One Week. Three Bowl Games!

Once again, this year, we were fortunate to be able to experience three bowl games within a week! Last year, we did the two Phoenix Bowl games and added in the Las Vegas Bowl. We thought that was a great year! This year, the stars aligned, and we witnessed Penn State bring home its second Rose Bowl title.

After two back-to-back Rose Bowl losses in 2005 and 2017, the Lions, who entered the season unranked, will finish in the Top 10 with eleven wins and a Rose Bowl Championship – their first since 1995 against Oregon!

Many questioned the Nittany Lions’ spot in the Rose Bowl. But after both Michigan and Ohio State earned their way into the College Football Playoffs, the Nittany Lions secured the invitation. Technically, they were in 3rd place in the B1G with a 10-2 record – their only losses coming to Michigan and OSU. It was the fourth Rose Bowl in their history, but this year, the third-place team in the league had to face the PAC12 Champions Utah Utes. Challenge accepted.

The Utes were no slouch. They came into the season ranked #7/#8 in the Polls. They earned their spot by coming off a Rose Bowl appearance against Ohio State the previous year – with their star QB, Cam Rising returning. They dropped a Week 1 loss to Florida but rebounded to claim a spot in the PAC12 Championship Game. There, they beat USC, led by Heisman Trophy Winner and fingernail polish model Caleb Williams, for the second time in a year to secure their spot in the Rose. Early projections were for a tight game, with the Utes favored by 1.5.

The stage was set for the 2023 Rose Bowl – Penn State vs. Utah. The first-ever meeting between these two teams.

This year would also mark the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the game being played in the Rose Bowl Stadium. The opponents for that game? Penn State, of course, vs. USC! The Trojans held the Hugo Bezdek-led Lions and Sean Clifford out of the end zone and won 14-3. Just kidding. We love you, Sean! Coincidentally, Bezdek was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame this year.

Coach Bezdek (front row, center) with Sean Clifford (front row, right)

We kicked off our Bowl Season on Tuesday, December 27th, when Wisconsin faced off against Oklahoma State in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. The game is played at Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, in Phoenix, Arizona. While I loved when the game was played at Sun Devil Stadium, I’ve come to appreciate the uniqueness of this event. I personally believe that this might be one of the better, converted baseball fields for football.

Regardless of who’s playing, I always have to represent Penn State.

The Badgers dominated the game early and were up 24-7 in the fourth quarter. But the Pokes scored 10 unanswered to cut the lead to 24-17. The Cowboys got the ball back with 3:33 to play, but the Badgers used a late interception to preserve the win.

On Saturday, the Michigan Wolverines clashed with the upstart TCU Horned Frogs. Few gave the B12 Frogs a chance against the B1G Champions. It didn’t matter. Sonny Dykes’ team came up with a goal-line stand on the opening drive that set the tone for the day. They blasted out to a 14-0 lead and never relinquished control to hold off Harbaugh’s mistake-prone team.

Even though the teams were tied in turnovers with three each, the 7.5-point opportunistic underdogs returned two JJ McCarthy passes for touchdowns and stopped another Michigan score when they forced a fumble on the 1-yard line. Sure, two controversial calls went against Michigan, including the called-back TD that set them up on the 1 before the fumble, but TCU was clearly the more inspired team on this day.

Michigan’s Jake Moody nailed a 59-yard FG to close the gap to 21-6 in the first half. Moody was bombing kickoff through the endzone all day.

In the second half, every time Michigan got close, TCU responded. By the end of the 3rd quarter, the Frog extended the lead to 41-30 thanks to one of the Pick 6s and an Emari Demercado 69-Yard run that set up another TD.

In the 4th quarter, the Wolverines clawed back to within 3, to 41-38 but gave up a 76-yard TD pass on the ensuing possession. 48-38 TCU.

Harbaugh’s team bounced back again to cut the lead to 51-45 with 3:18 to play. After forcing the Frogs to punt, Michigan had :45 to score, starting at their own 25. After a McCarthy scramble, two incompletions, and a false start penalty, it was 4th and 5 from the 30. A fumbled snap that turned into a desperation pass by the running back ended their chances with just :25 to play.

Even though it appeared to be a targeting foul, the replay officials upheld the no-call that effectively put TCU into the Championship against Georgia (after they beat Ohio State later that night on a missed FG at the end of the game).

TCU fans showed up for this game! My very unofficial estimate was that the crowd was 55-45 in TCU’s favor. Perhaps Michigan fans were saving up for a Natty, considering they played in a Semifinal last year, and they were expected to dissect the Frogs. Regardless, State Farm Stadium was home to yet another electric crowd, and they were rewarded with an incredible game.

After the game, it was home to prep for the road trip to Pasadena the next morning!

With much-needed rain most of the way across the desert, we were rewarded with a rainbow outside of Palm Springs.

To the south, the San Jacinto Mountains were fighting to come out from under the clouds.

Before long, we were in Pasadena to get a sneak peek at some of the floats that would stroll along the parade route the next morning. It was there that we met up with our friends who made the drive down from the Bay Area.

From there, we went to LA Live in Downtown LA for the Penn State Pep Rally, where we met up with the rest of our group.

No question that Penn State would be well-represented at this event. Thousands packed the street in front of Arena to listen to PSU President Bendapudi, AD Pat Kraft, Coach Franklin, and some former players, including Craig Fayak and Michael Mauti.

We even ran into former Lion Tight End and Sun Devil Tight End Coach Adam Breneman, along with a family friend, Director of Player Personnel Kenny Sanders.

Our niece, who lives in LA, joined our group for dinner. After dinner, our other daughter joined us, and we went back to the hotel for a nightcap. The JW Marriott was crawling with Penn Staters. Of course, we ran into our friends Ken and Susan as soon as we checked in. Then we bumped into Ken and Beth, a couple that we met when we were in Iowa and again at the Cotton Bowl. When Coach Franklin calls games family reunions, he’s not kidding.

On Gameday, we were up and out early. Having been to the parade in 1995, we decided to avoid the madness and set up tailgating early. We met up with our friends and staked our claim in Lot F, just south of the famed entrance to the stadium. Before 8:30, Bloodys were hitting the spot.

We set up on the edge of the parking lot to ensure an easy exit after the game since I had to get my younger daughter to the airport. We learned after the game that the location was perfect. We made it out of the Arroyo Seco in record time. We couldn’t believe that we were literally the only tailgaters in the lot at 8:00am.

It didn’t take long for us to understand why. Security came over to us and told us that tailgating was not allowed in this lot. Talk about a gut punch. Ooph! He told us that it states it clearly on the ticket. After pleading ignorance, he told us that we would have to make sure we restricted our tailgate to only the rear of our vehicles and not beyond. Sir! Yes sir! We certainly didn’t want to lose the privilege of tailgating.

Just as we finished setting up, two B1 Lancers did a flyover for the parade that was taking place just up the hill. In years past, the flyover was performed by a B2 Bomber. I learned that, currently, all B2s are grounded after an inflight malfunction forced an emergency landing in December.

After our scare with security, we settled in as a few others around us started to set up shop. We checked the parking pass and didn’t see any verbiage that restricted tailgating, so while we were happy that we didn’t miss anything, we were still a bit concerned as the lot appears to be reserved for administration, with little, if any, tailgating taking place.

Before long, we were joined by members of the Reid family. Their two nephews, Karene (21) and Gabe (91), play for the Utes. This family knows how to tailgate! They shared some of their BBQ with us, and they are legit! The same security guard reprimanded them as well and made sure they stayed within their allotted space.

Like any Penn State tailgate, we welcomed in any visitor that was outgoing enough to engage with us. We met Joe and Kristi from Redondo Beach and their friends. Joe introduced me to 4-5-6, aka Cee-Lo (not to be confused with LCR). After Joe rolled two 4-5-6s in a row (the automatic winning hand), I wasn’t about to throw my money at the game, but others joined. Click here for instructions.

Before you knew it, we had Penn Staters joining us from all angles – including some from my hometown of Scranton, who we immediately found to have common connections. We even invited some of the Parking Lot security to join us for some food – no alcohol, though.

Our friend Jeff showed up prepared! The Frackville native has his son pack his luggage on a recent trip back east. He imported some Kowalonek’s Kielbasa again this year – a repeat of his performance in the 2017 Rose Bowl. Of course, it pairs well with America’s Oldest Brewery. We were well stocked with Pottsville’s Yuengling Lager, and it was the clear favorite of the beverages.

The team buses parked right next to our tailgate, but they had already emptied the team in the stadium. Still, a cool shot with a well-decorated bus.

A ridiculously awesome surprise was meeting up with my daughter’s roommate from Penn State and her father. Hannah had just joined in the military and was home on leave before going back to camp. It was an honor to host her and her father for the tailgate.

I even ran into the Big Uglies, sporting their newly customized masks! Perfect timing since I just noticed my Facebook profile picture with them is from the 2016 B1G Championship and was in desperate need of an update.

Finally, things were starting to get underway! A team whose season was questionable during the preseason was on the verge of securing the rare 11th win, capped off by just the second Rose Bowl Championship in team history.

I’ll be honest. The Rose Bowl Stadium is showing its age. As we get more accustomed to the creature comforts of modern stadiums, relics like the Rose Bowl Stadium are in danger of being left behind. Like other classics, including Beaver Stadium, they will need to find a way to keep up with the public’s expectations. Yankee Stadium was able to rebuild and yet somehow maintain its history, tradition, and nostalgia.

The aging infrastructure, including uncomfortable seating, narrow portals entering the seating, limited concessions, insufficient bathrooms, and normally horrific access in and out of the Arroyo Seco, put a damper on an otherwise gorgeous setting. The field conditions and spectacular backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains alone are enough to put this Stadium on your bucket list. Don’t let the other issues ruin your experience; just check your expectations.

The Blue Band took the field and did a 5-minute performance.

Afterward, the same B1 Lancers that flew over the Parade just a few hours earlier were now finishing off the National Anthem as they crossed over the Stadium. While certainly not as dramatic as the B2 in years past, the B1s were a great sight.

My photo doesn’t do it justice, so I found one by Mark Holtzman that captured the planes from above! Look closely for both B1s. For more amazing shots from Mark, visit his website.

The aerial also captures the distribution of fans. Penn State would be lucky to have 30% making it feel like a home game for the Utes.

Courtesy Mark Holtzman Photography

Sitting right in front of us was Coach Rick Neuheisel and his family. I acknowledged him when he arrived at the seats then later, he asked me about some of the players throughout the game. We had some interesting discussions during the breaks. He said he won three Rose Bowls. Once as a player at UCLA (1984 against Illinois), once as an Assistant at UCLA (1986 against Iowa), and once as the Head Coach of Washington (2000 against Brees and Purdue). Rick was inducted into the Rose Bowl HOF in 1999.

He is now a broadcaster with CBS and said they are likely going to call the game against West Virginia to open next season, and he’ll likely be there.

Courtesy: Blakeway Panorama Gigapixel

As for the game itself, it was close. Penn State opened the scoring after a nifty Kalen King diving interception. They converted the turnover into an 82-yard drive that ended the first quarter with the Lions up 7-0. Nicholas Singleton broke through the line out of the Wing T formation for the score. I guess Coach Franklin was channeling his inner Coach Bezdek.

Utah answered with their own 75-yard drive on their next possession to tie it up at 7.

Sean Clifford responded with a quick, 6-play drive that included four completions to four different receivers, culminating with a 10-yard laser to Mitchell Tinsley for the TD. 14-7 Lions.

With Joey Porter Jr opting out, Penn State’s new #1 CB was Kalen King. King left the field on the next possession for the Utes, and they quickly exposed his replacement. Three plays aimed at Marquis Wilson’s side resulted in a 47-yard completion and two missed tackles on runs against the Junior CB. The final one resulted in a 19-yard TD run. Ouch. I’m sure he’ll shake it off and bounce back. 14-14 at the half.

The second half opened with Penn State forcing a punt on Utah’s first possession. There was a chance for Utah to flip the field with Penn State starting at our own 5-yard line. Instead, after an 8-yard completion to Tinsley, Freshman phenom Nicholas Singleton burst through the line and took it 87 yards for a TD – a run that would put him over 1,000 on the season. It was hard not to compare it to Ki-Jana Carter’s run against Oregon in 1995. Credit to the fake “check with me” that caught the safety off guard and out of position. Throw in a strong block by Theo Johnson, and we’re up 21-14.

After that, things changed quickly. On the next possession, Utah’s Cam Rising took off running on a 3rd and 7. After picking up the first down, he was leveled by three Penn Staters. As soon as he was hit, I said to my new friend Rick “that was an expensive first down.” Little did I know Rising would stand up but immediately drop back to the ground. He was taken off the field and would not return.

From then on, Penn State dominated. Their backup, Bryson Barnes, would throw an interception on that same drive – picked off by Ji’Ayir “Tig” Brown, a transfer from my Alma Mater, Lackawanna College.

The Penn State faithful were rewarded with a Rose Bowl Rendition of Sweet Caroline that showcased the LED lighting. The fans were so pumped they continued even after the music stopped as play began.

On the first play of the 4th quarter, Clifford would connect with KeAndre Lambert-Smith on a pretty fake that got the safety out of position, resulting in a Rose Bowl record 87-yard TD catch. 28-14 Penn State with Sean Clifford now in the record books at the Grandaddy of Them All.

After a Utah 3-and-out on the next possession, Penn State scored again on the Wing T, with Kaytron Allen taking it in from the 1. 35-14.

Franklin called a timeout to replace Sean Clifford – and the Penn State fans gave him a great send-off. While you couldn’t tell from inside the stadium, Clifford was in tears as he left the Rose Bowl field as a soon-to-be Champion.

The Utes never gave up. Against several deep backups for Penn State, they scored a late TD to make it 35-21, but we recovered the on-side kick and ran out the clock. Penn State became Rose Bowl Champs once again! I was there in 1995 and am thrilled to wash away my two other trips that ended in losses to USC.

Cliff was the Offensive Player of the Game with some great stats – and I couldn’t be happier for him. What a way to finish his career. Hats off, Cliff!

Tig Brown would earn the Defensive Player of the Game after picking up 8 Tackles, 1-1/2 Sacks, and an Interception.

With the looming playoff changes, the Rose Bowl and others like it are becoming an endangered species. Who knows what the future holds for the Bowl games. What I’ve come to appreciate in the past couple of years is that the Bowls offer a chance to see non-traditional matchups in non-traditional venues. Getting to see Penn State play against a PAC12 team in the iconic Rose Bowl is an unbeatable experience.

Sure, some will say there are too many bowls, but as long as it remains profitable, they will continue to provide enjoyment for the players, coaches, fans, and community. The financial impact of a Bowl Game can not be ignored. Just look at how the Fiesta Bowl pitched the Bowl when they were starting up in 1971. Inflation-adjusted, this equates to over $715 per day!

Stop Wondering. Start Wandering!


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