday night to cheer their squad until the final whistle. And that is what true fandom is all about….

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Full Clickthrough Gallery Below

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Boston College vs Notre Dame – Irish fight off the fumbles in frigid Fenway…

Growing up a native Bay Stater and ardent Red Sox fan, Fenway Park has always held a nostalgic mystique for me. My earliest sports memories involve wading through the crowds on Yawkey Way, clutching my father’s hand, the smell of roasted peanuts and cheap cigar smoke hanging in the air like a fog. We’d press into the arched brick façade, squeeze through the old mechanical turnstiles with a satisfying clunk, before the days of laser tag scanner beeps. Once inside, we’d buy a couple hot dogs for a buck fifty apiece, coating them with a few shiny foil packets of Gulden’s Mustard.

From cramped wooden slatted seats we’d watch Sox greats like Wade Boggs slap the ball around, while Jim Rice patrolled the iconic left field wall in the twilight of his career. My father would school me on the finer points of the game while I groveled for a Hood “Sports Bar” ice cream from the barkers climbing up the steps. Afterwards, we’d camp out on Van Ness Street near the player exit, hoping to land a few autographs before the freshly showered big leaguers sped off in shiny new sports cars. The same spot where I once snagged Mark McGwire’s signature during his 49 home run rookie campaign in 1987.

Despite the cliché, the ballpark felt more authentic then. There were still a handful of the old, “golden era” parks around the league at that time (Yankee, Tiger, Comiskey, Wrigley, etc.), and Fenway hadn’t yet become the self-celebratory theme park it has evolved into today. It was grimy and rusty, signs were faded (not just painted to look faded), the amenities were spartan, and the crowd was rough and haggard. The very bricks themselves seemed to ooze the yeasty aroma of eons of cheap, stale beer, popcorn and sweat. While today the skeleton remains the same, the park has undergone a considerable facelift in the past decade as part of the “family friendly” marketing strategy the Red Sox have employed. A strategy that has paid off with a decade long sell-out streak, and grandstands overflowing with pink baseball caps and Vineyard Vines polo shirts.

Unsatisfied with mere sellouts, as part of the indefatigable chase for revenue (a necessary evil within the arms race of modern baseball), the Red Sox management has opened up the gates to the park for any kind of cross promotional event imaginable, all in an effort to extract every possible nickel from the “lyric little bandbox”. Everything from Rolling Stones concerts to NHL games have been played here of late, and a 4-H pony show can’t be too far away.

In similar fashion, the University of Notre Dame has shown recent exuberance for extracting every last drop of revenue from the withering historic pulp of their football program. The tackily branded “Shamrock Series” contests have featured “neutral site” games in locations of puzzling geographic nexus for the opponents. The contracts, however, are lopsided to favor the Irish who get to claim to an outsized portion of the ensuing gate and TV windfalls. In the past decade, Irish fans have been treated to what might otherwise be interesting matchups, were it not for the peculiar locations. In lieu of simple home and home arrangements, fans have been treated to games like Notre Dame vs Washington State in San Antonio, Notre Dame vs Miami (FL) in Chicago, and Notre Dame vs Arizona State in Dallas; to name a few. Clearly, for the revenue obsessed top brass at both Notre Dame and the Boston Red Sox, an Irish football game in Fenway Park was a match made in revenue whoring heaven. Ka-Ching….

Throw in a flunky opponent, the floundering Boston College program would do quite nicely, and you had all the components for a late November college football cash grab. Too add even further humiliation to the Eagles, despite their campus being only 3.9 miles away from Fenway Park, *Boston* College had agreed to be the VISITING team for this little boondoggle. As if that weren’t insult enough, given the tight confines of the Fenway Park visitor locker room, the Eagles would actually have to dress in Chestnut Hill and then bus over to the stadium like a high school JV squad. Fredo indeed.

Yet it was precisely here, at this eccentric event, on a cold November night, that I found myself. As a lifelong fan of both the Irish and the Red Sox, there was a certain magnetic pull towards this contest that trumped my revenue mongering protestations towards it. And, as an ardent sojourner of the sport, I felt a certain obligation to investigate first hand these oddball collaborations that seem to be gaining popularity throughout the college ranks. Next year, for instance, Tennessee will play Virginia Tech on the infield of Bristol Motor Speedway, and Cal will be opening their season versus Hawaii in Sydney, Australia.

But like all things Boston and Fighting Irish related, my intrigue came with a hefty price. I’d forked over $175 per person for the pleasure, which may be the highest face value, regular season, college football ticket in history. On the secondary market, tickets were starting at nearly $1,000 each and ranged considerably higher from there. I can only imagine the field day the legendary Boston scalping racket had for this event. With a stated capacity of only 38,686, less than half a typical Irish home game, the limited confines of Fenway Park would make this the least attended, and, hence, most exclusive Irish “home” game in decades.

My father had agreed to tag along for the spectacle, making his annual pilgrimage on the PigskinPursuit. We meet up on Newbury Street, the heavily trafficked, outdoor, upscale shopping district of Boston after I drop my car in a parking garage for thirty five bucks. With a hankering for a long overdue, classic American cheeseburger, we huddle into Shake Shack for a few quick burgers and beers before making the hike up to Fenway. When Dad inquires about our seats, I show him our tickets for the event, gingerly pulling them out of my zippered coat pocket like a winning lottery ticket. His eyes grow wide when he sees the face value printed on the front, audibly gasping, nearly choking on a mouthful of cheeseburger. In between bites he yammers something about footing the bill for a large portion of my college education, and how I can surely pony up for a few football tickets for the old man. Add this to the list of baby boomer generation entitlements I’ll have to foot the bill for, I suppose….

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While Boston itself is a decidedly mediocre college football town, overshadowed by the fanatical professional options in town, the streets are surprisingly alive on a brisk Saturday night. We begin our stadium journey down Boylston Street, the sidewalks flush with Irish fans, a shuffling mass of green sweatshirts. Boston College fans are far scarcer. With the Eagles 3-7 record, most of them smartly opted for the NBC broadcast at home. As we cross over the Mass Pike and turn onto Landsdowne Street, the spine of the Green Monster, the party is in full swing. Revelers pile out of the dingy bars on both sides of the street, and lines are stacked thirty heads deep outside waiting to get in. The entire street is cordoned off by police, its width swarmed with fans in a giant, roiling din. The aroma of browning onions wafts from sausage carts, the vendors rolling a few plump links across a hot grill, while the sound of souvenir barkers fills the air with thick Boston brogues. It’s not your typical college football tailgate, but close enough.

We enter through Gate C on Landsdowne Street, taking our seats in section 38 near the deepest part of centerfield, known in Red Sox lore as the “triangle”. The football field is laid out parallel to the first base line in Fenway Park, extending into the deep part of right field, the end zones nearly touching the padded walls of the relief pitching bullpens. The sight lines are a bit odd, as one would expect in a ballpark, and a broad swath of outfield grass separates the stands from the sidelines. For as small a park as Fenway is, the game action feels “distant”.

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As the pregame clock winds down, and a few of the glitzy Notre Dame promotional videos finish playing on the video screen in centerfield, the Irish storm the field. They emerge, almost single file, from the first base (home) dugout while a cascade of green fireworks erupts into the night sky high above the home plate press box. Sporting bright, Kelly green, “Green Monster” inspired uniforms, the Under Armour creations are nearly solid green from head to toe, accented only with the infamous gold helmets. While in years past some of these “Shamrock Series” uniforms have been nauseating abominations (thankfully Adidas has since been kicked to the curb), this particular vintage looks quite sharp under the phosphorescent glow of the Fenway lights.

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Although the uniforms might look sharp, despite the heritage of the billing and venue, on the hallowed fescue of Fenway Park the game proves to be one of the sloppiest fiascos I’ve ever witnessed. With a lofty #4 ranking entering the contest and college football playoff hopes on the horizon, the Irish do their best to Charlie Brown themselves out of the playoff picture on primetime national television. They turn the ball over an infuriating five times, three of those turnovers occurring inside the Boston College three yard line. The ball slips in and out of hands like a Harlem Globetrotters circus stunt, and the plucky Eagles refuse to go quietly into the frosty New England night.

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Sophomore Irish quarterback Deshone Kizer leads the turmoil. He wastes no time firing his first interception of the night, a bullet into the chest of the BC defender in the Boston College endzone on the opening drive of the contest. The meltdown caps off an otherwise impressive 60 yard march for the Irish. Kizer would add another pair of pickoffs during the game (one more of them of the soul crushing variety at the three yard line) to finish with three interceptions on the evening. Not to be outdone, Irish running back C.J. Prosise fumbles twice (one of which is luckily recovered by center Nick Martin) and, for fear of being left out, freshman backup  tailback Josh Adams gets in on the action with a fumble of his own. Even the sure hands of speedster wide receiver Will Fuller are greased, as he drops a few cupcake catches after darting behind the BC secondary. By the end of the night, the Irish would rack up 447 yards of total offense, but only manage two meager touchdowns to show for the effort.

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Self-flagellating notwithstanding, Notre Dame manages to slink away with a narrow 19-16 win, but not until after a dramatic dive onto the on-side kick to end the game. Although still technically a win, the Irish are sure to find themselves a few notches lower in the polls after this particularly lackluster effort.

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In the end, I’m torn about the Irish experience at Fenway Park. On one hand, there’s an undeniable nostalgia for witnessing the intersection of two of the cornerstones of my youth sports passion – Notre Dame Football and Red Sox baseball. And, of course, sharing an evening at Fenway Park with my father conjures enough maudlin, Kevin Costneresque sentiments to make the night a memorable one. But there is still something unshakably artificial and contrived about all of it. A lingering, glossy, commercialism that divulges the thinly veiled financial motive. The entire production feels heavily produced and cunningly marketed to feel authentic, but in a Disneyfied way that feels artificial, plastic.

But I suppose it could be worse. They could have played another game at Yankee Stadium…

Special thanks to my father for making the haul to Boston, it’s always special to spend an evening at Fenway Park with your Dad, and I look forward to another annual trip together next year!

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