Pigskin Pursuit

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

Tag: Memorial Stadium

Oklahoma vs. Notre Dame – Catholics vs. Conestoga’s…

Sitting in a plywood shack in Elbert, Texas my index finger gently caresses the cold trigger of a matte black AR15.  Thirty rounds of screaming hot lead wait to be hurled towards my prey hiding in the mesquite and oak scrub beyond.  I flash the infared light intermittently at the feeder, illuminating the target in a red glow as I peer through the laser dot on the scope.  Hog vision can’t detect light at this spectrum.  My father and I chat away in the shanty while we wait, a rare opportunity to spend time hunting together.  An hour before, I’d stalked within fifty yards of a herd of twelve white tailed deer, an easy kill shot for any marksman.  They carelessly munched on tufts of grass, taunting me, almost as if they knew deer season wasn’t open for another week.  The hogs prove more elusive this evening, and, after a couple of unproductive hours, Dad and I call it quits as darkness sets in over the Texas sky.

I’m in town with my father for the Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma game up in Norman.  Visiting close friends Bryce and Kate in Fort Worth, we’d all circled this game on the calendar years ago.  While trips for Notre Dame to Oklahoma are exceedingly rare, the Irish have enjoyed an 8-1 all time record against the Sooners and have never lost in Norman.  As if two historic juggernauts colliding weren’t enough, the surprise undefeated Irish enter the contest with an unblemished 8-0 record and lofty #5 ranking.  Squaring off against an 8th ranked Oklahoma team, this clash is certain to have BCS implications.  ESPN further adds to the hooplah, as their ESPN Gameday crew showed up for the 7pm primetime showdown on the plains.

We’d spent that Friday morning at Pecan Lodge in Dallas, getting an appropriate fix of Texas Barbecue before heading out for the afternoon hunt.  Touting an elusive five star rating from the head honcho at Full Custom Gospel BBQ, waiting lines at the tiny storefront inside the Dallas Farmers Market have swelled to prolific proportion.  Patrons wait up to two hours for a few velvet morsels of their black barked brisket.  Smoked over mesquite wood, it’s Pecan Lodge’s unique departure from traditional central Texas barbecue, which exclusively espouses post oak smoke.  We descend on a heaping platter of the “holy trinity” of Texas barbecue: pork ribs, sausage, and brisket.  As if the protein fortress weren’t enough, I add a few Jurassic sized beef ribs to our burgeoning tray, giant bones of silky beef enveloped with a pristine red smoke ring.  This is, quite simply, the best barbecue Dallas has to offer.  Second place isn’t even close.

(Read the full review of Pecan Lodge here)

Saturday morning we pile into Bryce’s truck with a payload of provisions, heading due north up I-35 from Fort Worth, over the scarred, rocky, treeless hills of southern Oklahoma.  We stop only once, pulling off the interstate in Marietta, Oklahoma at Robertson’s Hams.  Chugging out smoke since 1946, the storefront features a wide selection of house smoked hams, jerky and sausages.  We sling a few of their country ham sandwiches stacked on rye bread into the cooler and speed off.  Pulling into Norman, the place is thick with game day traffic.  Grills spew columns of blue smoke into the sky while crimson OU flags wave in the gentle prairie breeze.  We find free parking in an empty grass lot a mile south of the stadium, poised alongside the grassy shoulder of Jenkins Avenue for a quick getaway later.  With a brilliant clear sky overhead and 7pm kickoff, it’s a perfect lazy afternoon for tailgating.

Before cracking my first beer, I trot to the stadium to upgrade our student tickets at Memorial Stadium Gate 7.  With prices for the historic matchup fetching $300 and up on Stubhub, I’d unearthed a set of 4 student tickets on Craigslist for $150 apiece and had them FedExed to Fort Worth.  For $50 bucks more I upgrade them at the stadium to general admission seats as the woman carefully places a “Student Guest” sticker onto each ticket. With the open seating policy in the student section, the four of us will now be able to sit together.  Not an ideal option to be standing 4 quarters amidst a sea of hammered drunk 20 year old OU students, but assuming I get equally marinated, it should at least be tolerable.

Returning back to the tailgate, a few empty cans already rattle around the pickup bed. Bryce, Kate and my father have jumped out to an early head start.  The cooler is brimming with a cross section of regional microbrews from around the country.  Ommegang from Cooperstown, New York, Clown Shoes from Massachusetts, and some rocket fuel from the Scottish brewery Brew Dog Brewing Company dubbed “Tokyo”, which tips the scale at nearly 20% alcohol and tastes like straight kerosene. My personal favorite is “Nitro” from Left Hand Brewing Company, a jet black Stout that pours like used motor oil.  In between beers, my father and Bryce swap pulls of Crown Royal, while Texas country songs from Randy Rogers Band howl out the open rear window of the truck.  It’s a fine afternoon.

With kickoff approaching an hour away, we stuff our pockets with a few walking beers and begin the trek to the stadium.  While certainly outnumbered by crimson OU shirts, the Notre Dame contingent is well represented in Norman, handfuls of folks yell hearty cheers of “Go Irish!” as we pass by.  Entering the stadium, portals to the grandstands are mobbed, backed up with a serpentine line of students.  It’s a mad house, people clambering over one another like lines of red ants.  We shuffle skyward up the steps, climbing to row 62 before I finally locate four open spots.  Surrounded on all sides by OU students, we’re smack in the middle of the beating heart of OU fandom.   I’ve been to Oklahoma a few times before, but never as a visitor, and I don’t know how these inebriated red shirts are going to respond to a group of infiltrators.    The crowd erupts on all sides of us when the Sooners take the field, exploding in a deafening roar as fireworks shower across the dusky orange sky.  Tear gas couldn’t quell this blustering melee right now.   My father shoots a nervous glance my way with that “are you sure you know what the F you’re doing?” look.  Kate gives me the same.

The game kicks off ominously at first, as Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones slings the ball down field in their high tempo, no huddle offense.  The crowd bursts with each completion, exchanging high fives and feeding off the initial onslaught.  They feel a rout on their hands.  But the stout Notre Dame defense stiffens up in the red zone, holding the Sooners to a field goal and surviving the initial wave of momentum.  As the Irish offense takes the field once again, Sooner fans reach their zenith, roaring loudly in support of their defense.  Two plays later, the crowd hushes to an eerie silence.  Notre Dame tailback Cierre Wood streaks 62 yards for a touchdown.  86,000 Sooners are stunned.  With one play, the roiling stadium turns to a church.

It stays that way for nearly three quarters, as the impenetrable Irish defense baffles the Sooner attack.  Their high powered, gun slinging offense is stymied. Squeaking out a few field goals, they enter the 4th quarter with exactly 0 yards rushing.  The crowd comes to life briefly, when, midway through the 4th frame Oklahoma grinds in a touchdown to knot the score at 13 apiece.  But the gutsy Irish respond immediately, once again, when quarterback Everett Golson connects for a 50 yard completion deep into Sooner territory.  The crowd is hushed once more.  Being bullied in Memorial Stadium is a foreign concept for Sooner fans, and they stand gape jawed and silent in the dry night air.

An interception and a few touchdowns later, the Irish assume a comfortable 30-13 lead as the fourth quarter draws to a close.  With a minute left and contest decided, the aluminum bleachers begin to empty as crimson clad students cascade towards the exits.  We stay behind, savoring every remaining second of the improbable win.  Irish victories in Norman don’t come around often, the last one occurring in 1966.  Remaining Sooner fans are gracious in defeat, helping us capture the moment in a handful of photos, exchanging handshakes and well wishes for the rest of the season.  To a man, they’ve been polite hosts.

I can only hope we show them the same courtesy next year in South Bend.  Courteously escorting the Sooners to the exits of Rocks House amidst their flowing tears of anguish and defeat…

Thank you to my Sooner friend Heather for the gameday guidance, and hopefully we can connect next time I make it down to Norman.

Special thanks to Bryce and Kate.  As always, great to catch a game with you guys, and look forward to a few adventures next fall!

Thanks again to Dad for joining my tour again this fall, and glad we could finally get you a taste of some proper Texas Barbecue.  I’ll make an Irish fan of you yet…

 

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Illinois vs Wisconsin

This late in the season motivation starts to wane.While the thrill of an Alabama or Auburn game on the calendar invariably rouses the sprits, not all road trips bring the same mystique.A trip to Illinois, a perennial middling Big 10 contender in late November felt more like obligation, and a dismal and rainy weather forecast did nothing to allay the gloom.This was one of those weeks that the magnetic pull of my 47” flat screen and a fine piece of beef on the smoker were hard to resist.Nevertheless, I took to the roads early on Saturday for a day trip out to Champaign for one of the Fighting Illini’s eight, yes eight, home games this season.

After a few trips across it this season, the entire state of Illinois has quickly vaulted itself into one of the worst driving states in the country in my opinion, ranking slightly behind Connecticut.Every interstate a seemingly perpetual construction zone, the highways littered with blinking orange road barrels and grooved stretches of ripped up blacktop.The grassy medians are riddled with overzealous Illinois State Troopers, serving the all important public interest of preventing motorists from speeding across untold miles of fallow cornfields.I jot down a mental note to take the Amtrak to Northwestern next year, although contemporary rail travel is hardly any less painful.

Arriving in Champaign a few hours before kickoff and bit peckish, I naturally park myself onto a stool amidst the shimmering stainless steel of Merry Ann’s Diner on the western edge of the UI campus.A greasy, 24 hour staple of Illinois undergrads, the menu even features an offering known as the “Hangover Stack”, a mountain of hash browns, eggs, cheese and meat all smothered in sausage gravy.I opt for more classic diner fare, the house made corned beef hash with a few eggs cracked over it. Bellied up to the linoleum counter, I watch the short order cooks tag team my order, precisely scraping across the cooktop.Not more than three minutes later the piping hot plate is tossed in front of me, along with an economical seven dollar check.Refreshing to find a real diner alive and well in central Illinois.

After breakfast I shuffle around the tailgating area for a while, nosing through a few of the set ups and admiring a couple of the decked out game day rigs that I find.In every school tailgating lot you’ll inevitably find an array of unique gameday jalopies, Illinois proving no exception.I am always curious, however, what the owners do with these vehicles the other 358 days of the year when not tailgating.While it would certainly be nice to own a bright blue and orange Ford school bus solely dedicated to the art of fall football revelry, I’m not sure I’d want to look at the eyesore parked in my driveway for the rest of the year…

Wandering over to the stadium, finding tickets proves an easy task.Mobbed by scalpers and ticket holders the minute I lift a lone finger into the air, I nab a seat in the second row on the forty yard line for thirty bucks – half face value.Built in 1923, Memorial Stadium is one of the oldest stadiums in college football, originally dedicated to the Illinois men and women who died during World War 1.I stand admiring the classical architecture, each of the 200 Indiana limestone columns surrounding the red brick façade bear the names of those soldiers.This tribute, coupled with classical square lines, give the venue a monumental feel, unique within the college football landscape.

Settling into my seat, the frigid aluminum benches suck the warmth out of me.A woman in front came prepared.Cocooned so tightly in a handful of fleece snuggies, she can’t even rise to her feet during the national anthem.I’m forced to flag down the hot chocolate vendor for a warmer.Six bucks later I huddle around a grey plastic mug, admiring the student section as they dance and jump around.It’s a pretty raucous atmosphere up there, the students on their feet the entire contest leading coordinated cheers.Despite great seats, I’m surrounded by fogies and families, many of whom seem unaware a football game is occurring.

Despite the aloof crowd, the Fighting Illini come out swinging, belting the Badgers on the chin to take an early 14-0 lead in the second quarter.For a moment, embattled Illini coach Ron Zoon breathes a sigh of relief, hoping to hold onto his job for another year.Dazed, but not out, the Badgers come out of the locker room in the second half and resume their typical bulldozing ground game.Running back Montee Ball rumbles for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns, stating his case for Heisman consideration. The Badgers cruise to a solid 28-17 win.

On the way home I take a detour, veering slightly off course to Springfield, Illinois to try another unique regional delicacy known as the “Horseshoe” sandwich.Similar to the “Hot Brown” eaten earlier this year in Louisville, the “Horseshoe” lives exclusively in the Springfield area and is traditionally comprised of thick toast piled with meat, french fries and slathered in cheese.While some variation is found between restaurants, I decide on a buffalo chicken horseshoe, the house specialty at the Irish themed D’Arcy’s Pint.The quivering mess arrives moments later, layers of tangy, salty goodness smothered with D’Arcy’s gooey white cheese sauce.The woman next to me nibbling on a salad gasps, wondering aloud if I’ll be able to finish it.I do.It’s greasy, indulgent and guilty.Perfect after a blustery fall day in Champaign.So heavy is the horseshoe, I almost consider stopping for coffee on my ride home. Fortunately, good taste prevails and I zip home in time to catch a few late west coast games on the flat screen after all…

 

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