Confessions of a Football Junkie: Road Trip Report
by Russell Levine
It was my annual road trip weekend, as I gathered with a handful of friends in State College, Pennsylvania, to catch up, tailgate, and attend the Michigan-Penn State game. The upshot is that I got to witness a college game in one of the country's best atmospheres. The downside is I didn't get to gorge myself on everything else this past weekend's schedule had to offer, so my observations are going to be limited (mostly) to the Nittany Lions and the Wolverines.
That the game ended up a rout didn't do much to diminish the weekend for me. Getting to attend games is a rare enough treat that I try not to let the outcome affect me to too great a degree -- especially in a year like this one, when a blowout wasn't exactly unexpected.
Michigan at least made the game interesting for a half, coming out and gashing Penn State on the ground on the way to opening up a 17-7 lead. No, I didn't expect it to last, and when the wheels came off in the third quarter the way they have been doing all season I just kind of smiled and nodded. OK, so part of that was me not wanting to give the Penn State fans the satisfaction of seeing me upset.
I had received a voicemail from my wife at halftime that said something to the effect of, "Wow, Michigan's playing well. You do know you're going to get your a#$ kicked in the second half." Sure enough, my Wolverines self-immolated in the third quarter and Penn State finished the contest on a tidy 39-0 run, even managing to cover the spread on an 80-yard screen pass in the final minutes.
I knew this was going to be a tough season. That I made it through the opening loss to Utah without cursing even once was a concession to that knowledge. That I only got a little upset during the turnover festival against Notre Dame was more of the same. The Illinois game simply confirmed that this team would not eke out a bowl berth. Toledo left me shrugging my shoulders.
It's not that I don't care -- quite the opposite. It's just that I've made peace with it. Pretty much every major program outside of Michigan has been through something like this in the past 15 years. Florida, Florida State, Miami, LSU, Ohio State, Nebraska, Alabama, USC, you name it. They've all had the bottom drop out -- at least by their standards. Michigan has had tough years, and more mediocre ones than the fans would care to tolerate, but nothing like this. Nobody's immune forever.
None of what has taken place this season changes my opinion on Rich Rodriguez. I don't know that he's going to succeed at Michigan, but this year doesn't make it any less likely. I'd rather have the team take its lumps for a year or two while the personnel is completely transitioned to the new offense than even start contemplating more change.
Michigan didn't just undergo a facelift, it threw in the tummy tuck, the nose job, the boob job, and the chemical peel as well. It's not going to look beautiful for a couple years while it recovers. Even the facilities are undergoing a major upgrade. When it's all done, I predict everything will be fine, just as it has been for other schools that have undergone radical change (Ohio State and Florida are just two recent examples).
Penn State's fans may have reveled in finally ending Michigan's nine-game, 12-year streak Saturday, and doing so in emphatic fashion, but they also know they're going to face a similar transition some year soon. Not necessarily this year, either, even if they do go undefeated. Unlike Lloyd Carr a year ago, Joe Paterno has given no indication that he's ready to retire, and the likelihood is that, whenever it occurs, his separation from the program is not likely to be easy. Brett Favre's divorce from the Packers is a good parallel.
But Paterno is surely only focused on this campaign, and right now it has all the signs of being a magical one. Of course, it could all come crashing down Saturday night in Columbus against the Buckeyes, but for now the Lions are riding high on the heels of their first 8-0 start since 1999.
I'll be rooting for them to pull it off, too, because of how much I respect their fans. Not only do they pack a stadium that isn't in the geographic vicinity of a major metropolitan area with 110,000 fans each week, but they're also excellent hosts.
This was my fifth journey to Beaver Stadium to watch Michigan, and other than dodging a few snowballs when a rogue blizzard left the stands packed with snow in 1995, I've never had a bad experience. Fans are friendly, honest, and respectful. They'll give you a hard time for wearing opposing colors in the parking lot, and then offer you a beer or a brat.
I had been warned that this year might be a little different, that the streak against Michigan might lead to some pent-up frustration, but it wasn't the case. Maybe it was because Michigan played well enough in the first half to put a scare into the fans, but there was no out-of-bounds rubbing it in before, during, or after the game.
I find that at most road games, if you're not inviting torture by talking trash nonstop, the fans are pretty benign. There are a few knuckleheads everywhere (and more than a few at some places) that do their best to ruin it, but college fans are like the happy drunk at the bar, whereas NFL fans are like the angry, beer-muscled drunk looking to get into a fight.
I have just one complaint about Penn State: The game presentation is awful. The canned music, the cheerleading by the public address announcer and the techno music all have to go. They're better than that. If I hear "Welcome to the Jungle," I automatically think I'm at a Jets game. I even heard Bon Jovi over the P.A. Penn State -- don't be like Rutgers.
OK, I actually have two complaints. Penn State fans, please get over the two seconds thing from 2005. Michigan won the game, and did you a favor. If Penn State wins that game, they go undefeated and finish third in the BCS. We just gave them a target for their anger.
While I'm at it, here's a list of other unacceptable things about college football:
- Games on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday nights.
- Teams taking the field through giant inflatable helmets.
- Smoke machines.
- Stadiums named after pizza chains or movie-rental companies.
- Third jerseys
And yes, I'm quite aware that Michigan's current coach was once a part of this abomination, which violates at least four of my rules:
Have some additions for the list? Leave them in the comments.
John L. Smith Trophy
Not too many choices this week, given that I only saw a couple of games. Thankfully, Rich Rodriguez provided me some ammunition.
Michigan was still in the game, tied 17-17, midway through the third quarter. All the momentum was on Penn State's side, but Michigan hadn't yet fallen off a cliff. Starting quarterback Steven Threet was on the sidelines, nursing a bad elbow. A mistake by the kick returner left Michigan in poor field position at its own 16-yard line. A holding penalty was followed by two negative plays, leaving Michigan with a third-and-21 at its own 5-yard line. If any situation called for a fullback dive and a punt, it was this one. But Rodriguez had walk-on backup quarterback Nick Sheridan take a five-step drop into the end zone, where he waited an eternity before taking a sack for a safety that would give Penn State the lead for good.
I'm still on board with the program Rich, I just didn't like that call. Enjoy your JLS Trophy -- looks like the only one you'll earn this year.
This season, I am again voting in the BlogPoll, hosted by mgoblog, and now available on CBS Sportsline. I'll post my ballot in Junkie each week. Feel free to comment, and I may make changes based on comments for a revised ballot later in the week .
Rankings that may require further explanation: Texas's rout of Missouri solidifies its spot at the top of the poll. Penn State has been more consistently impressive than Alabama, which has had a couple of close calls. The group from four to eight is bunched very tightly, with a drop-off starting with Georgia at nine. Lots of guesswork in the poll's bottom half -- remember, I didn't see a lot of games this week, instead relying on box scores, blog posts, and College Football Final.
Games I watched at least part of: Florida State-North Carolina State, BYU-TCU, Michigan-Penn State (attended).