Pigskin Pursuit

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

Tag: Pac 12 (page 1 of 2)

Stanford vs UCLA – Trees trounce timid Bruins…

While in years past, hitting a few games on a weekend meant a quick hop into the Jetta and a few hour jaunt down some winding county roads, this year things are different. While living the expat life in Paris certainly has its advantages, keeping my usual pace on the college football chase is a challenge. As such, any precious time back in the USA during the fall involves meticulous planning in order to maximize my gridiron intake. With a week long trip scheduled for mid October, I had planned to squeeze five games in the course of seven days, beginning with a triple header weekend on the west coast. This opening frenzy would take me to Stanford on a Thursday night, Fresno State on Friday night, and close out at San Jose State on Saturday evening.

Fortunately, my sister had recently moved to Palo Alto, which meant a roof over my head and easy staging for the weekday Stanford contest. While I had already visited Stanford Stadium before, the smashmouth Cardinals of 2015 vintage sported a lofty #15 ranking, and were hosting the #18 UCLA Bruins in what promised to be one of the bigger Pac 12 match ups of the season. Sister reluctantly in tow, we trotted off on foot, making easy work of the short walk to Stanford Stadium located only steps from her front door.

We stop for a quick bite at Kirks Steakburgers, a landmark burger joint that’s been slinging them out to scholars at “The Farm” since 1948. Located in an upscale shopping court across the street from the stadium, the original location is long gone, but the place is still hopping a few hours before kickoff. After a ten minute wait in line, I order one of their signature bacon cheese steakburgers and a pile of steak fries. Cooked over charcoal, the burgers have a hallmark grilled flavor that sets them apart from their fried counterparts and gives Kirk’s its namesake. The burger itself, however, is mediocre on a busy game day. Overcooked and dry, it’s a hockey puck between two buns, further insulted by lifeless and soggy steak fries. After 67 years in business, I’m sure Kirk’s reputation is well deserved, but today wasn’t one of them.

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From there, we amble across the street and into the Stanford Arboretum as tailgaters revel in the last few rays of a pristine afternoon. The arboretum is, quite simply, a breathtaking tailgating venue. Shaded by dozens of massive Eucalyptus trees, some of them over six feet in diameter, the natural beauty of the space is rivaled only by The Grove at Ole Miss. Generously spaced maroon and white tents line the natural promenades formed by the great trees, while the effervescent, minty twinge of eucalyptus fuses with grill smoke into an intoxicating alchemy wafting through the air. It’s a distinctive aroma, tailgating perfume, and completely unique among the college football landscape. Stanford should bottle and brand this scent…

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As dusk settles, I track down a pair of tickets for twenty bucks a pop, the market surprisingly soft even with a marquee Pac 12 opponent in town. Despite a half decade of sustained success extending back to the Jim Harbaugh era, evidently the Cardinal faithful are still getting used to big time football in Palo Alto. Settling into our seats as the final minutes of pre-game warmups are completed, I school my sister on the finer points of the disheveled mob of ragamuffin misfits comprising the Stanford University Marching Band. A motley assortment that remains, unrivaled, as the worst band in all of college football.

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Although billed as a competitive game on paper, once the football is kicked, however, the contest turns ugly in a hurry. The Cardinal decimate the hapless Bruins, stuffing them into a locker like a schoolyard bully with their signature brand of punishing, physical football. Watching the juggernaut Stanford offensive line blast the Bruins five yards into the backfield on every snap is a thing of beauty for purists of the traditional power game.

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The standout for the trees on the day is running back/kickoff returner/athlete extraordinaire Christian McCaffrey, son of Pro-Bowl NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey. The blisteringly quick McCaffrey racks up 243 yards (a Stanford rushing record) against four touchdowns on the ground, while darting for another 122 yards of kickoff returns. Stating a strong case for his Heisman candidacy, McCaffrey was completely unstoppable on this night.

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While McCaffrey stuffs the stats box, its wide receiver Francis Owusu that steals the highlight show. He has only one catch on the night, but it’s a circus grab. At the opening of the third quarter, on a reverse -backtoss gadget play, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan unloads a 41 yard rainbow into the endzone. As the ball spirals down towards Owusu, he leaps into the air with the cornerback blocking him and proceeds to catch the ball with his arms bear hugged around the back of the defender, while still clutching the football to complete the catch as the duo tumbles into the turf. The incredulous grab draws barely an audible cheer from the crowd, as nobody in the stands realized exactly what had happened until they saw it replayed from several angles on the jumbotron. Without a doubt one of the most magnificent grabs I’ll ever witness…

Check out the catch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDzfvVwJ1qI

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In the end, it was an impressive, dominating win for the Stanford squad and further cemented their position as the team to beat in the Pac 12 conference once again this year. Their tough, physical brand of football is truly a delight to watch in the age of ADHD inspired, basketball on grass, spread option offenses. With a looming date on the calendar in late November with Notre Dame, the result of that contest could likely determine one of the final four playoff spots. Let’s hope that McCaffrey sleeps through his alarm on that day….

Special thanks to my sister for hosting me for the weekend, and (reluctantly) agreeing to come along for another year on the PigskinPursuit!

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Colorado vs Arizona State: Buffs stampeded by the Sun Devils…

Shortly following the blowout win at Colorado State in the afternoon, I hustle the hour down to Boulder, Colorado for a nightcap under the lights of Folsom Field. The Colorado Buffaloes are hosting the prolific offense of Arizona State in a primetime Pac 12 matchup. I park in a residential neighborhood about a mile and half from campus, and with a perfect day overhead, hoof it towards the stadium. The walk is an easy one in Boulder, as the environmentally conscious city is connected by an extensive web of smooth, dedicated concrete bike paths. I even pass by a few automated bicycle rental kiosks, and while the dorky looking, red rental cruisers are tempting, I find myself unable to decipher the complex payment and rental system and carry on at a brisk stroll.

As I near campus, the signature aroma of grill smoke wafts through the air, and a few black tents poke into the skyline beyond. The Colorado campus proves as beautiful as it’s reputation belies. Impeccably kept grounds are manicured like putting greens, flanked by red sandstone clad buildings, the pristine facades reflecting hues of pink and rust in the last few hours of amber sunlight. I make note of a handful of highly visible signs posted on the “smoke free” Colorado campus explicitly banning smoking – of any substance – a comical juxtaposition to the liberal attitudes of the state towards the good herb. A steady flow of black clad fans march towards the beckoning lights of the stadium, a few infiltrating maroon shirts sprinkled in amongst the rabble.

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Ticket reselling is prohibited on the UC campus, so I walk a block south to the intersection of Colorado Ave and Folsom streets to see how the market looks. Shortly after thrusting a lone finger into the air, I immediately recognize one of the scalpers that swarms around, a stout Mexican with a pock marked face – the exact guy I bought my Colorado State ticket from earlier that afternoon. He’s either cagey that I recognized him, or snake-bit from my hammering earlier in the day, but he’s obstinate to any bargaining this time around. Dismissing my half face value offers with a back handed wave, I’m forced to search for something more reasonable.

A few minutes later, I’m flagged down by a pair of stogie puffing, 40 something guys enjoying a small tailgate from the back of a black SUV parked onto a narrow stretch of grass. Bob introduces himself, and informs me that his wife didn’t show up for their third ticket, and offers a choice seat on the 35 yard line in the 13th row. For thirty five bucks, he also throws in a handful of pre game beers, a gentlemanly offer that I quickly accept. Both avid Colorado fans, Bob and Shannon have known each other since rooming together freshman year, and have been coming to games ever since. They were in school during the Buffs heyday in the early 1990’s, when they stampeded through the old Big 8 conference behind greats like Rashon Salom and Kordell Stewart. Thrusting a local New Belgium Ale into my hands, both men are fascinated by my story, and we spend the next thirty minutes chatting football and swapping stories about some of our favorite destinations across the country.

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With about 45 minutes until kickoff, I leave the pair to finish their cigars and head into the stadium, not wanting to miss a second of the infamous Colorado entrance. I’m bogged down briefly on the way into the stadium by inane security proceedings, as the crowd is corralled into cattle guards and and waved over with metal detectors. But I’m in my seat with plenty of time to watch the final thirty minutes of pre game warmups, the receivers running crisp patterns against the sideline while the tailbacks work on their best jukes. Built in 1924, Folsom Field is one of the older stadiums in college football, and like many footprints of that era the stands sit nearly on top of the field with only a narrow sliver of real estate for the team bench. It creates an intimate feel for a stadium of it’s capacity, and affords a better view of all the action on the field, including one of the best pre game traditions in all of sports. In the corner of the endzone, a square, golden corral sits surrounded by a dozen or so handlers dressed in Wranglers and cowboy hats, while a few admirers brave close enough for a photo opportunity. Ralphie the Buffalo lies in wait…

Easily the coolest mascot in college football, Ralphie the Buffalo (technically Ralphie the V) is a live 1300lb American Buffalo that runs onto the field during the opening and halftimes of Colorado football games. After practicing for two hours a day, five days a week, Ralphie and her (yes, It’s a female buffalo) team of handlers make their spectacular entrance as the pre game clock winds down to kickoff. While the full handling team appears to be over a dozen strong, there are five brave souls tasked with actually running Ralphie around the field. As the crowd hushes with anticipation, the corral is thrust open as the PA announcer booms “Here comes Ralphieeee!!!” while the great beast bursts out of the gates to the joy of the vociferous Buffs crowd. Thundering out beyond the fifty yard line in a semicircle, the handlers sprint for dear life, clutching leather reigns as they struggle to keep up with the majestic animal. By the time Ralphie nears her terminus inside the aluminum horse trailer parked on the edge of the field, she’s nearly dragging all five handlers behind her, rumbling onto the ramp as the team dives out of the way in exhaustion. Forget about all the smoke and jock jam entrances you have seen, watching Ralphie run is the most electrifying fifteen second entrance in the sport.

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As the game kicks off, the Arizona State squad immediately take command. Known for their prolific offense under head coach Todd Graham, the Sun Devils run roughshod over the Buffaloes, laying 17 points on them in the first quarter alone. Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly leads the charge, firing three touchdowns and rushing for another one before going down with an injury late in the third quarter. The Buffs simply never answer the high powered ASU offense, routinely being gashed for big plays. To their credit, however, the Colorado squad battles until the final whistle. Even late into the 4th quarter with the game all but decided, they put up a fight, mounting a 99 yard touchdown drive to bring themselves within 14. But it’s too little, too late, and Arizona State skates away with a 38-24 win and a chance to climb further up the polls.

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Thanks to Shannon and Bob for the ticket and the warm Colorado hospitality. Hopefully your Buffs will be back on top soon. Great to meet you guys, and if you are able to find the blog, drop me a note and keep in touch!

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Oregon vs UCLA – Ducks squeak by the Bruins…

After an epic trip to Oregon State last year, I immediately started planning another trip to the Beaver State to check out the fleet footed fluorescent older brother in town.  The Oregon Ducks, with their high powered, up tempo offense and garish uniform ensembles was one of the premier football destinations I had yet to check off my list.  My friend, and Oregon native Colin, and I poured over the Ducks home schedule nearly a year ago, carefully selecting the UCLA Bruins tilt as the marquee matchup in Eugene for 2013.  Our predictions were confirmed, when, after both teams enjoyed a terrific start to the 2013 season, the ESPN Gameday crew selected the #3 Oregon Ducks versus #12 UCLA Bruins for their weekly destination.

Colin and I touch down in Portland early, and after a trip to the rental car counter for a sporty Chevy Malibu we hustle into downtown Portland for lunch at Pok Pok.  An iconic Vietnamese restaurant that has gained considerable notoriety in food circles, we order up a wide selection of their diverse Asian menu offerings.  Obviously, in keeping with my protein heavy BBQ consumption, I contribute orders for their crispy chicken wings and baby back ribs.

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From there, we opt for a downtown dessert at the Portland institution of Voodoo Donuts where they serve up everything from plain donuts to eclectic, pink frosted, Captain Crunch covered pancreas busters.  I opt for the “Old Dirty Bastard” donut – a peanut butter and Oreo covered chocolate frosted donut.  Colin and I retreat to a table outside with Voodoo’s iconic pink box in tow, which, according to their catch phrase, “Good things come in pink boxes”.

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After picking up our third party member Donovan at the airport that afternoon, we head to Beaverton, Oregon – home of Nike.  Colin’s cousin Rob has agreed to give us an insider tour of the facilities, a sprawling 200 acre campus complete with lakes, full size playing fields and scores of sparkling new white buildings.  Not bad for a company that was started in famed Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman’s kitchen with little more than a waffle iron.  Each building is named after a famous athlete – Jordan, Griffey Jr., Tiger Woods, etc. – and bronze plaques of professional athletes line the walkways every few feet.  Every step you take at Nike is in the presence of athletic greatness, and there are dozens of displays dedicated to the historical achievements of the company and the athletes that inspired them.

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Naturally, we finish our tour at the Nike Company Store.  Accessible only to Nike employees and registered guests, all products are available at a 50% discount from retail.  Collectively, we load several shopping carts full of bright, fluorescent stretch fabrics and signature Nike orange shoe boxes.  Between the 50% discount, and no state sales tax in Oregon, it’s an impressive haul for the money.

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Saturday morning is an early wake up call.  Our friend Donovan is an avid ESPN College Gameday fan, and this will be his first opportunity to check out the zany, headgear selecting antics of Lee Corso in person.  Regardless of where the show is filmed, it airs at 9AM eastern standard time, as such we rise at 5:30 AM to make the quick jaunt south into Eugene in time for the show.  In a typical early morning Oregon “mist”, we pack into the crowded lawn in front of the Lundquist College of Business while the TV personalities go through their typical pre game analysis. Unsatisfied with the level of attention we’re getting in the dense crowd, I hoist Donovans 185lb. frame onto my shoulders while he frantically waves his neon yellow sign.  After a few minutes of mounting lower back fatigue, the tactic pays off, and Donovan becomes clearly visible on the TV feed between the talking heads.  Soon after I set him down, Lee Corso speeds off through the crowd on the back of the Oregon Ducks motorcycle after making his selection, signaling the end of the show.  Check one off the bucket list for Donovan.

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After the ESPN Gameday hoopla, we tour the sprawling, lush green Eugene campus.  The tour is highlighted by a visit to Hayward Field, home to the Oregon Track and Field team, a Mecca for any running aficionado.  With grandstands capable of holding over 10,000 fans, it’s one of only four International Class 1 tracks in the United States.  Host to several Olympic qualifying events and countless American records, the rubberized oval is where legendary head coach Bill Bowerman presided over some of the most gifted runners in the world.  A bronze statue of him standing atop a waffle iron hovers on the sidelines, the inscription reading “Teacher, Innovator, Visionary, Motivator…and then there was that waffle iron.”

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No visit to Oregon track, however, would be complete without a mention of Coos Bay, Oregon native Steve Prefontaine.  An incredibly gifted middle distance runner in the early 1970’s, Prefontaine once held the American records in 7 different middle distance events from 2,000 to 10,000 meters.  His exploits have even been chronicled in two major movies; “Without Limits” and “Prefontaine” made some 25 years after his career ended.  But it wasn’t his god given ability that Pre was known for, it was his intestinal fortitude or, quite simply Guts.  Some of his quotes have inspired runners for decades since his early demise, including his most remarkable “To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift”.

Arguably the most famous Oregon Ducks athlete in history, the relationship between Pre, Nike, and the University of Oregon are all inexorably intertwined.  A “Track Town USA” banner hangs above Hayward field, with Prefontaine’s image overlooking the oval.  And his famous quote “A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts” is emblazoned in large letters above the doors in the Nike company store.  We pay a visit to Pre’s Rock, the site of his fatal car crash in 1975 that tragically ended his life at age 24.  A small stone plaque with his image stands at the site, and runners continually leave sneakers, jerseys and other tokens of remembrance in his honor.

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From there, we file into Rennie’s Landing, a homey, two story pub in the heart of Eugene for some mid morning refreshment.  Sliding into a few empty wooden tables, it’s a token college town saloon.  A few flat screen TV’s flash away in the corner, and an impressive selection of Oregonian microbrews line the taps.  Naturally, we kick the morning off with a round of Irish Car Bombs prior to sampling a handful of offerings from Deschutes, Widmer and Ninkasi breweries.  The hours pass quickly in good company, and shortly after popping the last cheesy bacon tater tot into my mouth, we’re off to the stadium where a late afternoon kickoff awaits.

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As the game kicks off, Autzen roars to life.  This place gets loud, L-O-U-D.  It’s among the loudest stadiums I have ever been in, which given the modest size of the venue (60,000 capacity), speaks to an ardent fan base.  Having visited about half the Pac 12 by now, I was expecting the casual, aloof, “whatever brah” West Coast attitude that permeates the culture at some of the other venues.  Not so at Oregon.  These people are passionate, boisterous, continually on their feet and screaming themselves hoarse for as long as the game remains competitive (which, to be fair, usually isn’t long in Eugene).  The raucous atmosphere in Autzen is among the best that college football has to offer.

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On the field, the game proves more competitive than a typical Ducks contest, most of which are blowouts midway through the second quarter.  The fast tempo Ducks offense sputters, as UCLA plays impressive containment defense and forces a couple of fumbles from the Oregon ground attack.  At halftime the score is knotted at 14, and despite UCLA’s lofty #12 ranking, Ducks fans stand bewildered at the close score.  They’re a spoiled bunch in Autzen….

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As the second half winds on, Oregon starts gaining momentum.  Heisman contenting quarterback Marcus Mariota starts finding his rhythm as the UCLA defense starts to tire against the breakneck pace.  Finally, in the fourth quarter, the Ducks blow the game open and the route is on.  Mariota connects with WR Bralon Addison for a touchdown, and shortly thereafter speedy tailback Byron Marshall rumbles for his third touchdown on the day.  The hapless UCLA defense is smoked, and great gashes open up for the Ducks to pour through.  Oregon lights up the scoreboard for 21 points in the fourth frame, and skates away in their customary blowout fashion with a final tally of 42-14.

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In the end, Oregon is easily the best venue I have visited in the Pac 12 thus far and it would take a goliath effort from some of the remaining schools to unseat them.  For the past few years, they have dominated competition in the conference with their unique brand of hurry-up, explosive offense, and oft overlooked stout defense.  The roar of Autzen Stadium is like watching a game from inside a jet engine, and the Oregon faithful are a rowdy, boisterous bunch.  Even the town of Eugene has a charmingly smaller, college town vibe solely dedicated to supporting the Ducks.  The University of Oregon is truly a sublime Saturday experience in the Pac 12.  Now if only they could convince Phil Knight to tone down those jerseys…

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Thanks to Rob and Nozomi for giving us the full tour of both Nike and Eugene, and being such incredible tour guides the entire weekend!

Thank you to Ruth for the gracious hospitality, and allowing me to visit Oregon once again.  Can’t wait for some more pies next year!

Thank you to Donovan for prodding us out of bed early on Saturday, buying way too many shots, and making the trip an absolute blast.

Thanks of course to Colin for another amazing Beaver State experience, can’t wait to see what we plan for next year man!

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USC vs Notre Dame – Comin’ straight outta Compton…

I’ve been waiting for this game for a decade.

As a lifelong Notre Dame fan, the annual rivalry contest against Southern Cal is easily the biggest date on the calendar.  A historic series dating back to 1926 when the teams used to take week long train journeys to face each other, the Irish enjoy a 44-35 W/L record all time against their most heated adversary.  For over a decade, however, the rivalry has been a lopsided one with the Trojans dominating the series 9-1.  While Notre Dame has shown brief flashes of competitiveness against USC in 2005 and 2010, any Irish fan would be quick to tell you that it’s been a long, painful decade in this storied war.

Despite its status as one of the preeminent destinations in the college game, I’d been avoiding a trip to USC for good reason.  I’ve never wanted to fly across the country to watch the Irish get shellacked in front of 95,000 hostile fans.  At long last, 2012 has been a different story.  Entering the contest at an unblemished 11-0, the Irish were finally fielding a competitive football team again, and, perhaps, one that could finally compete in South Central Los Angeles. This final, giant hurdle stood between the Irish and a date with infamy in Miami for the BCS National Championship.   Sporting a lofty #1 ranking and BCS Title shot on the line, this trip to USC was arguably the most significant game for Notre Dame since Florida State in 1993.   What more appropriate backdrop for my inaugural trip to the Coliseum.

I touch down in LAX airport the Friday after Thanksgiving and the airport is a ghost town.  I make quick work at the rental car counter, and speed a silver Kia rental to our hotel in downtown Los Angeles.   My cohort in this adventure – Dylan, the ever urbanite Manhattan resident, had curiously picked a hotel in downtown Los Angeles despite scores of beachfront options overlooking the postcard sunsets of the Pacific Coast.  Evidently his pasty, Northeast skin had revolted at the thought of staying near sun and sand. Fresh of a week long vacation stint in El Salvador, I’m sporting a glorious tan, but the beaches of Santa Monica would have to make due without my bronze magnificence.  To his credit, however, Dylan has a knack for showing up for the big games.  He was with me for the epic #1 LSU vs #2 Alabama game last year and now found himself along for the ride at the biggest Irish game in a quarter century.

Saturday morning wakes to a typical Southern California morning, sunny and clear with a brilliant blue sky overhead, a welcome respite from the Midwest gloom of late November.  Donning shorts and flip flops after thanksgiving, one could get used to this climate.  We lope the Kia onto Interstate 710 South, skirting the serpentine concrete confines of what little remains of the LA River – a meager brown trickle down the center of a grey, lifeless expanse.  Bored after a season of highway driving, visions of the opening chase scene from Terminator 2 flash through my mind.  I imagine careening the silver rocket off the nearest bridge into the concrete chute below, swerving and splashing through the spray at 100mph, firing shotgun blasts out the sunroof at evil cyborg pursuers.

But we’re headed to Compton, and that’s a gun toting adventure of its own.  We cruise past exits for Rosecrans and Compton Blvd, passing by handfuls of churches and barred window liquor stores on the way to Long Beach Blvd. With the top down and a few hydraulic switches, we’d be in an Ice Cube rap video.  Thus far, I’d even have to say, today was a good day.  Unlike the esteemed rapper, however, I fully intend to eat hog – mountains of BBQ in fact.

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Without incident, we arrive at our stop: Bludso’s BBQ.  Started by transplanted Texan, Kevin Bludso, the non descript Compton fixture is rumored to have some of the best cue’ in Southern California.  After surveying the puffing black iron pit in the parking lot, the enticing waft smells promising, and we huddle into the tiny storefront to place our order.  A few minutes later, they push our tray through the sliding glass service windows, and we retreat to a picnic table in the alley for a carnivorous breakfast.  Unwrapping the foil feast, our picnic table is heaped with slabs of pork ribs, beef ribs, fiery red sausages and smoky beef brisket.  While it’s not up to Central Texas standards, it still has the hallmarks of proper BBQ, and we devour the smoky protein before hustling north towards the USC Campus.    

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With the BBQ situation worked out, we jump into the Kia and chirp out.  Streaking onto the highway like a silver comet, our progress is quickly halted by a five mile stretch of infamous LA traffic.  After an exhausting thirty minutes of choking down smog, we limp off the 110 highway and slip into the Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot on Hope Street, an insider tip from my friend Larry.  A haggard looking vagrant taps on the drivers window and informs me it’s $40 to park here.  Wearing no orange vest, uniform, or identification of any kind, I’m confident it’s a complete scam.   But this is South Central Los Angeles after all, and I quickly realize I’m not paying for a parking space.  I’m paying for the privilege of not having my windows smashed.  Ever the negotiator, I offer him twenty dollars for the parking spot, making my donation to his general alcohol fund in exchange for an extorted modicum of security

We walk across the street to the half full parking lot of Mercado La Paloma.  The hot asphalt is shaded with a handful of cardinal and gold tents, and I struggle to fight back my gag reflex.  We’re greeted by my friends Larry and Katie. Both grad school chum from Notre Dame, we’d shared more than a couple of beers together at some rowdy tailgates I’d hosted from the back of my Dodge Ram pickup during our two year stint in South Bend.  With a new baby at home in San Diego, Larry and Katie had made the short drive up the coast for the afternoon to take in the epic Irish contest.

They welcome us to a USC friends’ tailgate, and wearing a bright green shamrock t-shirt, I’m nervous about how these sinister Trojans might respond to an infiltrator recklessly quaffing their beer and grabbing fistfuls of any snacks I can get my hands on.  Despite my preconceived notions of uppity Southern California tailgate spreads consisting of a cornucopia of lettuce wraps, wheatgrass smoothies and hummus – they actually have real food here and, delightfully, fizzy yellow light beer.  What’s more, everyone is actually nice – welcoming in fact.  They must be plotting something.  I survey the parking lot for makeshift weapons should the need arise.  A tent leg, if broken off properly, could make a nice spear.  Dylan will have to fend for himself once they jump us…

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On top of being confoundingly nice, this USC crowd is knowledgeable to boot, which is completely ruining it for me.  I’d always envisioned SC fans as the front running bandwagon types. With the Trojans already sporting a few losses, I’m surprised these guys even bothered to show up.  These USC loyalists are confusing me. Wires are short circuiting in my brain with this sudden influx of new information, politeness and actual fandom.  Or perhaps it’s the 12 pack of Busch light I’ve downed.  Either way.  These vile, gutter trash fans are supposed to represent the axis of evil in my mind, yet here they are shotgunning beers with me.  I still won, of course, but the point is that they’re making it impossible for me to hate them.  Perhaps I should hate them for that instead…

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After a few hours soaking in the parking lot atmosphere, we make our way towards the stadium.  I make one final assault on the cooler before leaving, stuffing my pockets with a few cold ones for the inevitable agonizing walk to the stadium.  The sidewalks are flooded with hordes of slow walkers, all lethargically crawling towards the campus at a break neck, open mouthed, Wal-Mart shopper pace.  But the scene on the Exposition Park lawn outside the stadium is impressive.  The grounds are suffocated with tents and revelers, concession stands, and the usual serpentine port o potty lines of heavy consumption.  From the looks of the ample green shirts and pasty complexions, the Notre Dame fan contingent is well represented here too.  With the Irish in the hunt for a BCS National Title berth, clearly a few old ND hats were dusted off to show up for the historic contest.

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Finding our seats in the cavernous LA Coliseum, the space immediately impresses.  It is an absolutely massive facility; our flimsy plastic chairs in the 50th row are barely halfway up the towering rows of the concrete bowl.  I’ve been to the “Big House” before, and the Coliseum feels even larger than that.  If they were to fill the South end of the stadium with seats, the place could probably hold 120,000 fans.  As it stands the 93,607 fans on this night made it the largest venue on my schedule this season.   While arguably the second most renowned stadium in the LA Metro area, behind the Rose Bowl perhaps, the Coliseum is not without a history of its own.  Featured in countless movies and host to all manner of huge sporting events through the years, it remains the only stadium in the world to host two separate Olympic games, in 1932 and 1984.  In fact, the Olympic Cauldron perched atop the East façade still burns during the fourth quarter of each Trojan home game.

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As we settle into our seats, “Tommy Trojan” – the Roman Centurion garbed USC mascot – prances out onto the field mounted on “Traveler” a pure white Andalusian horse as part of Southern Cal’s ceremonial entrance.  Shortly after, a slick pregame video featuring USC football players posing for the camera flashes across the jumbotron.  The blustering crowd, perhaps up to 20% Irish given the high stakes contest, takes its feet as the football team streaks out of the tunnel.  Players run drills, hooting and hollering at one another across the green fold.  The song girls prance away on the sidelines listlessly in their pleated skirts and classic varsity sweaters, easily most talented group of cheerleaders in College Football.   The Coliseum turns electric in the dry SoCal night.

As the game kicks off, the Irish immediately take charge.  Asserting themselves on the ground, running back Theo Riddick carves up the Trojan defense.  He rushes for the sole Irish touchdown in the first quarter, tallying 146 yards of rushing on the day.  Irish Freshman quarterback Everett Golson plays efficiently, tossing safe sideline routes and converting a few key third down completions.   But the Irish offense is hamstrung in the red zone, routinely stalling inside the 20 yard line and settling for field goals.

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The culprit is a baffling empty backfield offense the Irish employ inside the 20 yard lines, removing the threat of their two talented running backs (Theo Riddick & Cierre Wood).  I scream across the cavernous Coliseum at head coach Brian Kelly in frustration, drawing glares from the detached USC faithful around me.  But the Trojan team is a nefarious bunch, and only touchdowns can satisfy 10 years of pent up frustration and heartache.  I don’t want to merely win, I want their throat.  My cries go unnoticed by the Irish coaching staff, and place kicker Kyle Brindza gets a leg workout as a result, booting five field goals on the night against six attempts. 

My fears come to bear late in the fourth quarter.  Despite handily beating the Trojans on both sides of the ball, the Irish cling to a paltry 9 point lead with six minutes left on the clock.  The game – still nervously in question.  Visions of 2005, Notre Dame’s soul crushing last second defeat to USC, flash through my mind.  The last decade of mediocrity brings out the cynic in me.  With a BCS National Championship berth on the line, visions of an epic meltdown race through my mind.

After a blistering kick return that quite nearly broke for a touchdown, USC starts with the ball near the 40 yard line.  Assuming their offensive set, the Trojans immediately streak another 53 yards down the field on a crisp throw to standout receiver Marquise Lee.  The aloof Southern Cal faithful jolt to their feet in excitement, haughty swagger renewed.  A lump forms in my throat as the rest of the Irish crowd is hushed.  They’ve nearly gone the length of the field in two plays.  After a few penalties and some shuffling, it’s 1st and goal on the Notre Dame one foot line.  The Trojans hav

4 plays to punch in the easy score.

But then it happens.

Boasting the stoutest scoring defense in the country, this is no ordinary Irish squad. This is a band of warriors. Battle hardened, they’d already proven their mettle in a heroic overtime goal line stand against Stanford.  As the home crowd hushes for their team, we scream ourselves hoarse towards the Irish defense stretched across the goal line directly below.  For three straight plays the Trojans run headlong into the teeth of the imposing Notre Dame front seven.  For three straight plays they are rebuffed.  The Irish refuse an inch.  Finally, on fourth down, with the game on the line, the Trojans take to the air.  USC freshman quarterback Max Wittek scrambles, then fires a pass into the endzone that is bobbled for a moment, then dropped by tight end Soma Vainuku into the red turf below.  In a historic goal line stand, the Notre Dame defense holds.  The warriors have become legends.

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The Irish are going to the National Championship.

And with my flights and hotel room already booked nervously before the game, I’ll be joining them…

See you in Miami.

Thanks to my friends Larry & Katie – always great to catch up with you guys, and great to finally see you on the West Coast!

Thanks as always to my friend Dylan for showing up for the big ones.  Let’s see what 2013 has in store for us…

Special thanks to my friend Tyler for helping us out with some tickets to the game – hopefully next time you can get some tailgating in!

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