Thursday, October 29, 2009

Chicago Makes Northwestern A Fun Trip

We always enjoy following Penn State to Northwestern. Why? Location. Location. Location. Evanston Illinois is a suburb just north of Chicago. Every once in a while it’s nice to get a big city fix, and Chicago is one of America’s great cities.

When we go to Chicago, we try to take advantage of all that Chicago has to offer. Favorite museums include the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Science and Technology. We will usually visit one of these museums each time we go to Chicago. There’s always something interesting to learn or see.

Also, Terry loves to visit zoos, and two of his favorites zoos are in Chicago. The Brookfield zoo is great – in the suburbs near O’Hare – and so is the Lincoln Park Zoo – within the city limits. If the weather is good, we will head to the zoo.

Then there’s the shopping, especially on the Magnificent Mile, where we usually stay. Flagship stores of major brands such as Nike, Sony, or Apple can be found on that stretch of Michigan Avenue. Favorite department stores such as Nordstrom's, and major malls with every retailer you can possibly name can be found here. Since I live in Centre County, PA., excellent shopping (more likely browsing) is a real treat. As a marketing professional, seeing the latest trends in retailing is also a learning experience. The only problem is that Terry hates to shop. So I leave him in the hotel room for a few hours while I explore.

Finally, there are the restaurants. Chicago deep-dish pizza – there’s nothing better if you like pizza. Edwardo’s is our favorite, followed closely by Giordano’s. There are steakhouses galore, too numerous to mention, and we’ve had several good meals. Somehow, Midwestern steaks are always better than what you can find in the East. And then there’s the Twin Anchors Tavern, a recent find. The best ribs we’ve ever eaten! We’ll probably go there again this trip, even though we need to take a taxi, it was that good. A local pub, very crowded, but well worth the wait.

We’ve learned from experience how to manage the trip to Northwestern. The first time we visited there, we stayed at a hotel near O’Hare Airport and drove to Evanston. It was 1993, and football was – well – not a major focus at Northwestern. The stadium, Ryan Field, has a capacity of 47,130. When we went to that first game, we had a rental car and drove to the stadium. Barely an hour before the game, we could park within two blocks of the stadium. A half hour before the game, there were still empty parking spaces right next to the stadium. We were amazed. Northwestern did not have a winning tradition, so attendance was sparse, and access was easy. Empty seats – and empty parking spaces – prevailed. Our seats, purchased through Penn State, were on the 35-yard line for that first game.

Northwestern is a great school, with very tough academics. In 1993, Northwestern was known more for its losing records in Division 1A than its winning records. On the other hand, Northwestern has always had one of the highest graduation success rates of NCAA BCS football – 92% in 2008, the last year the statistics have been made available. In comparison, Penn State’s NCAA graduation success rate for football was 78% that same year. This is not to be frowned upon! Among the Top 25 AP teams, Penn State was #2. Texas Tech was #1, with 79%. But for Northwestern, recruiting great football talent with very tough academic standards is even harder than it is at Penn State – which is tough enough, and getting tougher every year.

Unlike other Big Ten schools, which are all public universities, Northwestern is a private university, with an enrollment as of 2007 of about 19000 students. From my perspective as a marketing professional, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern is well known for having one of the best marketing departments in the country.

In fact, in 1995, just when I was about to go to Northwestern for a game, we were recruiting marketing professionals for my company’s marketing department. I asked my boss where we should recruit. Northwestern, of course, was his answer. My response: “I’m going to the Northwestern game this weekend. What can I do?” My boss said, “Recruit an MBA from Northwestern”. So it was the first and only time a football game became also a business trip.

That same year, everything changed for Northwestern football. Under the leadership of head coach Gary Barnett, Northwestern had its “Cinderella Season”. “Expect Victory” was the motto. On November 4, 1995, when Penn State played them at Ryan Field, Northwestern had lost only one game – oddly enough to Miami of Ohio. They had won against Notre Dame, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois before they played us. The atmosphere on campus when I met with Kellog to recruit an MBA was electric. There was purple fever everywhere. We wound up losing that game 21-10, and Northwestern won the Big Ten Conference title that year and headed to the Rose Bowl to play USC. Their record for the year was 10-2, after losing to USC.

Parking at the stadium in 1995? Forget about it! The stadium was sold out for every game, and parking there was out of the question. We were advised to park on campus and take the shuttle to the game.

So we did park on campus. We were directed to park near the Natatorium. The shuttle worked well from campus to the stadium. However, on the way back, after a miserable loss, the shuttle took a different route, and the bus driver didn’t announce the stops. I guess he assumed that everyone on the bus knew where to get off. Everyone, that is, except us. We stayed on the bus too long, and finally asked the bus driver where we were.

The bus driver dropped us at the very south end of campus. The Natatorium was near the north end of campus. On a very bone-chilling cold windy November night we had to walk a very long way – my guess close to two miles – along Lake Michigan – asking directions from whomever we could – to find our way back to our parking spot. It was a miserable experience!

Since then, we have not driven to Evanston for a Northwestern game. The games have been much better attended, and the away team section is relegated to the corner of the end zone. Parking is impossible.

We find it easier to stay in downtown Chicago – preferably near the Magnificent Mile - and take the “El” – the purple elevated subway line – to the game. That leaves us about 3 blocks from the stadium. It works very well, and we don’t have to fuss about parking! The Penn State Pep Rally is also close to that “El” station in Evanston. So it’s convenient to stop by there before the game.

This year, it will be more interesting than usual. We will play Northwestern on Halloween. What are we likely to encounter on public transportation to and from the game? I’ll be sure to have my camera ready!

One thing I’m not too worried about this year is winning the game. As long as the Penn State team doesn’t overlook them!

Despite our winning record against them, we’ve had some very close battles with Northwestern – most notably in 2005. Towards the end of the game, Northwestern was ahead. Michael Robinson completed a 4th and 15 pass to tight end Isaac Smolko in order to keep our chances of winning the game alive. To me, that was the key play of the incredible 2005 season. A pass to Derrick Williams five plays later secured our victory, with 51 seconds left on the clock.

At the end of that game, Terry and I had our first clue that the 2005 team would be special. How special we couldn’t predict, but at that point we knew that the team could at least find a way to win. It was a major turning point after two miserable losing seasons!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Big House Is Even More Fun When We Win!

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the Big House is one of our favorite college football venues. In fact, it is #4 on our list. Given that until this weekend we hadn’t won there since 1996, it’s a credit to Michigan and its fans that we have enjoyed it that much. But it’s an even better experience when we win! Even if the weather included a soggy cold drizzle that was chilling to the bone. We needed, for the second week in a row, all the foul weather gear in our possession to survive that game.

The currently in progress stadium renovations at the Big House include stadium suites on the East and West sides. The net effect of building up the sides is an even noisier stadium than before, and a different look from street level. Our seats were at the top of the south end-zone – 94th row - so we had a great view of plays as they developed. Looking down from that height into a “bowl” full of mostly maize is always an awesome experience.

During the first three minutes and forty-nine seconds of the game, Michigan was in control. They controlled the line of scrimmage and engineered an 11-play, 70 yard drive. They handled our defense handily, and scored a touchdown. Terry and I looked at each other in despair. Michigan made it look too easy! And just like that, the Penn State defense allowed the first touchdown of the season in the first half. The defensive streak was broken in the 8th game.

At that point, we thought we were in trouble – serious trouble! But when Penn State’s offense took the field, they answered right away with a 68-yard, 4 play touchdown drive on their own, tying the score. From that point on, Penn State dominated the game, although there were times when I thought that Michigan just made too many mistakes. The score was 19-10 at half time.

During the second half, it was all Penn State. Our offense scored another 16 points in the second half, making the final score 35-10. Michigan could not score again. Michigan had a chance when they blocked a punt on the Penn State 30, but Penn State forced a fumble and recovered it on the Penn State 20.

The offense had a great day. Quarterback Darryl Clark completed 16 of 27 passes including four touchdowns (no interceptions). Running Back Evan Royster had another 100 yard game. The defense contained Michigan’s usually prolific running game or created turnovers – two interceptions and two fumbles.

Perhaps that first Michigan touchdown was a wakeup call to our defense. Michigan’s total offense was only 250 yards on 73 plays. We held them to 110 yards rushing on 40 attempts (2.75 yards per carry). We controlled time of possession, especially in the second half.

In other words, it was a solid win, perhaps the best and most balanced performance of the season so far. And it happened in the Big House! Finally. As John Black, editor of the Penn State Football Newsletter, so aptly predicted that morning, it would be a game to finally “get the monkey off our back” and relegate those years of back-to-back losses against Michigan to a distant memory. We've now won two in a row against Michigan. So a new streak has begun, I hope!

As for the noise in the Big House, it was much more subdued in the second half. In fact, perhaps due to the nasty weather, a lot of Michigan fans started to leave in the third quarter. Penn State fans, of course, stayed until the end, enjoying the celebration with the entire Penn State Blue Band and the football players who rushed towards the Penn State fans after the game to celebrate with us.

Before Saturday’s game, a lot of us were still wondering what type of team we would have this year. The win at Michigan gave us more answers – it appears that we have a very good team, one that might even be great if they win out the rest of the season. But of course Penn State can’t overlook Northwestern coming up in Evanston this Saturday. Ohio State and Michigan State both loom large as “must wins” against stiff competition. We still have a long way to go.

Saturday evening, back at the hotel, Penn State fans gathered in the lounge to celebrate our victory and watch the Michigan State-Iowa game. For a while, it looked like Michigan State could pull off an upset win. The Penn Staters around us were cheering the Spartans on as they could feel at least a share of the Big Ten Championship coming our way. But Iowa again managed to find a way to win! And many Penn Staters went to bed after that game disappointed. I wasn’t one of them. I found myself excited about Iowa achieving 8-0 for the first time in their history. Kudos to them! Iowa still has to play Ohio State at the Horseshoe, and their archrival Minnesota at home. So a lot can happen to keep Penn State’s chances alive.

Our team needs to be focused on winning, one game at a time. The rest of the Big Ten and other national contenders will win or lose each week and we will all have fun cheering for this team or that hoping that the right combination of wins or losses will put Penn State in position for a great conclusion to the season. National championship? There’s a very slight chance. Big Ten Championship? A decent shot at a share of the title. A BCS Bowl? It’s an awesome possibility.

Penn State has a lot to play for. There are lots of football games to be played. The team itself needs to take it one game at a time and hope that winning the rest will position them well for post-season play. That’s all we can ask of them.

Beat Northwestern on Saturday!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

2005 Was A Painful Loss But A Favorite Game Nonetheless

Enough is enough. Since we joined the Big Ten in 1993, we have played Michigan in Ann Arbor seven times. Michigan has won five times. We have won twice. The last time was 1996. I have witnessed six of those games in Ann Arbor. Terry has witnessed seven. So right now, I have witnessed only one win at the Big House in six visits. 1996. Terry has witnessed two wins: 1994 and 1996. The rest of those trips have been losses. Yet somehow we keep going back, and tomorrow we leave for Ann Arbor more optimistic about our chances that we might finally succeed in putting those losses behind us. Especially 2005!

Credit my dear nephew David for my 1994 absence. David and his wife MaryBeth decided to get married in Boston on October 15, 1994. Terry refused to miss the first ever Penn State-Michigan game in Ann Arbor. So he went to the game, I went to the wedding. My family has never quite forgiven Terry for that, but that’s another story...I digress.

In any case, since 1996 we’ve had a bad run of luck at Ann Arbor. Five times in a row we have lost there. In fact the entire series with Michigan is 10-4 in favor of Michigan. Three of those four games were won between 1994-1996. The fourth win was last year, 2008, at Beaver Stadium, and we dominated 46-17. Finally a win that broke a long losing streak!

The most painful loss, of course, was 2005. We were ahead 25-21 with one lousy second left on the clock, and Michigan found a way to win on fourth down with a TD pass from Chad Henne to Mario Manningheim. The game was over and we lost 27-25. I don’t usually cry when we lose, because usually by the end of a game it’s a slow realization that time is running out and that we will lose. But that game, I thought we might have it. Especially with only one second left on the clock, Michigan’s chances were slim. So with that incredible pass play, I found tears flowing at the end of that game. It was very hard to accept.

But I also have another perspective, and Penn State fans are going to hate what I have to say next. That 2005 game, despite the loss, stands in my memory as one of the most exciting games I’ve ever witnessed in the years I’ve been following college football. It’s definitely in my Top 5 of my all-time favorite football games. #1 for me was the 9-0 Homecoming shutout game at Alabama in 1990. #2 would be the 63-14 win against Ohio State in 1994. #3 would be the 1992 42-17 Fiesta Bowl win against Tennessee. The 2005 Michigan game would be next.

Why would a loss be ranked so high? My reasoning is simple. It was an amazingly competitive battle, especially in the fourth quarter.

Entering the fourth quarter, Michigan led 10-3. Terry and I were not happy but there was still plenty of time to win the game.

It had been, so far, a defensive battle. But the offense for both teams awoke in the fourth quarter, and the defense for both teams kept up their pressure.

With 11:56 to play, Penn State tied the score, helped by a 61-yard run by Tony Hunt. Terry and I started to have some hope, but we knew there was a lot of time left.

17 seconds later Alan Zemaitis forced a Michigan turnover and ran the ball in for a touchdown. The extra point snap was bobbled but kicker Kevin Kelly somehow managed to grab the ball and run into the end zone for 2 points. The score was 18-10.

Terry and I were ecstatic. We were ahead 18-10. That helped a lot! There was still a lot of time left on the clock, but remember it had been a low scoring game.

Then Michigan drove, scored a touchdown, and made their two-point conversion. The score was tied 18-18. 9:32 left on the clock. We were dismayed.

Penn State couldn’t move the ball on their next possession, then Michigan had another drive that resulted in a field goal. The score was 21-18 in Michigan’s favor. There was 3:45 left to play. We were distressed, but there was still enough time to turn it around.

On Penn State’s next possession they turned over the ball to Michigan. Disaster! We were running out of time! We were going to lose.

Then PSU’s defense stepped up and forced a 3-and-out. Michael Robinson led Penn State on an amazing 81-yard drive with no time-outs left, and he scored another touchdown. There was 53 seconds left on the clock.

The score was 25-21 in favor of Penn State. Terry and I were ecstatic again. Victory was in our grasp. We thought we had it. Michigan had to score a touchdown to win now, had to drive the length of the field, and the clock was in our favor.

But Steve Breaston had a 41-yard kickoff return to the UM 47-yard line. With very little time left. Michigan advanced to the PSU 10-yard line. One second left and one more play. If we can just defend one pass play, we will win. Very tense.

But Henne and Manningheim connected, Michigan scored that touchdown and they won the game 27-25. Penn State fell short. All our hope deflated. We lost.

Despite the tears I shed that day, the reason I love that game is that neither team quit. Penn State did everything they possibly could to win that game. They played their hearts out. So did Michigan. Both teams left everything they had on the field. Both teams played with soul, and incredible determination to win, on both sides of the ball. Neither team deserved to lose, but one team had to. It turned out to be Penn State. It could have just as easily been Michigan.

And that, in my humble opinion, is what great college football is all about. When you witness that sort of game it’s an amazing experience, with all its up-and-down emotion. You see your team perform at its very best against the toughest competition, and know that the team gave it everything they had.

What more can you ask for? A win obviously would have been great! We could also ask for a game that wasn’t influenced by questionable officiating late in the game. Instant replay might have made a difference if it had existed then.

But the 2005 loss at Michigan doesn’t take away any pride we felt for how Penn State played the game that day. They were phenomenal, and they went on to have an incredible season that was a complete turnaround from the prior two losing seasons. A Big Ten Championship, a BCS Orange Bowl bid, and then another stunning triple-overtime win against Florida State. It was a season that would bring Penn State back to the national forefront, turn our recruiting around, and secure Joe Paterno’s legacy in college football. It was a season that provided sweet vindication for four of five losing seasons where the patience and faith of Penn State fans (and the players and coaches) were severely tested.

Let’s go to Michigan this week and win. As Terry would say, it’s time to come home from Ann Arbor bearing our shields rather than on them!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Defense Does Its Thing While the Offense Controls the Clock

It’s not often that an opposing team gets completely shut out by the Nittany Lions. According to this morning’s Centre Daily Times, this was the 40th shutout in 44 years. Perhaps more significantly, this was a shut out against a Big Ten team with a winning record. Highly unusual! In fact, Minnesota was able to muster only 7 first downs in the entire game. The defense held them to only 138 net yards. Impressive. In fact, it was VERY impressive.

Perhaps the entire defense should get the game ball for yesterday’s win. They kept Minnesota off the field. Eric Decker, Minnesota’s highly regarded wide receiver, caught only one pass all game – a 42-yarder at the beginning of the 4th quarter that allowed Minnesota to get some offensive rhythm and into scoring position. But the defense stopped Minnesota on a 4th down play on the one-yard line and the shut out was secured.

Or perhaps the game ball should go to the instant replay system. It certainly helped us at the end of the first half! Without instant replay, the game might have turned out quite differently.

Or maybe the game ball should go to the offensive line, which has shown tremendous improvement and controlled the line of scrimmage, creating opportunities for rushing and passing.

We were worried about the offense at first. We could move the ball but we sputtered when we got into the red zone. Penalties seemed to be the primary problem. Penn State’s offense was self-destructing. Perhaps they were trying too hard to score. So we were 6-0 on two field goals by Collin Wagner. A third field goal try – a 49-yarder – was missed in the first half. Worrisome.

But then a Clark pass to Graham Zug, initially ruled incomplete, was overturned through instant replay and PSU’s final drive of the half stayed alive. With 35 seconds left in the half, Clark passed to Derek Moye in the end zone. Again it was ruled incomplete, but instant replay overruled that as well and gave us a touchdown.

So we wound up in the first half with a score of 13-0. The game was looking good so far, but it was far from over. Second half adjustments by Minnesota could easily overcome that deficit. And Minnesota is a dangerous come-from-behind team.

Credit the offense with controlling time of possession, especially in the third quarter. Our offense was on the field for 42 minutes, Minnesota’s offense was on the field for only 18 minutes. We were able to eat up a lot of clock with our rushing game, led by Evan Royster who had 23 attempts for 137 yards. Overall, the offense showed a balanced attack with 177 rushing yards and 287 passing yards. Clark had a fine performance, completing 21 of 32 passes and scoring a touchdown from the 1-yard line. No interceptions. He mixed up his passes – involving both wide receivers and tight ends. The Penn State offense had no turnovers throughout the entire game.

Basically the game yesterday was a total team effort. It was a very satisfying win. It gives Penn State needed confidence for two weeks of road trips, the biggest test of which will be Michigan in Ann Arbor. We have not won a game there since 1996. Will this be the year? Having witnessed yesterday’s performance, I’m quite optimistic about our chances.

How about you?

As Long As You Dressed For It The Game Yesterday Was Fine

Okay, it’s October. But it may as well be winter. After all, the temperature when we left for the Penn State-Minnesota game was about 34 degrees, and it was a light snow. For the rest of the day it was a light on-again and off-again cold rain, that added up to a lot of moisture. The temperature didn’t change much all day.

So how do you stay warm and comfortable? Here was my checklist:

--L.L. Bean silk long underwear
--Thin sock liners under rag wool socks, also purchased from L.L. Bean
--L.L. Bean waterproof Maine hunting shoes (low-cut) with thinsulate lining
--Nittany Lion pendant and earrings (purchased from Betsy Suhey of Aurum Goldsmiths in State College)
--Gray wool lined pants (also from L.L. Bean)
--L.L. Bean waterproof Goretex rain pants
--Penn State navy blue turtleneck purchased at Lion’s Pride in State College
--“Lions Gopher The Gold” button created by Citizens Bank
--Heavy boiled wool navy blue sweater purchased in Scotland a few years ago
--Eddie Bauer waterproof and insulated parka with hood– temp rating -20 F
--Wool navy blue felt hat with a brim to keep my glasses dry with Lion pin (gift from my mother)
-- L.L. Bean waterproof Goretex insulated ski mittens
--Driver’s license, enough money for snacks, health insurance card, one credit card in a quart-size plastic bag to be stowed in a pocket in my parka
--Automobile “key” (transmitter), and my cell phone in a quart-size plastic bag to be stowed in another pocket in my parka
--Camera case and camera with a gallon-size plastic bag to keep camera and batteries dry

I pulled out all the stops. Dressed for late November. Had to dig into closets to find all this stuff that I don’t normally look for until later in the year. Took a shuttle to the game so had to carry everything with me, wear it all day. No car trunk to store extra layers in. Left the purse at home because I didn’t want to get it wet.

Don’t mean to make this an advertisement for L.L. Bean or Eddie Bauer, but perhaps these retailers should consider a new product line of collegiate licensed outerwear. They could start with the Big Ten due to colder climates. Their stuff works, and it lasts for years. For cold weather gear, my loyalty goes back and forth between these two retailers depending on the purchase and mostly the fit. Most of the items listed above from these two retailers were purchased at least ten years ago.

Being warm at games has been a priority since November 1987 – my first Penn State football season – when we played Notre Dame at Beaver Stadium and the wind chill factor was -40 in the stands. Yesterday’s game in comparison was a day at the beach in mid-summer. Well, maybe not!

Did the clothing strategy work? Absolutely. I was dry the entire game and reasonably comfortable. But I also needed everything I brought with me! It was ridiculous to wear all these clothes in October.

But when you witness a great 20-0 win, it is all worth it! More on that later today.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Be Part of History and Enjoy The Snow Bowl for Homecoming

Snow was the last thing I expected this week. I had hoped that today’s game would have been fall football at its best – a lively homecoming crowd, a 3:30 game with lots of tailgating, a good Big Ten contest against a decent team, Minnesota. It should be sweatshirt weather, not long underwear and winter outerwear. The height of fall foliage was expected, including Mount Nittany in all its brilliant autumn glory. Instead, we have to figure out basics – like how to get to the game.

Yesterday morning, we got an emergency text message on my cell phone from Penn State stating that all grass parking lots, including ours, will be closed for tomorrow’s game. Go online to get more info at Easier said than done!

We had no power in our house. No Internet access as a result. It was darn cold. I started writing this yesterday under a few blankets. I had about an hour left of battery on my laptop. Normally I work from home on Fridays. But I went to the office to check the Internet, recharge my laptop, and find out about bus locations. And stay warm.

Emailed our friend from Allentown who’s supposed to meet us at our tailgate spot and told him we’ll see him at the seats. Did some work I was planning to do from home. Got out of the parking garage before the Homecoming parade started. Deferred the laundry until the power came back, expected by 6 p.m. Saturday! Stopped by Wal-Mart to buy batteries, perhaps a lantern, and other things to prepare for another 24 hours at least of a power outage and was unsuccessful. Everything was sold out. Decided we had to get by with what we already had at home – plenty of candles and two flashlights. No heat. Lots of tree branches down in our yard. Fortunately none hit our house. Will have to deal with those later.

Bought subs at Subway for dinner. And ice for cocktails – we didn’t want to open the freezer. It had been a long day, and a martini would taste good. Prepared for an evening by candlelight.

It’s October. This isn’t supposed to happen in Pennsylvania in October!

We should count our blessings. At least we live close by. Our friends who travel from the Allentown area have to cope with getting here first, then figuring out where to park.

Later yesterday, Penn State announced free shuttle busses from a variety of new locations. No tents allowed for tailgating. If you have reserved parking in a paved lot, you have to be there before 11 a.m. and you may not park in your usual spot. After 11 a.m. the general public will be allowed to park in those lots. Called or emailed a few more long distance friends with reserved parking and let them know about the situation.

Guess we’ll take a bus tomorrow from some retailer’s parking lot in State College. The forecast is for another inch of snow – a mix of rain and snow. This is ridiculous, but Penn State is doing the best they can. They are concerned about safety and this is a crisis.

I don’t want to park in a muddy parking lot anyhow. Been there, done that. After a very rainy Temple game in November 2006, I wound up with a sprained ankle and a six-week recovery after sliding down a slight hill in mud to get to my parking space. Maneuvered around campus to my classes in a motorized cart because I couldn’t walk for six weeks. Discovered how many handicapped access doors on campus don’t really work very well. Penn State is definitely doing the right thing by closing the grass lots.

We will dress for late November, not mid October! But we will be okay. I wasn’t so sure last night. But our power was restored about 7:30 p.m. on Friday. Our internet access wasn't restored until this morning, but that wasn't a major problem.

The last time we had a “Snow Bowl” was November 18, 1995. It was a key game against Michigan. Our situation was different then. We were living in Easton, PA, 185 miles from Beaver Stadium. We had reserved parking in a paved lot, but there was 16 inches of snow on the ground, and ALL parking lots were closed. Terry and I had just bought a new car, picked it up that week. Our usual plan was to leave early Saturday a.m. to get to the game. We were worried about driving to that game in our brand new car – where the heck would we park? We were seriously thinking about staying home.

Joe Paterno had come on TV encouraging people to come to the game even with no parking. So over dinner at a restaurant Thursday night, I said to Terry, “As soon as we get home, let’s call the Penn Stater Hotel. Let’s see if there are some cancellations. See if they have shuttles to the game. If we can get a room for Friday and Saturday, our car will be safe, and we can take a shuttle. Worst case is we walk to the game from there– it’s not that far.”

So that’s what we did. Sure enough, there were cancellations. We both left work early, drove to State College on Friday rather than Saturday, and the shuttle busses from the Penn Stater worked extremely well. In fact, we were very impressed. It was smoother and quicker than driving to the game and parking in our normal space.

There was about 8 inches of snow packed at our seats. Not much room. It was very cold. But we had our L.L. Bean hunting boots with one-inch thick felt liners and lots of other warm clothes. And we also had two extra tickets that gave us a bit of extra space – they were selling for $10 at the game so we kept them. The game itself was a great deal of fun. We won 27-17. We were very glad that we went! 80,000 people also braved the elements to attend that game.

Somehow we’ll cope with the weather. So will everyone else.

The Penn State spirit will prevail. After all, we’re part of an historic event. The last time it snowed close to this much in State College on this date was in 1901, according to the Weather Channel on Friday.

So instead of complaining about no parking, we should just get into the spirit of the event. It will be different – no tents for tailgating – but it will still be fun. It will be something to talk about for years to come.

This isn’t supposed to happen in October. But that’s the way it is. It’s just another glitch that will make an interesting story. Sometimes, that’s the way it is if you’re an avid Penn State football fan.

Enjoy the game! And let’s get a win!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Half-Time Stole the Show At Yesterday’s Game!

There was no tension about whether or not we would win yesterday’s game. Despite the fact that Eastern Illinois is a good team in its division, it’s a simple fact that they would have had to play a perfect game to beat Penn State. That wasn’t likely to happen. We simply have more depth of talent.

Besides, playing before a crowd of somewhere between 90-100,000 people is a bit intimidating when your own stadium has only 10,000 seats. Even though our crowd wasn’t especially intimidating by our normal standards. We were relatively subdued –dare I say bored? –when it came to the competition on the field.

The game was about money for both teams: a $450,000 payout for Eastern Illinois if they showed up at Beaver Stadium, and a few million dollars for Penn State in ticket and concession revenues for scheduling an extra home game.

How sad. It wasn’t destined to be a competitive game from the moment the game was scheduled. A lot of people stayed home as a result. As of Saturday morning, there were 1749 tickets for sale for this game on the Nittany Lion Ticket Exchange. Even 50-yard line seats were available at face value plus a processing fee and not sold. At a face value of $55 apiece, that’s about $96,000 worth of unused tickets – lost value to the season ticket holders who had already paid for those tickets!

The fans who did come to the game today were expecting a “laugher”, and Penn State did indeed deliver. We scored 38 first half points. For the sixth time this season, Penn State’s defense didn’t allow a touchdown in the first half. Our second string was deployed in the middle of the third quarter, and we wound up winning 52-3.

It looked like Eastern Illinois would in fact be the first team this season to score a touchdown in the first half against our defense. Eastern Illinois was driving and in touchdown territory, but a fumble by Eastern Illinois on the 9-yard line resulted in Navarro Bowman’s 91-yard return for a touchdown. It was a pleasant surprise and loads of fun to watch that return. It was clearly the highlight of the game.

This game was an offensive clinic against a team that appeared to have no defense. We achieved 553 yards of offense – 285 rushing, 268 passing. Our defense was awesome. They held Eastern Illinois to one field goal.

Another good part of the game was the fact that Kevin Newsome, our backup freshman quarterback, had the opportunity to do more than mop-up duty. He showed some explosiveness in his ability to run, and he ran for a touchdown. But he also fumbled twice. Not good! Luckily the fumbles were recovered by Penn State, and we hope he learned a lesson about holding on to the ball. He needs more game experience and needs to improve. Today’s game helped Newsome and other second string talent gain some valuable playing experience.

In the meantime, the Penn State Blue Band went “over the top” in their half-time performance yesterday. It was one of the best performances we’ve ever seen them produce, a musical review of themes from various classic movies. Very creative touches, whether they were the “Touch of Blue” majorettes in bat costumes for the “Batman” tribute, or Blue Sapphire P.J. Maierhofer doing a “Rocky” routine with the Nittany Lion. The band formations related to “Star Roars” and “Superman” were superb. Kudos to them! We loved every moment of it.

Following that outstanding musical revue, there was the Parade of Champions – reminding us all that Penn State Athletics is not just about football. Other team sports are extremely competitive, and it was nice to take a moment to celebrate their achievements.

It’s football that helps to pay the bills so that these athletes can compete in non-revenue producing sports. The Parade of Champions perhaps was intended to serve as a subtle reminder to the audience that extra games like this one – the extra few millions gained by playing teams like Eastern Illinois - matter in funding the 28 other Penn State sports, only one of which is revenue-producing (men's basketball).

But I doubt that anyone really made that connection or got that message.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Educators, The Frat Guy, The Grad Student, and the Preacher

Last Friday, there was “unscheduled maintenance” on our plane out of Detroit to Champaign. Originally scheduled to leave at 3:45 p.m., the plane didn’t actually leave the gate until about 5:15 p.m. – a 90 minute delay. As air travel goes it wasn’t a horrible delay, but it did involve changing gates at Detroit twice, and it was one of those situations where announcements of delays were made in ten-minute increments. So you couldn’t leave the gate because at any moment the plane could be boarded or another gate change would be announced.

There’s a natural inclination in these circumstances for strangers to start talking to each other. Not much else to do, and it eliminates the boredom of waiting for the flight. Since there was a big game in Champaign involving Penn State and Illinois, it was easy to identify which passengers were going to the game by the clothing they were wearing.

Thus we talked with a couple from the Harrisburg area – avid Penn State fans and season ticket holders who had chosen Illinois for an away game trip this year. They were a retired school principal and a speech therapist. Their reason for going to the game at Illinois? Their cousins live in Champaign and they were going to enjoy this match-up with family who were Illinois fans. They were going to sit in the Illinois section.

Then there was the fraternity brother – a 2001 graduate from Penn State – who was anxious to join his frat friends in Champaign for their annual football reunion. This fraternity group chooses one away game to attend each year. This year’s reunion was the Illinois-Penn State game.

He was kicking himself for not skipping a work meeting late afternoon on Thursday, causing him to leave Philadelphia on Friday morning. His frat friends were already doing the rounds of bars in downtown Champaign while he was stuck waiting for this connection. He was afraid he would miss most of the partying. He kept texting his friends to find out where they were.

A young woman who was a grad student at Penn State was wearing Illinois clothes. She completed her undergrad work at Illinois, and she was looking forward to a reunion with her Illinois classmates. She told me she had been an Illinois football fan since she was five years old. Despite current affiliations with Penn State, her Illinois sentiments understandably dominated. She too was excited about getting there to start the partying with her friends.

Terry and I weren’t connecting with anyone in Champaign. We were just going to the game as we always do, and it just happened to be my 100th game in a row and Terry’s 236th. People are always fascinated by how we manage to do that. So we told our story again and again to these folks, and I passed out cards that announced my blog to anyone who seemed interested.

As we engaged in conversation about the prospects for Saturday’s game, a gentleman wearing an Eastern Illinois sweatshirt approached us. His name is Happy Leman, and he was travelling home to Champaign with his wife Dianne. Happy Leman is the Senior Pastor of the Vineyard Church in Urbana, Illinois.

“Don’t beat up on us too badly next Saturday,” Happy said. “My son plays for Eastern Illinois.” We asked if Happy was coming to Happy Valley next weekend. “Would love to, but we’re a bit tied up on Sundays,” he stated. He’s a preacher, of course, and Sundays are a workday for him. So he can’t travel to watch his son play. “Watch out for Cory for us - #8 – he’s a linebacker.” He wrote his son’s name down on a business card and gave it to us.

“But my other son – J –is going to the game. He’s in Philadelphia now, playing on the practice squad for the Philadelphia Eagles. He was an outstanding linebacker for Illinois. All Big Ten, just like Paul Posluzny.” J’s name and #47 were also on the business card.

Happy then went on to discuss J’s accomplishments as a football player at Illinois. “Look him up – he was good. Sports bloggers were especially impressed with him.” I promised Happy I would write about J this week.

Terry and I didn’t have to look him up. We remembered his name. Leman was a key contributor to the Penn State 27-20 loss in 2007. He took away any momentum Penn State could muster.

According to the University of Illinois website, J. Leman “Led Illinois with 10 tackles, including four solos, an interception, a PBU (pass broken up) and 0.5 TFLs (tackles for loss) against No. 21 Penn State ... His PBU and INT vs. PSU came on first and third downs, respectively, of the same drive, with Leman breaking up a would-be TD pass on first down and intercepting the third-down pass at the Illinois 3.” At the time of that interception by Leman, the score was 24-20 Illinois. Because of J, our touchdown drive stalled. We weren’t too happy!

J was a true leader on an Illinois team that achieved a Rose Bowl bid that year. He was a 2008 Consensus All-American, First Team All-America (by numerous sources), First Team All-Big Ten (by coaches and media), a Semifinalist for numerous awards including Butkus, Danny Weurffel, Chuck Bednarik, etc., a 2007 National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete, and a Draddy Award Finalist.

And now we were talking to his proud father. Who was thrilled that J was able to do so well at Illinois – and that Cory is now at Eastern Illinois on a team that is ranked nationally. Once again, a son was playing close enough to Champaign that they could attend the home games, and they were looking forward to an Ohio Valley Conference battle – probably for the championship - on Saturday against Eastern Kentucky, Unfortunately for the Lemans, Eastern Illinois lost that game 36-31. But Eastern Illinois is still ranked nationally at #25 in their division, and there are still plenty of games to be played in the season.

So this Saturday, we should see Cory Leman, #8, a sophomore, starting at linebacker, and also as a starter on special teams. In 2008, he appeared in all 12 games. He ranked third on the team with 61 tackles. He should be a significant contributor at Beaver Stadium on Saturday for Eastern Illinois.

In any case, this chance encounter with a preacher at Detroit airport has sparked our interest in Saturday’s game!

We hope that Eastern Illinois plays a good game against us and that they walk away from Beaver Stadium with their heads held high for a strong and valiant effort against a Penn State team with much more talent. Of course, we don’t wish them too much luck – Penn State definitely needs to win this game! But we do hope – for Cory’s sake and his parents – that it’s an injury-free game for Eastern Illinois.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Satisfying Win in Champaign

“The game’s not over yet!” Terry proclaimed with 10 minutes left in the 4th quarter and an 18-point Penn State advantage. “Why are people leaving???” At that point Illini fans were rushing to exit the stadium after Penn State scored again.

I was pretty sure that we had nailed the win. I didn’t see any evidence that Illinois could make a comeback against Penn State’s defense. But I also didn’t want to eat my words later if Terry was right. Stranger things than overcoming an 18-point deficit have happened in football games with ten minutes left. So I kept quiet.

The reason Terry was concerned was the possibility of quick strikes by Illinois – the Juice Williams-Arrelious Benn powerhouse connection had established itself at several points in the game to achieve significant yardage, albeit mostly between the 20’s. And any time that Juice Williams takes a snap, his ability to run can be a grave threat. We’ve also been burnt before by Arrelious Benn’s return capability. They are both excellent players. If somehow Illinois could score 8 points quickly, then it would motivate the Illini and make the end of the game – well – interesting. But fortunately that didn’t happen.

When Penn State scored another touchdown to make the score 35-10, even Terry could relax. This was a satisfying win. The game was much closer than the final score of 35-17 indicated. At halftime we were hanging on to a 7-3 lead, and Terry and I couldn’t figure out what had happened to our offense.

In the second half, Penn State was able to get the offense going, especially our running game. We scored 4 touchdowns. I found myself cheering “Go Clock!!!” in the 4th quarter as Illinois started running out of time to make things happen.

Also most importantly the defense held off Illinois all day. They couldn’t obliterate the Williams-Benn connection, but they could contain them. And they did that admirably well.

Probably the key plays of the game were the stops the defense made against an Illinois drive late in the first half. A grounding penalty by Williams caused by Penn State defensive pressure took Illinois out of field goal range, then an interception by Stephon Morris on a hail mary pass ended the half without an Illinois score. It was a momentum-buster for Illinois. The game might have had a different outcome had they scored a touchdown and been ahead 10-7 at the half.

For the 5th game in a row, Penn State’s defense has not allowed a touchdown in the 1st half of play! The offense started a bit slowly, but the offensive line showed remarkable improvement over prior weeks. There were few mistakes. The one fumble by Derek Moye after his pass reception was a phenomenal play by Illinois’ defense, something that’s hard to guard against.

Overall, we’re feeling much better about this win! Perhaps Penn State is on its way to a good – if not great – season after all.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Reflections on Today's Game in Champaign

There’s an old saying in football attributed to Joe Paterno, Earl Weaver, and others: “You’re never as good as you look when you win, nor as bad as you look when you lose.” As Penn State fans, we’ve certainly experienced both sides of that quote this month.

We had three solid wins, but the lopsided scores didn’t tell us how good our team was. We had one miserable loss last weekend. Had there been a few less Penn State turnovers in the game, one or two more completed passes, or more friendly officiating, perhaps the result would have different. But it wasn’t. We were clearly not the better team last weekend, Iowa was. But that doesn’t mean that we’re bad!

Here in Champaign, the impression we have from a few Illini fans, as well as from reading the paper, is that people are a bit down on the Illini this year. Understandably. With a 1-2 record, including a 30-0 loss to Ohio State last week, Illini fans have grave reason to be concerned about this year’s team.

Loren Tate, of the News-Gazette in Champaign, wrote a column yesterday where he stated, “Here is a fair analysis. Illini talent is midrange to good, comparable to our slightly better than most midrange teams but shy of conference leaders. If they avoid turnovers and penalties, if they take advantage of scoring opportunities and play with inspiration, they should reach the fourth quarter of most games with a chance to win. But the Illini do not now nor have they ever possessed some overwhelming physical advantage within the conference.”

This week, Terry watched a fair amount of Big Ten Network coverage on last weekend’s game, including the game between Illinois and Ohio State. Terry’s reaction? Illinois is not as bad a team as their record would indicate. They’ve got some good talent and can make some solid plays. Illinois could have a "break-out" game against Penn State, or they could continue to under-perform in the Big Ten.

Personally I’m hoping that Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn continue to struggle, that they don’t have a “break-out” game against Penn State. I’m hoping that Penn State’s defense steps up even more than they already have. They’ve allowed only 3 touchdowns all season. Wouldn’t it be nice if they allowed none in this game?
And finally I’m hoping that the offensive line gives Darryl Clark a chance, that the special teams do what they need to do to prevent things like blocked punts and breakaway returns.

I'm hoping for a solid win, but my guess is that it will be a close game, even a nail-biter.

So here we are…in Champaign finally! The weather will be a high of 52, cloudy, perhaps a few sprinkles, and 10-20 mph winds. There will be an “Orange Out” at the sold out stadium.

We’ll do our best to bring home a win!

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Roller Coaster Week Facing A Trip to Champaign Illinois

“It’s only a football game”, I told people on Wednesday when I stated matter-of-factly that I was going to stay home this weekend. I had taken two days off from teaching on Monday and Tuesday – cancelled 3 classes on Monday, found coverage for 3 classes on Tuesday, and cancelled a Tuesday night class. The crud in my chest wasn’t getting any better despite medication, and I’m sure last Saturday’s Iowa game in the relentless rain didn’t help either. Nor did the loss.

First thing Monday morning I had an emergency call with my physician’s assistant at the medical center, who knows of my streak and my football passion. She changed my medication to a much more aggressive treatment, and it seemed to be working, but still, I wasn’t 100% on Wednesday.

“What???” my colleagues said. “It’s your 100th game in a row! You CAN’T miss that! This isn’t just a football game. It’s an important event in your life! A significant milestone!”

“No,” I said, “It really IS only a football game. I can’t afford to expend my limited energy going to Champaign, get a relapse of this crud, and cancel more classes. My job’s more important than the football game, and so is my health. Besides, I don’t want to be thought of as someone who frivolously flies to a football game on a weekend and then calls in sick for classes.” I’m not tenured. My contract with Penn State gets signed one year at a time.

I was also thinking of the cost of cancelling one class (about $80-100 per class hour per student), and the fact that if I cancelled any more, I wouldn’t be able to stay on schedule. I was okay so far in the semester because I had actually built in some flexibility this fall due to the flu epidemic, but any more cancellations would be disruptive.

“No your job is NOT more important this weekend!” my colleagues argued. “It’s NOT just a game. Your entire life – what you live for - is Penn State football. You can’t do this.”

So then they asked me what was going on in class on Monday. “An exam,” I said. “We’ll cover you!” they proclaimed. “We’re both free. You don’t need to be there to proctor an exam.” These two colleagues – both tenured professors with loads on their plate – were giving me a day of rest if I truly needed to recover from the strenuous weekend trip to Illinois and had a relapse. And the exam would go on. Tuesday and Wednesday classes had guest speakers, so there was already coverage there. That was also comforting.

“Well, let’s see how it goes,” I said. “I might just take you up on your offer.” It was a glimmer of hope that perhaps if I felt better by Thursday, I could in fact go to Illinois. I was very grateful and told them so. Even more grateful because one of these colleagues will soon be my boss. He’s about to take over as chair of the department. It was good to know that he understands and supports this crazy passion.

Then, I got home that night. Terry had a fever and was just coming down with a lot of crud. So now I had another worry. He had told me earlier that day he would tough it out if I could go, but the fever was a show-stopper. He might have the flu.

Ran out to the drugstore, bought a new thermometer and some Tylenol, and said “First thing in the morning, you’re going to the doctor. Whether or not the fever is still there.” His temp was 99.8. Terry usually deals with colds by toughing it out. He’s on other medication that makes most cold medicine dangerous for him, but I said, “Perhaps there is something that would work with your current medication.” But I wasn’t optimistic. Our long attendance streaks would be over this weekend.

“It’s only a game,” I reminded my colleagues in an email Wednesday night. “I can’t abandon Terry if his condition worsens. It doesn’t look good. I’m really okay with this. 99 games in a row is good enough. Terry’s streak was bound to end sooner or later. It doesn’t diminish what we’ve accomplished or what we will do in the future. There are MUCH worse things in life than breaking an attendance streak at football games.”

On Thursday morning I felt quite good. Terry was miserable, but I asked, “Terry, would it be okay if I went to the game, even if you stay home?” I guess I realized that perhaps 100 games in a row IS important to me. More importantly, Illinois is the first away game trip for which I am posting blogs. I wanted to be there to take pictures, to truly reflect the “view from the stands” rather than from my TV set.

Terry of course agreed. So on Wednesday morning he was going and I wasn’t. On Thursday morning it was the reverse. The doctor visit resulted in some medication to relieve Terry of his crud, and a “pass” to fly to the game as long as his fever was below 100 degrees. So hope for him. His fever has reduced.

One final setback today. On the way to class today about noon, experienced something that sounded an awful lot like a side effect of one of the meds I’m taking. Looked it up online and sure enough the message was “call your doctor right away if…” So a tense few hours waiting for a callback, reassuring me that it didn’t sound that way to them, and have fun at the game – please bring home a win.

So here I am, writing this at midnight on Thursday night. Pardon me if I haven’t even thought about Saturday’s battle at Illinois. It’s been too much of an emotional roller coaster – like plucking petals from a daisy – I’m going – I’m not going – I’m going.

Many thanks to Leanne, Pat, Julie, Bill, Meg, Steph, Terra, and all my students who rode this roller coaster with me in the last few days!

On to Champaign…as long as something else doesn’t get in our way!