Lions and Tigers and … Cotton? Oh my!

 

Penn State finished the regular season at an impressive 10-2. Their two blemishes coming against a 2-loss Minnesota team and the #2 Ohio State Buckeyes – both road losses. In MN, in spite of three INTs in the red zone, the Lions had a chance to win at the end of the game – only to have the third and final pick happen in the endzone with less than a minute to play.  In Columbus, the Lions battled but couldn’t overcome their arch enemies. The 11-point win for the Buckeyes was their narrowest margin of victory all year.

Even with the two losses, many thought they would be a shoo-in for the Rose Bowl. Fox Analyst, Joel Klatt disagreed.  His on-air campaigning for Wisconsin during the B1G Championship Game must have persuaded some of the pollsters (and Rose Bowl Committee) as the 3-loss Badgers actually finished ahead of the 2-loss Lions in many polls. Collectively, they chose to ignore Wisconsin’s horrible loss to a 6-5 Illinois team and their blowout regular-season loss to the Buckeyes – instead, focusing on how “close” they kept the 13-point B1G Championship Game loss against Ohio State. Did I mention that Penn State’s loss to the Buckeyes, in Columbus, was only 11 points?

When the Bowls were selected, Penn State ended up in the Cotton Bowl. Still technically a New Years Six game, but certainly a disappointment for most. Making matters worse, their opponent in Dallas would be the highest-seeded Group of 5 opponent, Memphis. Sheez.  Last year Kentucky. This year Memphis.

Cotton Bowl

History has shown that G5 teams play very well in NY6 Bowl games against the Power 5 teams. Since 2013, Boise State (Arizona), Central Florida (Baylor & Aubrun) and Houston (Florida State) have all pulled off victories. And those that lost (UCF & Western Michigan) have kept the game within one possession. Each year, the fan bases of a team that gets paired against a G5 considers the match a “no-win” situation. Win and you’re supposed to win. Lose and you lost to an inferior opponent.

Adding to the misery, Dallas is generally not considered a great destination for a winter break or vacation. Many fans from the northeast would pass on a trip to Dallas since its primary tourist attraction is Dealey Plaza – where a beloved President was gunned down. Don’t get me wrong, seeing this area is a must-see for any American and it’s still very emotional to visit some 56 years after that fateful day in 1963, but other than that, the area is not known to be a tourist mecca.

Regardless, it is, after all, a New Years Six game that would be held in one of the country’s most majestic facilities – AT&T Stadium in Arlington, home of the Dallas Cowboys. It was also a Bowl in which the Lions rarely played – having competed only three previous times, securing a 2-0-1 record with wins against Baylor and Texas.

The tie came in the 1947 game – back to when the “We Are” chant gained momentum. The 1947 Penn State team was invited to play in the Cotton Bowl against SMU. At that point, there was still segregation and no African American had ever played in the Cotton Bowl.  In fact, the team had to stay 15 miles from town on a Navy Base because no hotel would allow Penn State’s African American players to stay in their hotels.  Wally Triplett, the poster-child of “We Are”, became the first African American to play in the game – and even went on to score the touchdown that resulted in a tie game.

All things considered, we decided to make the trip! We took a late-night flight on Thursday so we’d be ready to for a full day on Friday. We picked up our daughter from the airport and headed to downtown Dallas for breakfast. While there, our daughter’s friend Ashley texted her to say that she made last-minute reservations and would fly out of State College later that day and was scheduled to arrive in Dallas at midnight. We told her to Uber to the hotel and crash in our room.

After breakfast, it was time for some history and a quick tour of Dealey Plaza. There are still so many questions in my mind about what truly happened that day – especially after reading the mob book, “I Heard You Paint Houses”, the basis for the Netflix Original, “The Irishman”.

Here’s the infamous grassy knoll with the reconstructed fence, behind which conspiracy theorists believe the second shooter was located.

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Here you can see the X where the second shot struck President Kennedy. The corner window on the right side of the building, one below the top window is where Lee Harvey Oswald was allegedly positioned.

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Even though this was before my time on this earth, it’s an eerie feeling looking at this location. I don’t know why, but I always seem to feel like I was alive when it happened and I feel like I remember watching the events on TV.

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The Texas School Book Depository building where Oswald was located. Notice the “allegedly” on the plaque. Conspiracy theorists continue to push their narrative. Does anyone really know what happened?

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As it turned out, friends of ours texted us later in the day to tell us we were spotted paying our respects at the site on the WNEP 16 newcast in Scranton PA. Click the image for the full story from Jon Meyer.

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After our history lesson, we checked into the Hilton Anatole, the team hotel. I had been here many years ago, but this time, it was dressed up for Christmas, Penn State, and the Cotton Bowl! The Bowl even created custom-wrapped buses for each team that they used to shuttle the players to and from events throughout the week.

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Penn State and Cotton Bowl logos everywhere through the double atrium hotel.

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The bar even created specialty Penn State themed drinks to make you feel at home!

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Of course, Christmas decorations complimented the Penn State decor.

 

Listening to the Penn State podcast, I learned that they essentially move the entire Lasch Football building to the hotel. In addition to all of the player and sideline equipment, they set up a weight room that mimics their home setup. They had 20 stations set up in a conference room in the hotel. Each station included at least a barbell with 300lbs – so you can imagine the work that goes into moving in for the week. That takes a lot of interns!

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One of the transport trucks

After spending some time at the hotel bar and catching up with our friends Ken and Susan from Scranton, it was time to head to Texas Live! for the Battle of the Bands. The Stadium is located pretty far from the team hotels. The 25-minute drive across Tom Landry Freeway landed us at a massive entertainment and sporting complex that includes AT&T Stadium; Globe Life Park – current home of the Texas Rangers; Texas Live – an entertainment complex that includes several bars and restaurants; a Loewe’s hotel; and the construction site of the new Globe Life Field – new home of the Rangers.

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From the western side of the complex, you can see AT&T Stadium looming about 1/2 mile away.

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This was our first taste of the Memphis fan base. Based on their attendance here, we figured they’d be well represented at the game tomorrow.

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Our Nittany Lion got the crowd fired up. Here, you can see the new Globe Life Field being built. It’s scheduled to open in the Spring of 2020.

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Across the street sits the old Globe Life Park – formerly known as The Ballpark at Arlington.  I had the opportunity to visit this park in 1996. It still looks modern and fresh from the outside, but the team blamed low attendance on the weather. Now, it will be repurposed as the new home of the Dallas Renegades of the XFL and minor league soccer while the new park will have a retractable roof.

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While listening to the bands, we ran into a couple that we had previously met while we were in Iowa. Small world. They mentioned that they had been to the Fort Worth Stockyards earlier so we decided we’d check it out since it’s been on my list of places to see.

We took the drive another 20 minutes west and passed through downtown Fort Worth before heading to the Stockyards. Downtown reminded us of Scranton – with old buildings and tree-lined streets it appeared much more blue-collar than their metropolitan sibling Dallas.

After passing through the Stockyards area, we decided to head back towards Dallas to grab dinner. It was about this time that we found out Ashley’s flight from State College was delayed and she missed her last chance to get to Dallas this evening! They put her up in a hotel and scheduled her on a 5am flight through Charlotte that would get her into Dallas at 9:20am. With an 11:00am kickoff, she didn’t have much wiggle room. Her return trip back to State College wasn’t too appealing either. Leave 8:30pm Saturday to go to Boston. Then a five-hour layover before a flight to Philly. Wait for another two-hours before a flight to State College that would get her home by 10am Sunday morning! Oh to be young again.

Our search for something unique and local for dinner took us to Uncle Uber’s Sammich Shop, an eclectic little restaurant in the trendy Deep Ellum area of Dallas.

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Uncle Uber’s

Uncle Uber’s was fantastic. Creative “sammiches” paired with some of the best french fries you’ll ever eat, complimented by a funky beer list is all we needed tonight. Next time you’re in Dallas, you need to check this area out. Its origin dates back to 1873 and was originally called “Deep Elm”. The dialect and pronunciation changed the name to today’s version. There are several bars, restaurants, music venues, and shops to check out.

On our way back to the hotel, we drove past the Dallas Omni. It was used for some of the press conferences and was lit up to promote the game.

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Back at the hotel, we met up with our friends from Arizona for a nightcap and a chance for our daughter to catch up with some of her former colleagues before an early wake-up call for the 11am kickoff.

Saturday morning brought rain showers so we were thankful the game would be played indoors!  I guess even Mother Nature wanted a Whiteout today.

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The pregame festivities included the Huddle Up Fan Fest area that had a few activities to test your skills and strength. They even had the mascot statues that are made out of Goodyear tires. Look for this beauty in State College soon.

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Even from the outside, AT&T Stadium was impressive. I will say, one odd thing is that you MUST enter the stadium through your assigned gate.  We passed through security at the closest entrance then they scanned our tickets only to tell us we were at the wrong entrance. Thankfully, the lines weren’t too long. Still strange.

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Rain and an early kickoff definitely damped the spirits of the tailgaters and attendees. We saw a few tailgaters on the way in and the Huddle Up area was lightly attended – at least when we were there. Once we entered the stadium, it was immediately apparent that Memphis would be there in full force.

As we waited for Ashley to arrive, we tried to take a lap around the 200 level – which actually sits at ground level. Now we know why we couldn’t enter the gate we chose earlier. Along the sidelines, the 200-level is restricted to Club and Suite ticket holders. That’s a major design flaw in my mind. We were confined to the end zone area where our seats were located – unless we up a level or two. With limited time, we passed on taking the tour.

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Before we knew it, Ashley arrived at 10:20 – leaving plenty of time before kickoff 😉

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Tickets were cheap for this game – and it didn’t sell out. StubHub had the “get in” price of about $54 when the matchup was announced. It steadily dropped and bottomed out at $15. Our seats were dead center in the end zone, 200 level, row 6 on the aisle. Not my favorite location, but it gave us a unique perspective. And at $70 a ticket, not bad at all. That said, tickets were still available on StubHub just before kickoff on the 40-yard line, 300 level for $60. Lesson learned. 

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Immediately, you could see the difference in attendance. There were some prime sections on the Penn State side that were nearly empty.  My guess is that it was 65-70% Memphis. Not surprising considering Memphis is only a 6 hour drive from Dallas and this was the first time their football team would play in a major bowl game.

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The southern schools always have an advantage in Bowl Games due to their proximity to the games. I checked airfare from the northeast through December and it was very expensive for fans from that part of the country to travel – yet another deterrent to attending. The combination of matchup, location, and date combined to contribute to the lowest attended game in 40 years for the Cotton Bowl – just under 55,000. Yikes!

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The game was pretty nerve-wracking to start. The Lions opened up with a 3-out on offense, then promptly gave up an 11-play drive that ended with a Tiger FG.  Then they woke up. Journey Brown answered with a ferocious 32-yard TD run – stiff-arming players to the ground and carrying one into the endzone on his back. But Memphis responded with 10 points on their next two drives to take the lead back 13-7. The secondary was getting burned by big plays early.

Penn State dominated the second quarter with TDs on each of their four possessions – including another 56-yard run by Brown. But still, the defense gave up another 10 points to the speedy Tigers. The Lions took a 35-23 lead into the half.

 

The Tigers, under a newly named Head Coach, would not lay down. They came out of the half and scored another 10 unanswered to cut the lead to 2 – 35-33. After trading FGs, the Tigers again stood up to the larger Lions and stuffed a fourth-down run by Brown at the Memphis 22. Momentum instantly swung to the underdog, trailing 38-36 with less than two minutes to play in the 3rd.

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But three plays later, Micah Parsons, who had a monster game, hit the QB while he was throwing and forced what was called an interception that was returned for a TD by Garrett Taylor. Penn State’s defense was getting torched all day, giving up 470 yards through the air by Brady White, an Arizona State transfer.  Thankfully, their stout run defense only gave up 63 on the ground – an avg of a measly 1.9 avg aided in large part by six sacks. This allowed them to stifle the Tigers and limit them to three TDs in six Red Zone possessions.. 45-36 Lions.

Even still, Memphis was undeterred. They drove to the Penn State 24 before settling for yet another FG. Their kicker, Riley Patterson, was 6/6 on FGs with a long of 51 and 3/3 on PATs. When he started the game with a pooch kick, I didn’t think much of him, but he proceeded to kick nearly everything out of the stadium – allowing only one other kickoff return. 45-39 Lions with 12:00 to play.

Penn State answered once again with a clock-eating 12-play TD drive that extended the lead to 53-39 with 6:30 to play. Finally, we were getting a little comfortable.  We moved over to sit with our daughter and the Blue Band was rockin’!

Yet again, the Tigers rattled off a couple of chunk-plays to get the Penn State 19 in less than 2 minutes. Thankfully, the D stepped up once last time and picked off the Tigers with 4:30 to play and essentially sealed the deal. 53-39 final!

The win wraps up what many considered to be a rebuilding year. A year in which the Lions won 11 games with their only losses to quality opponents – on the road. It marks the third time in four years that Penn State has posted 11 wins. And it was the third NY6 Bowl Game in four years.

Sure, it wasn’t the Rose or Orange Bowl. It wasn’t in some beach town like Tampa or Miami or a party town like New Orleans. Would you prefer we go back to the Pinstripe Bowl? Or the Motor City Bowl? Any time Penn State gets to play in a NY6 game, you know it’s been a great year. In talking with some of the staff, they all raved over how well the Cotton Bowl treated them and talked about how their experience here was better than the Rose or Fiesta – and we came away with a win!

It was a quick trip. We got to spend time with our daughter. We got a taste of Dallas as tourists. We got to see some of our Penn State friends. And we came away with a win! All in all, a great way to cap off a great season!

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Stop wondering. Start wandering!

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Lions and Tigers and … Cotton? Oh my!

    1. The combination of opponent, date and location was too much for most of fans. Couple that with a Memphis team that had a relatively short drive and it being their biggest Bowl game in history and you have the imbalance. Still, a great crowd for the conditions.

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