After the past two years of what can only be described as mediocre Penn State Football, the new season couldn’t come soon enough. So, a Thursday night game in Week 1 was just what the doctor ordered! Start the new season early to exercise the demons of the past. While the national media doesn’t seem too high on this year’s team (the Lions enter the season unranked). Oh, by the way, the last time the Lions entered the season unranked they just happened to win the B1G and came thisclose to a Playoff birth.
Like always, there’s plenty of hope and optimism in State College – even after losing ten, count ’em, TEN Penn State rookies that made NFL rosters this year! The Lions continue to recruit well and are led by Very Senior (VS) QB Sean Clifford. Sean joined the Lions in 2017 and burned his redshirt the same year. In 2018, he backed up one of Penn State’s all-time leading QBs, Trace McSorley (now QB2 in Arizona). Sean has been the starter ever since and enters his sixth year of College Football. As you would think of any 6th-year player, Sean is expected to lead the team to big things.
So to open the season, once again, the Big Ten officials had Penn State open the conference schedule on the road – the seventh straight year and the 12th time in the past 13 seasons. You’d think the league is still penalizing the Lions for something that happened years ago. Hmmm. Regardless, the Lions are 7-4 during those road conference openers and looking to make it two straight after coming off of last year’s 16-10 win at Wisconsin in the opener.
Thursdays are not necessarily the best day to have a game. This day is usually reserved for the MAC later in the season, but if you are going to have a Thursday game, the first week of the season seems to be the best time. You have all off-season to prepare for the game, then you have extra days to prepare for your next opponent. And, you generally get a prime-time slot with a National TV audience to help sell your brand. Not a bad trade-off.
Part of the challenge with a Thursday night game is travel logistics. You’re asking fans to take off extra days from work to travel to and from the venue, but with Labor Day weekend, my guess is that many Penn State fans parlayed the game into a long weekend getaway – like we did. We opted to fly in and out of Chicago in order to enjoy the Windy City over the holiday weekend.
After arriving in Chicago, we ran into the unmasked Big Uglies on the shuttle bus. It was already clear that Penn State fans would show up in force for the season opener! The Duda Brothers have a tendency to appear for big games where the Lions can use all of the help they can get.
We arrived in West Lafayette on Wednesday night and headed straight for one of their campus institutions, Nine Irish Brothers. The Irish bar on the edge of campus was not very crowded, but they had a live Irish band, and most of the people there were Penn State fans. Let the festivities begin!
What’s not to love about a place that offers live Irish music and adds its spin on a Black and Tan while paying homage to the home team at the same time? The first thing on the beer menu is a Black & Gold and instead of combining Harp with Guinness, it’s replaced by Yuengling! Yes, please.
After a dinner of apps, we made our way to one of the Big Ten’s most legendary campus bars, Harry’s Chocolate Shop. Yep, you read that right. Harry’s started out as an Ice Cream Parlor and Soda Fountain in 1919. After prohibition ended, owner Harry Marack Sr acquired a license to sell alcohol and opened up the current location along State Street in 1933 – and the rest, they say, is history.
Today, Harry’s is packed with college students and alumni – mostly Penn State that is. The friendly bartenders are pumping out 16-ounce draft beers ($3.75 Yuengling) and mixed drinks in plastic cups. Plenty of Jack and Cokes were flying out along with a blue concoction with some sort of cream base (must have been the underage crowd). If $3.75 is too steep for your college budget, it seemed like the value play was a 32-ounce Corona bomber for $7.00.
The Big Uglies also found their way from Chicago to Harry’s. They lead the Nittany faithful in a chorus of Sweet Caroline much to the disdain of the few Purdue fans who were in attendance. One Alum was audibly mumbling to herself and her Penn State husband, “this is MY bar” before she left the area in search of more Purdue fans.
The next day, we set out for a late breakfast/early lunch. Like in State College for night games, fans flock to their favorite spot before hitting the tailgates. In West Lafayette, that place in Triple XXX. It’s another campus institution that serves up all-day breakfast and some of the best basic “chopped steak” burgers you’ll find.
But the star of the show is their Root Beer. We learned that the term XXX means the very finest quality – sort of a rating system. This system is allegedly still in place today for many products like sugar, but I would suggest you avoid Googling XXX Sugar while at work – if you know what I mean.
This place was likely one of the inspirations for Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. In fact, they were featured in 2008 – long before the hit show started highlighting just about everybody!
After an early lunch, we set out for a self-guided tour of campus. The main gates welcome visitors to the Student Union at the corner of State and Grant. The University’s seal is stamped into the concrete and features a winged griffin – a mythical creature that combines the features of a lion and an eagle.
Behind the gates sits the Purdue Memorial Union. It was named in honor of the 4,013 “sons and daughters of Purdue” who served in the first World War. The building is home to several student services offices, a dining food court that features Drew Brees’ Walk-On’s Bistreaux, and the Purdue Union Club Hotel – where we learned was home to the broadcast team and boosters. After our tour of the building, we ran into our friends that were staying there along with the Fox broadcasting crew. I ran into Brady Quinn outside the hotel and told him that Sean Clifford’s Heisman run starts later today. Hey, you have to be optimistic, right?
The lobby of the Union houses a very cool glass-enclosed diorama of the campus.
On the floor in front of the diorama is a cross made of black and gold tiles that honors the 67 Purdue sons and daughters that lost their lives in World War I.
From the second floor, you can see the diorama at the bottom of the photo and the cross that’s roped off.
The stained glass window shown here is said to represent the diversity of Purdue and establish it as a welcoming university.
Not far from the Union is Loeb Fountain – donated and named in 1959 in honor of Soloman Loeb, owner of a local department store. The fountain was originally set in a different location but moved to its current spot in 1993. Today, with temps in the mid-80s, some children were running through the streams of water to cool off – I so wanted to join them.
One of my favorite sculptures on campus was the “Unfinished Block P”. This monument is said to represent the thought that as a Purdue grad, your work is never done. You must continue to represent the university in everything you do in life. It’s also there to serve as a reminder and memorial to those that did not get the opportunity to complete “the Purdue experience.”
As we stood there admiring the sculpture, a student came up to us and asked if we were visiting and touring the campus. She told us she recently toured some friends and family around and offered us her list of places to see. That’s the kind of hospitality that every campus should have. She was a great ambassador for the university.
Not far from the “P”, version three of the Purdue Bell Tower is a relatively new addition to the campus. It was built in 1995 through a gift from the class of 1948. The original Bell Tower was built in 1894 – but sadly it burned down just four days later. The second tower was built in 1895 and was demolished in 1956.
The original bells hang in the new tower and ring at set times throughout the day. The bells also play Purdue fight songs and the alma mater at scheduled times.
At the southern end of the Engineering Mall and in the heart of campus sits the Engineering Fountain. It looks like the base of a spaceship, a tip of the cap to their highly regarded aerospace and aeronautics engineering program. The fountain was built in 1989 as a gift from the Class of 1939.
Purdue is known as the “Cradle of Astronauts” – and for good reason. They boast 26 Alum earning the high-flying title – including Neil Armstrong. A statue of Mr. Armstrong sits outside the building named in his honor.
Next to the statue is a scale replica of Neil’s famous 20-steps on the moon where you can “walk in his footsteps.”!
Purdue’s band is the proud owner of the “World’s Largest Drum”, aka Big Bass Drum. The drum is over 10′ high – so high in fact that it could not make it into Notre Dame’s stadium last year. The 500lb drum’s history dates back to 1921 when the University wanted to outdo everyone else to have the largest possible instrument. The issue was finding the skins that would stretch across the massive frame. The answer came in a couple of Argentinian steers that weighed between 2,000 – 3,000 pounds.
We caught up with the caretakers as they made their way through campus.
Another thing we noticed is that the fraternities are spread throughout the campus and adjoining town. We caught a couple along our travels including Phi Delta Theta along State St.
Triangle looks like an office building and is also on campus not far from the Loeb Fountain.
And Kappa Delta Rho, which looks like it could be an “Animal House”, is just across the street from the Ross-Ade Stadium on the north side of campus.
Pop Quiz: Who, or what is the official mascot of Purdue University?
As we made our way to the tailgate lots, we ran into Purdue Pete. The life-sized bobblehead Pete is the official mascot for the Athletics department, but not the University as a whole.
That honor goes to The Boilermaker Special. Purdue, like Penn State, is a land-grant university – meaning they provide research and programs that benefit the residents of their state. Part of their early research claim to fame was that they were an innovator of railway technology. As a way to pay homage to the school’s engineering prowess, they created a train that ran on an automobile chassis and the Boilermaker Special was born.
Why “Boilermaker”? I wondered that as well. By definition, a boilermaker is someone who builds boilers – it probably took a very strong man to become a boilermaker. In the early days of Purdue football, it was rumored that the team recruited a few of the “boilermakers” from the nearby Monon Railroad shops to help beef up their team. The rumor came about after the team beat Wabash College 44-0 in 1891.
Why “Special”? Well, when railroads operated a train in addition to the regularly scheduled ones, they took on the name “Special.” So whenever a train took the Purdue teams and fans to away games, they became Boilermaker Specials. And now you know!
We also learned about the “Purdue Wreck”. On October 31, 1903, two of those Purdue Specials were carrying 1500 athletes, coaches, associates, band, faculty, and fans on their way to a football game against in-state rival Indiana, crashed into a coal train on the way. The aftermath left 17 dead including 14 players. In 2003, the player entrance to Ross-Ade stadium was redesigned and dedicated to those that lost their lives that day.
We made our way to the RV lot to meet up with some other friends. I will say, this lot was tucked away in the far northwest corner of campus – and we started our trek in the southeast corner of campus (after already walking around much of the campus). It certainly made for a warm walk on this late summer day, but we made it! We visited with our friends from Phoenix and some of their Purdue and Penn State friends before we walked back to the stadium.
Along the way, you pass by the Pete Dye-designed Ackerman-Allen Golf Course where plenty of tailgaters set up shop. While we couldn’t tell exactly where the tailgaters were set up, it’s this kind of atmosphere that makes college football tailgating so unique!
Ross-Ade Stadium is somewhat unassuming from the outside. From the north, you enter at ground level and the stadium splits into upper and lower decks. The plaza was fairly basic, but entry was quick and easy.
Once inside, it kind of felt like a high-school stadium (no offense Purdue fans). It was a single-level bowl and had a barely enclosed south endzone. The capacity sits at just about 57,000 and on this odd Thursday night game, there were plenty of unsold and empty seats.
The Boilermakers make up for the lack of seats in the south endzone by having a huge, crystal-clear video board.
The good news for fans is that the University just announced plans to expand the south endzone and make additional improvements. The renovations will enclose the stadium, provide more seating, enhance the tunnel entrance and add a student-athlete dining hall.
While good news for fans, it’s bad news for students. The new south end zone will be the new home of the student section – moving them from their current prime location behind the visitor bench. This move is reminiscent of Penn State’s move years ago, but it opens up some choice seats for fans that are willing to shell out more than the price of a $135 Student Season Ticket – for ALL sports!
What I love about away games is that we can usually get decent seats for a great price. Our seats along the 25 yard-line and 23 rows up were pretty good – and a great value.
As for the game, it turned out to be another nail-biting road opener for the Lions similar to last year when the Lions held on to defeat Wisconsin 16-10. Clifford certainly had his ups and downs and was bothered by dehydration. He was taken out for a couple of series and replaced by a 5-star true freshman, Drew Allar. Allar looked prepared but Clifford quickly returned after the Penn State fans got a preview of the future QB.
The running game left much to be desired – again. A pitiful sore spot the last two years reared its ugly head again. The O-Line, while they seemed to be solid in pass protection, just couldn’t open the holes for the highly-recruited stable of running backs including 5-star Gatorade Player-of-the-Year, Nick Singleton. The freshman back looked good, but only mustered 22 yards on 9 carries – that’s after picking up nine on his first carry. As a team, they were held to a woeful 98 yards on 32 carries. Thankfully, Purdue was worse – managing only 70 yards on 23 carries.
I expect the LawnBoyz to get back on track this weekend against Ohio. If not, it will likely turn into another mediocre year for the Lions and the natives will be restless.
Purdue was leading 10-7 with just over six minutes to play. That’s when the Lions opened things up a bit. After a Barney Armor punt dropped in at the 3-yard line, the defense held and was rewarded with a short field. The offense turned in an 8-play drive, capped off by a previously unheard-of QB sneak from under center, from the 2-yard line to put Penn State up 14-10 with just under two minutes to play in the half.
Purdue marched back down the field and was threatening again. That’s when Joey Porter recovered a fumble to stop the drive at the Penn State 18. After a PI set them up at their own 33, Clifford scrambled and directed TE Brenton Strange to get behind the defender. Strange obliged and rumbled 67 yards, aided by some nice downfield blocking, for the score with just 2 ticks left on the clock! 21-10 PSU at the half.
Coming out of the half, the Lions gave up two long TD drives on three possessions and found themselves trailing 24-21 in the 4th quarter.
And that’s when the defense settled in – limiting Purdue’s high-flying offense to just 44 total yards on their final four possessions!
Clifford connected with KeAndre Lambert-Smith for a nifty 29-yard TD pass and they went back on top 28-24.
On the next possession, Penn State’s D held Purdue to a 3-and-out and things were looking promising – until.
Clifford overthrew his received and the ball was picked off and returned 72-yards for a go-ahead TD. 31-28 Purdue.
After we traded possessions twice, Penn State got the ball back with 2:22 to play, needing a TD to win. The odds were against them. In fact, with under three minutes to play in the game, ESPN had Penn State’s win percentage at just about 10% odds.
On that final drive, Clifford’s decision-making, leadership, and accuracy all helped to cap an 8-play, 80-yard drive in less than 90 seconds, for the go-ahead score with under a minute to play.
The Penn State defense, now playing their best as a team, stepped up and finally put some pressure on the other gray-haired QB in the game, Aidan O’Connell. Last year O’Connell completed an astounding 72% of his passes – on the year! Today, the Lions, thanks largely to Joey Porter Jr, kept the future NFLer to just 50%.
O’Connell’s 58th pass of the night fluttered towards the line of scrimmage after being pressured by Chop Robinson, a Maryland transfer, and the whistle blew. Either that or the large crowd of Penn State fans finally exhaled.
After over four hours of clock time, Penn State seals the deal and walks away with a tough-fought, spread-covering, 4-point win to open the 2022 campaign.
While it would have been great to experience Harry’s after the game, it was way too late for us. As it stood, we got back to our room at about 1:30am.
We went to sleep happy knowing we started the season with a win and we checked off our seventh Big Ten stadium and campus. We rank West Lafayette up there with the nicer ones. The campus, fans, traditions, food, and watering holes are all that you’d expect of a Big Ten school. If you get the chance to visit, take it.