Pigskin Pursuit

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

Tag: MAC (page 1 of 2)

Western Michigan vs Michigan State – Broncos broken by the invading Spartans…

As the 2015 college football season kicks off, big changes have been underfoot during the off season here on the Pigskin Pursuit. While my seventh season of intensive travel was intended to be the biggest ever, delving even further into the most remote corners of the sport, a new career opportunity thwarted all of those plans. In May, I accepted an expat assignment with my company to go live and work in Paris (the French one) for the next few years, so I packed up the schooners and relocated to the City of Light.

For an intrepid traveler and bon vivant, this was both a personal and professional dream that was simply too enticing to pass up. So while the unbridled gluttony portion of the “Pursuit” will still operate at peak capacity, evidenced by my initial cheese intake here in France, the “Pigskin” aspect of it (at least the American football aspect) will be slightly more subdued for the next year or two. Undaunted, I still have a few tricks up my sleeve for this fall, and I’ll be traversing the Atlantic to take in a handful of games.

While originally I hadn’t intended to return to the USA until October, a fortuitous early September work trip would bring me back to the friendly shores of lady liberty just as the 2015 college football season was kicking off. With a flight locked into Chicago, I’d be in town early enough to kick the season off with an exciting doubleheader: 1. a Friday night kickoff in Kalamazoo, Michigan to see the Western Michigan Broncos host formidable Michigan State and 2. Shoot down to South Bend, Indiana the next day for the historic Notre Dame vs. Texas season opener under the Saturday lights. Not a bad little doubleheader to kick off the season.

After the wheels of a nine hour transatlantic flight hit the tarmac, it’s a three hour drive to Kalamazoo from O’Hare airport. Equipped with a comically underpowered Toyota Corolla, I set off along the agonizing, painful stretch of Interstate 80/90 that skirts the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Eighteen wheelers clog the narrow lanes, Illinois State Troopers proliferate the medians, and frequent tollbooths sporting the latest in 1970’s technology, all grind traffic to a sluggish crawl.

The unmistakable waft of sulfur hovers thick in the humid summer air like a mist over the withered manufacturing bones of Gary (Indiana). In the distance, the hulking, industrial silhouette of Gary Works – U.S. Steel’s largest manufacturing plant in the country – puffs white plumes from their towering blast furnaces into the clear blue sky. It’s my first time behind the wheel of a car in three months, and instead of a leisurely cruise down a winding county road, I’m grinding my teeth and limping along one of the most nightmarish, dystopian stretches of road in America. A stroke would be a welcome respite right now.

Although Michigan isn’t exactly a state synonymous with great BBQ, after a few months of living abroad, any place with pork ribs looks like Pecan Lodge and I’d happily scrape the brisket trimmings off a Dickey’s carving block right now. So I pull into the first BBQ joint I can find in Kalamazoo – Hogzilla BBQ – which is little more than a takeout stand in a seedier part of town. Someone should take my car keys, because clearly, in my state, judgement is significantly impaired.

Hogzilla proves a thoroughly craptastic affair. The ribs are undercooked and chewy – and by chewy, I mean I’m literally attempting to tear them away from the bone like a jackal yanks at a water buffalo carcass. Brisket doesn’t fare any better. The grey lifeless protein lies somewhere between roast beef and sawdust, and I deign to the ultimate insult of dunking it in sauce to choke it down. Appallingly, for nearly twenty bucks, my meal doesn’t include any sides and there are no bathrooms available to patrons – even ones that have just driven three hours from Chicago. The fact that Hogzilla has foisted not one but two of these abominations on the Michigan dining public is both a sham and an affront to common decency. The good people of the Mitten State deserve better.

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Fortunately, my spirits lift a few minutes later when I pull into the Western Michigan campus. The sun is out, sidewalks are lined with fans clutching cases of beer, the aroma of burning charcoal wafts through the air like an autumn perfume and tents line the grassy medians, neatly arranged into tiny villages. The spirt of college football blooms for a new season in Kalamazoo.

After easing the little rental Corolla into some free street parking on Forest Street, I wade through the rabble assembled in the shadows of Waldo Stadium and press further into the main campus for a quick tour. The Western Michigan grounds are neither offensive nor noteworthy. It houses the usual assemblage of unremarkable higher education architecture, many of which seem to resemble hospitals or corporate office parks. Judging by the amount of newer buildings, the campus appears to have grown considerably in the past decade or two.

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From there, I work my way back towards Waldo Stadium. Carved into the side of a wooded hill, the stadium occupies a massive sports complex that also houses the baseball, softball and track facilities for the Broncos. The sidewalks are lined thick with game day fans pouring out of remote parking shuttle busses, all shuffling towards the stadium as kickoff nears. Half of the fans wear black Bronco t-shirts accented with the 2015 team slogan “row the boat”, a phrase coined by new head coach P.J. Fleck meant to bring solidarity and spirit to the football program. The other half of the mob wears green and white, as many of the Michigan State contingent braved the 1.5 hour ride down from East Lansing to witness the season opener for their promising 2015 Spartan squad.

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Unfortunately, the influx of in-state fans has driven ticket prices to absurd levels for a Mid American Conference game. Previously, I’ve been able to score the majority of my MAC tickets for free. The scalpers tonight, however, are having a field day ripping off unsuspecting fans. They’re demanding prices upwards of $150 a pop – over double face value of $68, for a Western Michigan game. Comical. For perspective, I paid $200 for my Alabama vs LSU ticket when the teams were #1 and #2 in the country – easily the biggest regular season game of the past decade.

Frustrated when the scalpers obstinately refuse to budge, I opt to canvas the parking lots instead, trotting up and down the rows with a single finger raised in the air. After an hour of searching, I finally haggle a fan in one of the parking lots down to $70 for a choice 40 yard line seat, grumbling as I fork over face value for the privilege. Western Michigan tickets are a hot commodity on a Friday night…

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As the Michigan State band begins its march into Waldo stadium, fervently pumping out brassy regalia, it signals the start of my 2015 season and I file in shortly behind them. As anticipation builds towards kickoff, the Western Michigan squad assembles in the Northwest tunnel while the packed house of 30,885 rises to their feet. A few seconds later, Triumph, a white spotted American Paint horse mounted by a member of the WMU Equestrian team bursts out of the tunnel. The horse dashes across the field at full gallop, while the Broncos players sprint behind, leaping and bounding with the vigor of a fresh season coursing through them. After a quick coin flip, the Spartans line into a neat row on the 35 yard and await their kicker to drop his arm.

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The game kicks off with a bang. Broncos return man Darius Phillips sprints 70 yards through the Spartan coverage team before being tripped up on a shoestring tackle at the MSU 30 yard line. The Bronco crowd explodes with the initial surge, but their hopes are short lived when the offense stalls and a field goal attempt is botched four plays later. After a Michigan State touchdown, the speedy Phillips strikes again, however, this time streaking a full 100 yards unabated for an exclamatory Western Michigan touchdown. Clearly, the plucky Broncos don’t intend to roll over for their bigger in state brethren.

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After the initial onslaught, however, the Spartans assume more control. They settle into a grinding offensive pace and tighten the grip on defense, shoring up the special teams mishaps that opened the game. To their credit, the Western Michigan crowd is a vociferous bunch, amped up for the season opener; they rise to their feet on every third down wailing away at MSU quarterback Connor Cook.

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As the half draws to an end Michigan State leads 27-10, but with the fight in the Broncos squad, it’s hardly a comfortable margin. After the usual band marches at halftime, Waldo Stadium explodes in a shower of fireworks. Bursting high above the south scoreboard, the night sky is ablaze with streaks of green, red and orange, the crowd cheering with each successive report. A grizzled old Broncos fan next to me remarks “they must have wanted to light em’ off at halftime, because it would look strange to light off fireworks after a loss…”

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The second half kicks off under a thick cloud of pyrotechnic smoke, still hanging heavy in the humid night air as the acrid smell of sulfur wafts over the stands. The Broncos mount a determined charge in the second half. Quarterback Zach Terrell zips a pair of touchdowns, drawing the Broncs to within 10 midway through the fourth quarter, and the crowd swells with anticipation of a miracle. But with 1:41 remaining, Terrell makes his second mishap of the day, floating a soft pass into the corner of the endzone for an easy interception by Spartan defender Vayante Copeland – sealing the fate of the Bronco faithful. A few victory formations later, Sparty escapes Kalamzoo with an uneasy 37-24 win, and a few hard lessons for their upcoming battle with the Oregon Ducks. To their credit, the Broncos players and fans never fold in this one, and they “row the boat” until the final whistle…

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It’s a rare treat for a MAC program like Western Michigan to host a traditional power like Michigan State, and with an electric crowd for a season opener, it was a fantastic start to the Pigskin Pursuit in 2015. With a few winks of sleep I’ll skip down to Notre Dame in the morning, the Irish are kicking off their season against Texas – a historic matchup involving two of the most storied programs in the sport, and that’s exactly where I intend to be….

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UMass vs Ball State – Minutemen maul the Cardinals in McGuirk…

As November comes into full swing, college football schedules start fragmenting into every conceivable day of the week in an effort to boost television ratings and exposure. The MAC conference, specifically, pencils in an extensive menu of Tuesday and Wednesday night games in November to satisfy the football fanatic. While some may lament the expansion of the game into random weekday time slots, I, for one, embrace it. It enables me to catch a handful of extra games during the season, in some locations that may not otherwise merit a full weekend.

With a Wednesday night matchup scheduled against Ball State, The University of Massachusetts Amherst presented one such opportunity for me this fall. As newcomers to the MAC conference and FBS at large, the Minutemen are still feeling their way into big time college football. As a successful and prideful Division 1-AA team, the promotion to FBS has come with a considerable amount of controversy from the local populous. Alumni and sportswriters alike have have grumbled at the initial foibles as the Minutemen struggle to find an identity in their new environs and have suffered more than a handful of boneheaded defeats. These struggles, coupled with the fact that they have played their first season and a half of games at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots NFL monolith located nearly two hours away from the Amherst campus, and supporters were getting restless in Amherst.

Despite growing up in the shadow of the Amherst campus, a stone’s throw across the Connecticut River, I had never been to a football game at UMass before. We had season tickets to UMass basketball growing up, watching the team emerge from an obscure program in the tiny Curry Hicks Cage gymnasium to a brief stint as a final four juggernaut during the heyday of the John Calipari era. But despite driving by the beige concrete grandstands of McGuirk Alumni Stadium along highway 116 hundreds of times during the past three decades, I had never seen a down of football there. Having chased football all over the country for the past six seasons, tonight would be a “homecoming” of sorts for me.

A short drive from New Hampshire, I poke my way down to Amherst after work on Wednesday night, through the winding county highways of Western Massachusetts. The last few glints of fall foliage hang loosely from the mixed hardwood forests as I press over the final few miles of Route 202 – the Daniel Shays Highway. Named for the leader of the Shay’s Rebellion, an uprising by rural farmers in the area in 1786, the movement was a revolt against the harsh taxes levied by the heavily indebted State (and Federal) governments shortly following the Revolutionary War.

Although the rebellion, which numbered some 4,000 strong, was ultimately crushed, they succeeded in eliminating some of the burdensome taxes. Shay’s Rebellion would later influence lasting changes in the U.S. Constitution regarding the powers of State and Federal governments. Most famously, the insurrection would inspire Thomas Jefferson’s penned line – “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

History lesson complete, I connect with my mother in the parking lot of a local pub, and we leave vehicles for the short walk over to McGuirk Stadium. Along for her annual adventure on the Pigskin Pursuit, Mom had braved the six minute drive from here office right in Amherst, and had even scored a pair of free tickets from a generous coworker. Bundled up for the brisk night ahead in multiple layers of fleece, she gently prods me that next year she’d prefer to meet in Texas for a game and some proper barbecue to go with it.

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Approaching McGuirk, the “stadium” is little more than a pair of concrete bleachers that would be dwarfed by a few of the high school games I’ve witnessed. While I have come to appreciate the charm of smaller programs in the MAC, the UMass facilities are woefully inadequate compared to their conference brethren. There are no concession stands to speak of, no souvenir shops, nor even plumbing for that matter. The only restroom facilities are a row of port-o-pottys crammed beneath the bleachers, quite a disgusting adventure in the daytime, never mind after dark. Further, the student sections are poorly demarcated, so groups of wandering students end up mingling into the general seating area which inevitably lead to grumbles from the “down in front” crowd. If the program wants to be taken seriously in the FBS, these glaring facility shortcomings will need to be addressed.

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Shortly after the opening whistle, the Minutemen take to the skies under the high flying offense of head coach Mark Whipple. Quarterback Blake Frohnapfel zips the ball down the field, and in three quick plays the Minutemen take exactly 1:02 to score their first touchdown. While the game would slow to a more relaxed pace from there, the hapless Ball State Cardinal defense could do nothing to stop the relentless UMass attack, which racks up nearly 569 yards on the day. Frohnapfel, demonstrating some nice touch on a few deep balls, would account for 424 of those yards while connecting with his favorite target – wide receiver Tajae Sharp. Sharpe, a 6-4”, 200lb behemoth with a body ready for the NFL, would catch 13 passes in all, totaling 269 yards on the day. While the “Zoo” has had their struggles for the year, including a handful of last minute defeats on bone headed coaching decisions, the squad on this Tuesday night thoroughly trounce Ball State. In the end, the Minutemen run away with a more dominating win than the final score of 24-10 would belie.

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Thanks to Bob and his wife for making an appearance at the UMass game, and hope you enjoyed your brief visit to Western Massachusetts! I look forward to crossing paths a few more times next year!

Thanks Mom, for coming along with me for yet another year on this crazy adventure! I promise next year we’ll try to find something a bit warmer for you this time around, with some fully approved barbecue options…

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Central Michigan vs Eastern Michigan: Chips ground the Eagles…

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

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

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

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

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Kelly Shorts Stadium Wide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huskie Stadium Wide

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