Pigskin Pursuit

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

Tag: Death Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiger Stadium Wide

Full Clickthrough Gallery Below:

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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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Tiger Bait!!! – LSU vs Florida…

Wow.

LSU prides itself on being one of the preeminent gameday experiences in college football.Tiger fans take immense pride in their tailgating prowess and boast one of the loudest stadiums in college football. Throw in a night tilt against a conference rival in arguably the biggest regular season game of the year, and you have all the ingredients for an unforgettable college football experience.

LSU vs. Florida in Baton Rouge lived up to all of these lofty expectations and vaults itself into the top handful of games I have ever experienced.

The tailgating atmosphere is a spectacle to behold.Nearly all of the action takes place in a well known area called Dalrymple, where legions of purple and gold adorned Tiger fans start claiming spots on Friday night before the Saturday festivities. Once Saturday rolls around, they spend their day blissfully gorging and guzzling themselves into a well lubricated stupor under the embracing arms of impressive towering oaks and manicured lawns.Purple and Gold shirts flood the landscape as far as the eye can see, and I can only imagine the horror of Florida fans being taunted by crowds of Cajuns rhythmically chanting and pointing “Tiger Bait….Tiger Bait…”

After our pit stop at Chimes to fuel up, we spent the next hour or so wandering around the Dalrymple area, taking in the vaunted gameday atmosphere.A quick glance at the watch told us it was time to head to the stadium and begin the arduous task of finding affordable tickets. (stay tuned for more to come on the student tickets we scored in another post)

The stadium atmosphere in Death Valley fully lives up to its well deserved reputation.90,000+ fans belting out “Callin Baton Rouge” in unison during the pregame was a joy to experience. Tiger Stadium is unequivocally (as difficult as this is for me to say), the loudest stadium I have ever been to.So loud in fact, that you cannot even hear your own voice screaming among the cheers of the raucous crowd.Given the record numbers in attendance on Saturday night (93,129 attendance), one could reasonably assume that we witnessed the loudest game in LSU history.I simply can’t imagine trying to quarterback a football team amongst this deafening roar, but as a fan it was a pleasure to be a part of the pandemonium.

Mike the Tiger being paraded around in his cage before kickoff.

Gearing up for kickoff…

We had the rare fortune of sitting (well standing) in the student section for the entire game (12 yard line Row 9).Like most big football schools, the student section at LSU is the heart and soul of the stadium and bar none the best place to sit (despite the fact that we somehow managed to end up in front of four Big Ten alums).The spirit, enthusiasm and fervor among the student crowd can draw even the most passive of fans into the frenzy surrounding a big play.Before the game even started, we had already screamed and sung ourselves hoarse ardently cheering alongside our newfound Tigerhood brethren.Given the choice, I would sit in the student section in every game I go to, what an unforgettable night

On the field, the Bayou Bengals simply couldn’t put it together on this night.Florida lived up to its’ reputation as the number one defense in the country, and it was painful watching LSU flounder to move the ball. The stagnant offense could only muster a field goal by the nights end. Adding to the Tigers woes, they managed a handsome job of shooting themselves in the foot with a multitude of offensive false starts and defensive offside penalties during key stretches of the game.At any point, they could have played themselves into the lead with a big play or two, but they could just never quite put it together

Final score: LSU 3 – Florida 13

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