Football NCAA

Battle in the Apple!

Labor Day to me is the unofficial start of fall.  No, the leaves haven’t started to turn colors, heck we don’t even have leaves in Chandler.  Nor have the temperatures dropped below 90.  But September is the start of football season – and to me, nothing says fall like football!

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been fortunate to be able to travel back to Scranton to visit family over the short holiday.  Lucky for us, that weekend is also the annual La Festa Italiana in downtown Scranton. The downtown square is lined with food vendors, mostly Italian, but some other local treats and typical carnival fare.

We always work in a Friday night Pizza night in the self-proclaimed, “Pizza Capital of the World”, Old Forge.  This tiny town just south of Scranton is home to countless pizza parlors that sell “Old Forge Style” pizza.  A rectangular “tray”, not a pie, that is different from any other pizza you’ve ever had, unless you grew up in Northeastern PA.

Ghigiarelli’s – Old Forge, PA

And the trip back to Scranton over the holiday usually means Penn State is home during the “pre-season”.  OK, so it’s not pre-season, but considering the quality of opponents that most top tier programs play before they enter conference play, it might as well be.

This year, the Lions were away, but actually closer to “home” than normal.  Syracuse would be this year’s foe – and with the Orange being the home team, they opted to play the game at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.

While we wouldn’t get nearly the same experience as a visit to Happy Valley, the relatively easy trip to Jersey was a welcome change.   We’d get to see the Lions play in yet another NFL venue – and an added bonus considering the relatively new Met Life Stadium was also going to host this year’s Super Bowl.

Even with the easier drive, a mere hour and forty-five minutes from Scranton, compared to the normal 2-3/4 hours, we opted to join a bus trip.

Since we already had our tickets, purchased, believe it or not through a Groupon 2 for 1 deal, we searched for a “bus/tailgate” only option as opposed to most trips that required a ticket purchase.

We found JZ Tours was offering a double-tailgate, bus only option.  Score!

We met the bus at about 9:15 for 3:30 kickoff and it was off to Jersey.  Two bus tours actually combined for the tailgate – JZ and TravelWorld, so we caravanned, along with 3 other buses from Northeastern PA.

After the quick trip, we parked the buses and it was then I realized that this wasn’t JZ’s first trip.  They had a couple of “ground support” vehicles meet us in the parking lot with all of the grills and other tailgating supplies.

As we got off the bus, their crew was feverishly setting up multiple serving stations for the 200+ people at the tailgate.  We just sat back, cracked a beverage and watched as they set up.

This is a great way to go to a game considering the challenges of actually trying to set up an individual tailgate.  We never could have matched the quality given our travel schedule, supplies, time etc…  Heck, these guys even set up a DJ with a playlist that would match State College’s Shandy Gaff.  PSU Blue Band tunes, along with classics like Sweet Caroline, current Pop hits and country all combined for a great backdrop as we relaxed, met with other fellow fans, ate and drank in preparation for the season opener.

Once the serving stations open, they dished out tasty plates of Baked Ziti, Meatballs, Sausages & Peppers in marinara and something that caught us off guard – a buffalo chicken tasting dish in marinara.  Odd.  I’ll have to do a little research on this one, but I’m guessing it’s a regional specialty.

Plenty of great Italian food!

It wasn’t a surprise that the stadium was far less than capacity – considering Groupon specials were being promoted for tickets.  It was hard to believe though, given Penn State’s alumni network in the NY/NJ area and proximity to eastern PA, the stadium wasn’t sold out.  Met Life only holds about 84,000 – compared to Beaver Stadium’s 106k.  Yes, you essentially cut off the western part of the state, but still.  The announced attendance was just over 61k – and it showed in the upper end zones.

You would think that Syracuse would have a concentration in the area as well.  As it turned out, this was largely a Penn State crowd.  Outside of one primary Syracuse section, most likely faculty, staff and family area, the stadium was all Penn State.

Our seats were in the endzone in the 200 level.  Not the best seats in the house, but not terrible either.  And for $55 each, it was a steal, when you consider home games in U Park are much more expensive.

Another benefit of playing in an NFL stadium (off campus) is that you get the privilege of buying beer at the game.  And make no mistake, these were NFL prices at $12 each – but at least they had a selection including “local” favorite, Yuengling.

Met Life gets high marks from me for seating comfort, sight lines and overall experience.  It was easy getting in and out with escalators that effortlessly moved the crowds through with little delay.  Even on the way in, with the new “NFL-like” bag policy, we were quickly moved through the lines.  This new policy, while inconvenient for some, will be great for most.  I can’t wait to see the actual impact at a Cardinals game.

As for the game itself, it was pretty uneventful.  And since it was an “away” game, you didn’t get the traditional Beaver Stadium atmosphere.  Don’t get me wrong, it was still great to be there to see PSU usher in a new season of hope.  Yes, there are still sanctions that limit their scholarships and block them from play in the post-season, but seeing true-freshman, phenom Christian Hackenberg start under center was indication that there is very bright future for Penn State.

With all that is going on in college football, I can’t help but to hear Mark Emmert condemning Penn State’s “culture”.  This still boils my blood.  Yes, what happened is horrific for the victims and those responsible should be held accountable.  But the crippling sanctions put on the football program, in my opinion, were unwarranted.

There is a “cultural” problem in NCAA athletics – period.  You can’t single out Penn State.  Look around.  How will Emmert react to SI’s accusations on Oklahoma State?  How will they treat the Canes’? Or the current SEC violations of Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi State? Considering the slap on the wrist for Johnny Football, I can see where this might go.  I’m guessing paying players, cheating on academics, sex and drugs don’t fall under culture problems.

OK, off my soapbox and back to the trip.

The one thing that caught everyone by surprise was that the Lions’ top receiver, Allen Robinson, did not play in the first half.  Of course, being in the stadium makes it hard to know what’s happening, so we didn’t know if he was injured.  Both teams struggled and closed the half 6-3 Penn State.

It didn’t take long to see Robinson’s impact in the second half.  On the first drive of the 2H, Robinson enters the game and is the lone receiver on a 2-play 78 yard drive for a touchdown.  2012’s Big Ten Receiver of Year is back on the field and all is well.

The Orange quickly responded with their own score, but PSU’s defense proved to be too strong in the second half and they held on for a 23-17 win.

Afterwards, it was back to the buses where JZ and crew had already set up another tailgate that included hot dogs and hamburgers.  This was a great touch.  While other buses were all clamoring to leave the parking lot and jump into long lines of traffic, we hung out and ate our dinner before effortlessly leaving the lot with very little congestion – and a full stomach.

The best part of the entire trip was being with my travelling companion – my wife and best friend.  I am so lucky to have a supportive wife that allows me to indulge in my hobby – and gets as much enjoyment out of going to Penn State football games as I do.  She’s also locked in with me on my dream to spend an entire college season, on the road, visiting as many stadiums and games as possible.

That’s all for now.  Another season opener, stadium and bus experience all checked off the list!

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