Wednesday, January 20, 2010

And Now For Withdrawal…

There’s always a sense of sadness when the last competitive game of the college football season ends. Football basically dictates how we spend our time every weekend during the fall. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we can watch division championship games and a lot of minor bowl games on TV. Watching on TV is not the same as being at a game in person, but we can at least see teams play that we haven’t had a chance to see all season.

Then there’s the Bowl trip – dictating where we spend our holidays – and more bowl games on TV. The Capital One Bowl gave us one last live game to see Penn State finish out the season and send the seniors off in good style. It was also a decent vacation break.

Finally there are the BCS games and the BCS National Championship game, the final college football bash of the season. We missed most of the Rose Bowl on January 1 because we were at the Capital One Bowl, then we suffered through 2 hours of traffic to make it back to our hotel. We were glad, though, to see Ohio State secure a big one for the Big Ten. We missed the Boise State-TCU game because we were traveling home from cold Florida to even colder State College. We watched the Orange Bowl intensely. Glad to see Iowa win, even though Iowa is turning out to be our nemesis in so many ways. Another important win for the Big Ten!

We watched the National Championship game with great anticipation. Terry was cheering for Texas. He likes Mack Brown better than he likes Nick Saban. I was cheering for Alabama. I want Penn State to go to Tuscaloosa and play the pre-season #1 team and beat them (somehow). The key play of the game of course was Colt McCoy’s 1st quarter injury. It was sad to see him not have a chance to play his final game, so I found myself wanting Texas to be competitive even though I wanted Alabama to win.

The game didn’t disappoint – Texas made the best adjustments they could given the circumstances, and true freshman back up quarterback Garrett Gilbert delivered an unforgettable performance in the second half to give Texas a chance to win towards the end of the game. What an opportunity – and a burden – for him to step into Colt McCoy’s shoes. The game would have been very different if McCoy had somehow been able to return.

But credit Alabama – they were awesome as a team. We especially enjoyed watching sophomore Mark Ingram live up to his reputation as this year’s Heisman Trophy winner. As a Penn State fan, I couldn’t help but think about September 11, 2010, when we travel to Tuscaloosa to play this team and see Mark Ingram perform in person. What are our chances? We’ll be debating that all spring… We have gaping holes to fill especially in our defense, and we will have an inexperienced quarterback at the helm….

So now that college football is over, it’s withdrawal time. We will have a chance to see a few Penn State players play in the East-West Shrine game this Saturday January 23 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando – I hope they fixed that field! Darryl Clark, Jeremy Boone, and Andrew Quarless are now in Orlando preparing for this week’s contest.

Penn State players in other all-star games – the Senior Bowl on January 30, and the Texas versus the Nation all-star game on February 6 – have yet to be announced.

These all-star games are – well – a bit boring from a competitive standpoint. After all, who cares who wins or loses? Except possibly the state of Texas! The games, especially the Senior Bowl, seem to be focused on highlighting talent for the upcoming NFL draft. There’s no real excitement from watching them except that you have one last chance to watch some favorite Penn State players do well. For college football fans, it’s slim pickings, but it’s all there is. If you’re a pro football fan as well, you have a few weeks of playoffs, then the Super Bowl. After February 7, though, it’s a long wait until the competition starts all over again in August.

I had a colleague at work a long time ago who coped with winter by taping 6-8 college football games each Saturday during the fall. He would watch maybe one game per Saturday in the fall. He would save the rest for winter. I wonder if he still does that. Or does he, like the rest of us, watch classic games on ESPN and the Big Ten Network reruns, to get us through the winter?

What do you do to cope with college football withdrawal?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Best, Worst, and Most Memorable Moments of the 2009 Season

I thought that now would be a good time to look back at the 2009 season and reflect on some of those moments that defined the season. So here’s my list of the best, worst, and most memorable moments we encountered at Penn State games and in our travels back and forth to away games.

Best Moments:

1. The 4th Quarter at Northwestern: We were tied 13-13 at the start of the 4th quarter, and we were lucky that Mike Kafka, their talented quarterback, was injured. Three fourth quarter quick strike touchdowns by our offense defined that game. The 34-13 score was much closer than it appeared.
2. Winning at The Big House: Okay, Michigan wasn’t a great team this year. But the stadium was packed and noisier than ever due to the new grandstands on either side. We finally got the Big House monkey off our back. Two consecutive wins against Michigan were very satisfying.
3. Michigan State: The Ambience and the Third Quarter: Unseasonably warm weather for November 21 made the tailgating scene especially vibrant. The third quarter of the game. We were tied 7-7 at the half. During the third quarter both the offense and defense poured it on and Penn State scored 28 points! A great deal of fun to watch.
4. The Shutout Against Minnesota: A very good defensive game against a team with a winning record. A very satisfying win. The first clue we had that Penn State would be a good team this year. Minnesota was able to muster only 7 first downs in the entire game. They were held to only 138 net yards. And the weather – the freak October snowstorm and unseasonable cold – could have wreaked havoc. But it didn’t. A very solid performance.
5. The Temple Game: Picture-perfect weather, a commanding win against a team that continues to improve in the MAC conference. Treating some new friends to a game at Beaver Stadium was fun. We always hope the best for Temple. If they continue to improve under Coach Al Golden’s leadership perhaps some day this rivalry will be truly competitive. OK, I hope not…
6. The Akron Game: Mainly because it was the first game of the season. Mild weather, great tailgating, many reunions at tailgates and in the stands as we greet each other after not seeing one another for several months.
7. The Tailgating at the Ohio State game: Mild sunny weather for early November, a sense of anticipation, the Big Ten championship stakes, good-natured banter with Penn State and Ohio State fans before and after the game. You couldn’t beat the atmosphere at Beaver Stadium before the game that day. The best of the season. Even the students were in the stands on time.
8. The Capital One Bowl: An ugly win in ugly weather against a Top 25 very good SEC team.
9. Realizing that on five road trips, we brought home five wins!!! First time that happened since 1994.
10. Hearing the crowd chant “Dar-ryl Cla-rk” as we all exited the Capital One Bowl. He finally got the recognition he deserved.

Worst Moments:
1. Losing to Iowa: For the second year in a row, a loss that shouldn’t have been a loss. Kirk Ferentz seems to have Penn State’s number. The miserable rain didn’t help either!
2. Losing to Ohio State: Penn State got beat. Pure and simple. Ohio State was simply better than us. Didn’t feel quite as bad as Iowa but still tough.
3. The first half of the Indiana game: The emptiest student section of the season, for Senior Day. Penn State throws two interceptions and loses two fumbles in the first half. We were lucky to be tied 10-10 at the half. Penn State finally finds some rhythm with 6:50 remaining in the 3rd quarter, but it was a very sloppy game, and the final score of 31-20 didn’t make us very happy. Too many mistakes for a November game. Although a win’s a win.
4. Traveling to Illinois: Our wonderful airline schedule, changed with no notification to us, involved an 8 hour layover at Detroit on the way to Champaign, and a 5 hour layover on the way home. We were able to change our flights to Detroit to “only” a 3-hour delay, but a mechanical made for another two hours’ wait before we finally boarded the flight to Champaign. We could do nothing about the return trip. We were feeling under the weather that week and almost didn’t go. The airline travel didn’t help our spirits. But at least we brought home a win.
5. The Eastern Illinois game: Nothing good to say about playing a team that’s so under-matched against Penn State. Except perhaps for the best half-time band performance of the season.
6. The excuses my students gave every Monday for why they weren’t in the stands on time on Saturdays.
7. The Harrisburg Patriot-News Leak of the “STEP” Plan: Couldn’t believe that Penn State wouldn’t immediately release the plan to calm all the rumors that were circulating.

Most Memorable Moments:
1. The bus trip after the Minnesota game: In a miserable rainstorm, we waited patiently for a shuttle bus to take us back to the Lowe’s shopping center near our house. But all the shuttle buses were destined elsewhere. So a Penn State guard finally commandeers a shuttle bus destined to the airport and changes the route. It turns out the bus driver doesn’t know the way. Passengers have to guide her to all the stops. We managed to keep our good spirits throughout the ordeal of the freakiest October snowstorm on record.
2. When I was feeling “under the weather” before the Illinois game, and considering staying home, my new boss told me “You can’t miss that game. It’s what you live for!” And then he and another colleague offered to cover my Monday classes if I needed a day to rest and recover. Illinois was my 100th game in a row!
3. The fun conversations while waiting for the Champaign flight with the preacher, the grad student and the frat guy (see October blog post). Preacher Happy Leman was the proud father of Cory Leman, who played linebacker for Eastern Illinois. Gave us a reason to want to watch that game.
4. After the Michigan game, crossing the border into Windsor Canada for a night at Caesar’s Windsor. When we tried to return to the United States the next day, being pulled aside and interrogated by customs officials because there’s a Carolyn Todd listed in the NCIS database as wanted by the U.S. government for a serious crime. Being told this would happen to me whenever I left the country until the “other” Carolyn Todd is caught.
5. An $80 somewhat wild cab ride from Disney World to the Ballroom at Church Street Station to attend a free Presidents’ Reception for the Capital One Bowl. Less expensive than renting a car, though, at holiday prices in Orlando. An outstanding performance by Penn State's Musical Theater majors made it worthwhile.
6. Meeting Gershon and his wife Ronnie at the Capital One bowl. My #1 blog commenter and supporter has now become a friend!
7. Sitting in the van before the Capital One Bowl taking pictures of the torrential rain on our windshield.
8. Interacting with all of you who have commented on my posts! It’s been fun – thank you! Penn State fans are the best!

Overall, it was a very satisfying season. Congratulations to the Penn State football team and especially to our seniors for making this a good season. Thanks for all the great memories and to all my readers for giving me a reason to continue writing about our experiences!

We will miss all of our seniors who brought us so many memorable games and bowl trips over the past 4-5 years…and Navarro Bowman, who just announced that he is entering the NFL draft. That was expected, and I can’t blame him for forgoing his senior year and pursuing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity while he’s healthy enough to capitalize on it.

I will continue to post, although perhaps not as frequently, during the off-season. There’s always plenty to write about! Stay tuned…

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy Valley Victorious Over Death Valley in Mud Valley

In a season characterized by weird weather, it was only fitting that the Capital One Bowl would be a torrential rainy mess. It was a game that was defined by the condition of the field. A field that was in terrible shape BEFORE the rain, as judged by the complaints about the field at the Champs Sports Bowl a few days before, only got worse with the rain.

If I’m Capital One, sponsoring this bowl, I’m pretty mad at Florida Citrus Sports for the embarrassingly pathetic field conditions. But as a fan, I’m pretty mad at Capital One for over-playing all those TV commercials at the game rather than using breaks to allow the LSU or PSU bands to entertain us. There's only so many times you can watch that old miner in the well wait for someone to rescue him. It's already been over-played on TV, and it was certainly over-played at the game as well.

Speaking of field conditions, I’m sure that Joe Paterno was none too happy about the pre-game and half-time activities, where both bands marched and hundreds of high school cheerleaders from some sort of USA cheerleading squad jumped up and down on the muddy field before the game making the field even more of a muddy mess. Although I must confess that it was nice to see the Penn State band do its marching routine on the field during the rain – something that never happens at Beaver Stadium because JoePa is super-protective of his home turf. If JoePa had his way, none of the bands or cheerleaders would have performed at the Capital One Bowl. But he wasn’t in control.

The LSU crowd, a cheerful, friendly, and boisterous bunch, was present in force, and I would say were the majority. Penn State was well represented though. We were also loud and boisterous. As it was pointed out at a Penn State luncheon we attended, Florida has 15,000 year round residents who are Penn State alumni, and in the winter, another 30,000 Penn Staters descend upon Florida as “snow-birds”. But the rain kept some of the fans from both teams away. There were plenty of empty seats on both sides of the field, and tickets were for sale everywhere outside of the stadium. It wasn’t a good day for scalpers.

We were glad that we had purchased a parking pass on-line. We parked in a muddy soggy field in our rental van, about 4 blocks from the stadium. There were a few tents including one nearby with a neat Penn State trailer – owned by a PSU fan who drove it down from Connecticut. But mostly people stayed in their cars and vans waiting for the few respites from the rain when they could go out and throw a few footballs. Very few folks were grilling. Although there was a group of students or perhaps young alums playing a few beer games not too far away.

We were also delighted by a visit by Gershon and his wife Ronnie. Gershon is a great fan of this blog, a regular contributor to comments, and he wanted to meet me. So we hooked up via cell phone and they found our van and stopped by and visited for a while before the game. Thanks, Gershon! I’m flattered by your effort to find us in the pouring rain and also by your loyal following of this blog. I hope we can spend some more time together in better conditions at a future game!

There were a number of people who for some reason weren’t prepared for the weather. I don’t know why. This is Florida on January 1. It can be cold and wet. And it was. Also the weather forecast for days had been predicting rainy weather. Terry and I had brought our raingear and wore several layers – we needed them all because the rain brought a cold front with it, it was also quite windy in the stands. But other fans were soaking wet in their T-shirts. Brrrrrrr.

As far as the game itself, in a game where the field conditions defined what each team could accomplish, touchdowns were hard to come by. Our defense did a great job of holding LSU to just a field goal in the first half. PSU kicker Collin Wagner was perfect on his four field goal attempts, contributing 12 of the 19 points that Penn State scored. Punter extraordinaire Jeremy Boone, known for pinning the opposing team deep in their own end zone, was probably a bit frustrated as his punts kept bouncing into the end zone rather than plopping into the mud as he had hoped. He received no help from his special teammates who couldn’t run fast enough in the mud to contain the punted balls on the one-yard line.

After a 13-3 half-time lead, it seemed that the defense fell asleep, or perhaps LSU just figured something out. Or maybe the fact that there was no more rain helped them. In any case, Penn State was able to score only 3 points in the 3rd quarter, whereas LSU managed a touchdown. Of course, it didn’t help that PSU gave LSU possession on the PSU 47-yard line because we chose to squib kick the ball after our field goal rather than kick it deep. So their first touchdown was the result of a short field. We were very dismayed by that kick choice. After a Penn State 3-and-out, LSU came right back and scored another touchdown. Now it was 17-16 in the 4th quarter, and it was quite a tense atmosphere.

Credit Darryl Clark for sustaining a long game-winning drive and taking a lot of time off the clock. It was enough to allow Collin Wagner to hit his fourth field goal and put us up 19-17. But at that point in the game there was still 57 seconds left on the clock. “Too much time,” I said to Terry. He agreed that we were in a precarious situation, thought we would probably lose. And when LSU was able to move the ball to within 20 yards of field goal range, we knew we were in trouble.

I never like to see officiating determine the outcome of the game. And I’m really not sure what happened. But an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against LSU put them out of field goal range with just a few ticks on the clock. So Penn State won the game on a controversial call. The officiating was questionable in other aspects. We were incredulous that the officials couldn’t keep track of what down it was, on two different plays. We’ll have to watch the tape to figure out what happened. In the stands we were mostly confused.

In any case, a win is a win, and this one was a big one on a sloppy day when neither team could play their best because of the weather and the field. We won against a ranked team and it was fun to hear the students chant “Dar-ryl Cla-rk” as we were exiting the stadium. He was named the Most Valuable Player and that was well deserved. He leaves Penn State with a 22-4 record as quarterback. We will miss him and all the other seniors. We’re glad they went out with a victory against a very solid Top 25 SEC football team.

Now we’re back at Disney World. Staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. The only lions and tigers we’ve seen were at the game yesterday. When we step out onto our balcony, though, we never know what we will encounter. Giraffes, zebras, roan antelope, and ankole cattle roam freely through the savannah in front of us. It’s a serene environment amidst the chaos of Disney during the holidays. We’re hoping all the kids leave today and tomorrow to go back to school so we will have a chance to really enjoy the parks for two days before we head home. Right now it’s about 40 degrees, cold and sunny.

Florida? That’s right. But still fun, especially when we win.