Despite a couple hiccups, Fresno State fans have had much to cheer for in recent years and have come to expect victory at Bulldog Stadium – especially against teams that can’t run, pass, defend the run, defend the pass, kick, block, punt, or return kicks – namely Hawai’i. The Bulldogs were a lock to win as soon as they took the field coming out of a big inflatable likeness of their mascot. Fresno State fans comfortably settled themselves in ready to witness the carnage that would force Hawaii fans to question whether or not the frequent flyer miles are worth it. Favored by 33, the Bulldogs were determined to get off to a fast start and cover the spread by halftime. Nearly every play seemed to work against the hapless Hawaiians. From trick plays to long bombs, the offensive pyrotechnics vaulted Fresno State to a 42-3 halftime advantage. As both teams exited at the half through the same tunnel, Bulldog fans showered the Warriors with boos and few heckles including one fan who suggested that they shouldn’t have bothered to make the trip. Perhaps harsh, but this Hawaii team is led by a legendary play caller in Norm Chow who is native to the islands, and coached the offenses at BYU and USC to national championships. This is his first year and most certainly his last job before retirement – ending a career on a sour note is not on his list of goals. For now, the woeful Warriors will have to weather the storm and take a few beatings before bouncing back. The second half really was a wash – perhaps one of the more dull halves of football I have ever seen. The Bulldogs, assured of victory, yanked their entire first team while Hawaii used the half to gain practice reps. 45-10 was the final. Hey, the Warriors beat them in the second half 7-3! Does that mean their record improves to 1.5-7.5?
Fans were welcomed on the field after the game to get a sense of a football player’s perspective. Bulldog fans tossed the football, got pictures at the center logo, attempted to touch the bottom of the goalpost. It was a fun way to end the day and a great way to further the connection of these great fans to their team. Dreams of a conference title are not out of reach as the Bulldogs, Boise State, and San Diego State lock arms in first place atop the Mountain West standings. It may take a little time, but Hawaii will find themselves surfing near the top spot someday soon as well. If there is one certainty in this sport, it’s that success comes in waves.
A drive from San Francisco to Fresno will quickly remind you of how much remoteness California has to offer – you might glance at the gas tank gauge a little more often than normal just to be sure. Upon approaching the San Joaquin Valley and Fresno area, a sigh of relief might just envelop you as campus life and gameday action are just a couple of dirt clouds away. Fresno is relatively spread out and the campus area is in the middle of it all. Once on Bulldog Lane, all the expected pregame rituals begin to take shape. Bulldog Stadium itself is a bit difficult to see from the certain directions as it rests on a sports complex between other sporting and training facilities. Its unique crane-like lighting structures are quite visible, however, and point down on a place that has seen a lot of excellent football in recent years. Tailgating commences on all corners of the sports grounds, while the band and mascot weaves its way through playing the fight song and high fiving passersby.
There exists a special level of pride that connects Fresno State and its fans. It all starts with a green “V” that can be spotted on the back of the team’s helmets. The “V” stands for valley, as in the San Joaquin Valley. It represents Fresno State’s pride for this community, and the green color symbolizes the agricultural aspect of the valley. The “V” is hard to miss all around the stadium, and it links team and town in a very unique way.
Bulldog Stadium is nicknamed The Dog House – a fitting name for the rabid nature of its fans. Loyal and dedicated, these folks love Fresno State and support loudly and proudly. Onlookers are pretty close to the action even though the uniquely wide aisles keep them somewhat apart from one another. Known as the Red Wave, these fans make it challenging for visitors to come away victorious. The iconic checkerboard end zones welcome the team as they charge out of a gigantic inflatable bulldog and clouds of smoke. Victory the Bulldog (both live mascot and masked mascot) patrol the sidelines cheering on their team. The band is incredible and musically active throughout the game. Gameday at Bulldog Stadium is a special event and not to be missed by members of this great community. It’s no wonder Fresno State has developed into such a great team despite the limitations of a mid-major conference.
When it comes to the Cal football team, the vibe in Berkeley has been one of impatience – lots of opportunity and little to show for it. This year fit that same mold. The Golden Bears would have to win out against Washington, #4 Oregon, and #11 Oregon State in order to become bowl eligible – a monumental task for sure. A gorgeous early November afternoon morphed into a chilly Friday evening of football inside Memorial Stadium. Even though the stadium was not quite a sellout, loyalty and pride didn’t take a backseat. The band played with the same passion, the fans cheered with the same energy, and the players fought with the same amount of heart. The diehards on Tightwad Hill peered down with anticipation, and the victory cannon exploded as the Golden Bears excitedly took the field. Washington had been struggling on the road lately, and they entered Berkeley in a more business-like manner. Both teams came out with successes to revel in and mistakes to forget. At the half, the Bears and Huskies were locked at 7. California would extend their lead with a couple field goals, but Washington would convert a 3rd and goal from the 29 to take a 14-13 lead in the third. Opportunities presented themselves a number of times for both teams in the final stanza of play. A wealth of turnovers by each team made fans wonder if anyone had interest in notching a win at all. It would be Washington, however, who finally took advantage of a Golden Bear interception, converting it into points that would eventually slam the door on this game at 21-13. Four turnovers – by each team! A sloppy showcase caused fans to shift uncomfortably in their seats. One fan near me screamed out his dismay by exclaiming, “Those are two terrible teams out there – not one but two!” It’s hard to argue with the fella – just another display of impatience by these veteran fans who have seen it all except Pac 12 title. I know why they come back though – it’s this gorgeous stadium and vibrant atmosphere. As with most venerable stadiums, the record doesn’t always have to matter – being in Berkeley on a game day is classic west coast football saturated with tradition.
Driving across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Berkeley provides the first indication that you are in for something special when visiting the home of the Golden Bears. Once on campus, you are immediately permeated with a dose of California coolness – that perfect blend of eclectic eateries, shops, and personalities. Driving deeper into town and further up the rising picturesque landscape will make you wish you went to college here. It’s not hard to detect student energy walking through Berkeley’s campus, particularly on an artistic wavelength. An acapella group will sing the alma mater under swaying palms while free style dancers entertain in an open quad. Fans decked in blue and gold mosey toward a newly renovated Memorial Stadium, and you get the sense that they truly appreciate the beauty and tradition that this university holds. Nowhere on campus can this be better understood than high atop Tightwad Hill adjacent to Memorial Stadium. From this spot, fans are offered a treetop vantage point of the stadium below and a backdrop complete with a breathtaking view of the Bay Area including downtown San Francisco and both the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. The price of admission is free, thus inspiring the nickname Tightwad Hill. Set up your lawn chairs and grills, have a seat in one of the carved out dirt bleachers, or perch yourself on one of the wood boards pounded into the trees overlooking the action below – every seat is a good one. Despite the stingy nature of these folks, it’s on this hill that you will find some of Cal’s most devoted fans. Chatting with any of them is like cracking open a California football history book. These diehards love to share their unique perspective of Golden Bears’ storied games and football traditions. One fan shared with me his memories of storied Stanford games where over 300 tightwads can cram on this hill. He explains how he has witnessed the Blue Angles perform stunts over the San Francisco Bay. He even recalls the eerie, but proud feeling of singing the national anthem while overlooking Memorial Stadium during the game following 9/11. Climb a little higher and over to the right, dodge a few trees, and you will bump into the California Victory Cannon and its band of Cannoneers. This canon also holds a proud tradition in Cal football history. It explodes before every Cal game, after every Golden Bear score, and especially after a California victory. In 1971, the conference banned cannons inside the stadium. The rest of the teams simply abandoned their victory weapons. But, Cal got around this rule by resting theirs upon Tightwad Hill. It clearly can be seen and heard from Memorial Stadium below keeping a stronghold on this valuable tradition. No visit to Cal is complete without a stop on this hill – even if you pay for your seat.
Once back on level ground, it’s clear to see that the renovations did not strip away any of the beautiful original architecture on this stadium. The 60,000+ seat arena is a classic old bowl that is a memorial to Californians who have lost their lives in battle. The Cal band entertains and marches proudly prior to kickoff and the Golden Bears enter to the fight song and loud rumbling of the victory cannon. The students hold their ground at the fifty yard line and audibly express their devotion to the Bears all game long. Cal fans are a loyal and proud bunch that support their team through triumph and tribulation. Win or lose, they spill out of Memorial Stadium and filter throughout Berkeley ready to celebrate another exciting gameday. Cal fans are mainly hospitable (except toward Stanford) and only enhance the beautiful surroundings in Berkeley. This town, this campus, this way of life is a must stop for every football fan. The experience will leave a lasting impression.
Michigan State and Wisconsin produced two of the year’s most memorable contests in 2011. Both games featured highly ranked teams and unforgettable finishes. The 2012 version would be exactly the same – minus the highly ranked part. Stumbles and struggles have pinned these teams to the middle of the pack in their respective Big Ten divisions. The Badgers, however, are still likely to reach the Big Ten title game as a result of Ohio State and Penn State’s ineligability due to naughitness. A cold and clear autumn afternoon in Madison served up all the usual action including a busy farmer’s market circling the capitol and a buzzed up State Street. We began the day by enjoying a few beverages at the Rathskeller in the Memorial Union and then strolling up Bascom Hill to snap a picture with Abe Lincoln at the summit. Our visit to the Union South pep rally got us feeling like Wisconsin would extend its 21 game home streak, and as soon as they band put down their instruments, we eagerly shuffled over to Camp Randall. The stadium filled to its usual 80,000+ and witnessed a very low scoring contest. Halloween costumes dotted the crowd and we had the pleasant misfortune of sitting behind a couple of deceased presidents and an obnoxious yet tolerable and amusing horse. For the Badger offense, all masks would come off by the second half. It appeared that the Badger defense would have to carry the load as Badger QB Joel Stave broke his collarbone causing a struggling Danny O’Brien to take charge. It looked like the Badgers would pull this one out of the fire, but the Spartans found their offense in waining moments of the game to tie up the contest and send it to overtime where they would win on a 3rd and 8 TD catch that deflated any energy left in Camp Randall. As soon as the catch was made, Badger fans sunk and immediately shuffled their way to the exits. It was a frustrating finish for the home team, but a monkey off the back for Michigan State as they notched their first win in Madison since 2001. As the sun dipped quickly in the sky and on the October portion of this season, both the Badger and Spartan fans were left wondering which direction this game would propel their respective teams.
Often regarded as the Big Ten’s wildest and thrilling venue, Camp Randall Stadium never disappoints. Once a Civil War training site, this massive structure is crammed in a beautiful residential area among dorms, frat houses, campus buildings and bars. The Camp is the perfect college venue with views of the state capital and Madison’s surrounding lakes (Mendota and Menona) The walk up Breese Terrace right before kickoff is one of my favorites as herds of red and white walk in the shadows of Camp Randall’s upper deck. The frat houses along this side are spilling over with college kids and extracurricular liquids. As this side heats up, the band is finishing their pre-game concert at Union South on the Randall Avenue side. From here, they march proudly into the stadium creating a path through the awestruck fans. Once inside the stadium, the band fires up the crowd with its powerful and continuous high-stepping march. Afterwards, they form a tunnel around the goalposts and blast “On Wisconsin” as the team charges through. The fans in Madison are extremely unique. In particular, the student section adds flavor like no other. They provide the most timely, witty, bawdy and salacious chants of any student section I have been around. They are always adding lyrics to popular songs and entertaining the crowd. Between the third and fourth quarters, the song, “Jump!” by House of Pain, is played and the entire stadium jumps causing the upper deck and random cameras to shake. However, the most unique aspect of Camp Randall Stadium is the famous fifth quarter. Win or lose, the band comes out and plays tunes while the fans dance and sing in the stands. Afterwards, the band is given a police escort down University Drive to close out game day. The partying continues through the night in one of America’s most hip towns celebrating one of college football’s finest stadiums.
Nebraska’s inaugural visits to each Big Ten stadium as a new member of the conference have become gargantuan events, and the trip to Evanston would be no different. Northwestern rolled out the purple carpet, but perhaps they were a bit over-welcoming. Nebraska is known for having fans that travel well, and Northwestern is known for leaving seats available in their home stadium. The result? Lots of red. How much you ask? Well, let’s put it this way: Today would NOT be the day for Northwestern to get aerial shots of Ryan Field to impress potential recruits. However, the Cornhuskers are hyper aware of Northwestern’s ability to be a claw in their sides. Last year in Lincoln, then tenth ranked Nebraska got stunned by the ‘Cats sending the Huskers’ season in a direction that was not intended. This year, Northwestern would play with the same gusto while sporting all black and helmets highlighted by a silver wildcat. Onto the field they charged through fireworks and smoke while Nebraska stormed out to the same decibel level of cheering. Due to Husker turnovers and an 80 yard TD run by NU’s Venric Mark, the Wildcats held a 28-16 advantage in the fourth quarter. But, Nebraska was not about to allow a repeat of last year. Nebraska QB, Taylor Martinez, led a furious rally that put the Huskers ahead 29-28 with two minutes left. The fans in red pounded on the bleachers and screamed with all their loyalty diminishing any shred of a home field advantage that Northwestern possessed. The Wildcats would manage to get a 53 yard field goal attempt into motion, but the ball sailed slightly right securing the game’s outcome and increasing Nebraska’s chances to get to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game. The chant “HUSKER POWER!” guided the clock to all zeros and players rushed over to the Nebraska fans to celebrate. The close proximity of the visitor’s locker room to stadium entryways allowed fans the opportunity to get up and close with their Husker heros including head coach Bo Pelini. I almost bumped shoulders with him as I got caught in the postgame mayhem. For Northwestern, although this game did not go as planned, their performance proved that they still have their sights on crashing another team’s season down the road.
Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois is known as the “Wrigley Field” of college football. It doesn’t quite have the history of the Cubs, but boasts a very classic and old school stadium atmosphere. For a while now, NU has been calling themselves Chicago’s Big Ten Team. Attempts to market this slogan are popping up around the city, and the evidence is beginning to show with more rumps in the seats in Evanston. Perhaps because Chicagoans are slowly realizing that Northwestern is true Big Ten football. It’s the real deal, especially lately. Northwestern has become a fixture in the postseason and has played the role of spoiler very well. Ryan Field (formally Dyche Stadium) is set in the first city north of Chicago and it rests a few short blocks from Lake Michigan. The setting is lovely and deserves a better rap. Admittedly, the fans decked in purple are often found in the parking lot tailgating with wine and cheese (not exactly power food), but that is part of the quaint charm of this place. The fans are definitely fair weather. Sellouts are usually the cause of other fans traveling and filling a third of the stadium. But, Northwestern can pull its own weight. Despite being the little brother of the Big Ten, they know their sports and cheer well. Before the game, one of Northwestern’s traditions is the Wildcat Alley where families can play games and tailgate. Randy Walker terrace provides the same service after the game. During the game, “Go U Northwestern” can be heard ringing from the student section, and if you are the visiting team, the song will drive you to distraction. The students aren’t much in number, but remember, this is Northwestern – whatever is missing in number they make up in brainpower. I remember an NU alum telling me of a chant they whipped up against Iowa. The Hawkeyes were drubbing the Wildcats at the time and the students retaliated by chanting, “That’s alright! That’s okay! We’ll foreclose your farm someday!” Clever. Despite Northwestern’s somewhat elite north shore status, the Wildcats have a great team and Ryan Field is a fun place to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Loud. Rowdy. Hostile. Carter-Finley Stadium can be described as any of these. Gameday in Raleigh is a dynamic event and tailgating is the cornerstone of it all. Circling the perimeter of the stadium is a party that stretches to the tree lines and fences. Each setup offers a flurry of activity coupled with an array of traditional foods and southern delicacies. The fans receive their first glimpse of entertainment as the NC State football buses drop the team off for their traditional walk to the stadium known as the Walk of Champions. Fans cram and cheer together as they sneak a peek at their beloved Wolfpack on their way into Carter-Finely.
Visitors that make their way around the stadium will surely bump into the 21 foot stone-mountain waterfall statue that features six enormous wolves in various poses. The statue is a reflection of the spirit of this fan base, and is a hot spot for picture opportunities. The stadium is just off the main highway that connects Raleigh to their hated rival in Chapel Hill. One could attend a game with ease without seeing much of the campus. But, lying on the outskirts does not dampen the enthusiasm that boils up in this stunning stadium. It spills out from the massively populated parking lot to the main roads around Carter-Finley. Cars are lined up along the sides of streets for blocks in several directions as herds of folks move toward the action. Just off the main entrance to the stadium, fans gather around to take in sounds from the NC State drumline as they entertain and rev up an already rabid bunch of anxious spectators.
Once inside Carter-Finley Stadium, it is evident why this is such an ACC hotspot. The stadium is large and intimidating and as fans file in, the sea of red grows jet engine loud as the Wolfpack take the field to an explosion of fireworks and wolf howls. The mascots, Mr. and Mrs. Wulf also make their entrance along with the live mascot, “Tuffy,” a very wolflike Tamaskan dog. The noise begins to swell as one side screams “WOLF!” while the other replies “PACK!” and a fierce statement is made before the ball is kicked off. Fans are active throughout the game and when the action on the field hits a peak, the decibel level rises to match. This place can get loud and offers an outstanding home field advantage. Carter-Finley Stadium may not be high on a college football fan’s wish list, but know that the experience will leave a lasting impression, and leave you howling for more.
Not much could have prepared me for what I was about to witness. Call it a tale of two halves. Call it an unexpected upset. Call it an epic comeback. However it’s defined, it became the most improbable finish I have ever seen. We had just finished our morning adventure in Chapel Hill and thank goodness that we took a breath in between because we would need the oxygen to support all our screaming. Raleigh was ready. Tailgating exploded around Carter-Finley Stadium and the Wolfpack was gearing to howl – just not in the first half. As kickoff ensued and the game got underway, Florida State looked every bit of their #3 ranking as they shut down the struggling NC State offense and put up a few scores en route to a 16-0 halftime advantage. FSU fans near us cranked out their fight song “F-L-O-R-I-D-A! S-T-A-T-E! Florida State! Florida State! Florida State! Wooooo!” I began to get nervous thinking that I wouldn’t be able to get enough decent photos of a full stadium as I watched hoards of folks make their way to the exits. Many would return, but I could tell that some gave up not having faith that their team could make a second half turnaround. The hostile crowd that I was looking so forward to experiencing had the wind knocked out of them by the Seminoles, and I was preparing for an ugly and long second act to this performance. By the end of the third quarter, the Wolfpack showed some signs of moving the ball as they managed to clear the goose egg off the scoreboard and close the gap to 16-3. But, you have to understand. That 3 points was an excruciating offensive showcase to witness. Every yard felt like a mile and even though the game was a tad closer on the scoreboard, it still felt like Mt. Everest had to be climbed. In the fourth quarter, a little life crept into the offense as QB Mike Glennon fired a few connections that led the Wolfpack to their first TD of the evening. 16-10. The crowd came to life as they see-sawed the cheer “WOLF!” “PACK!” from one side of the stadium to the other. I wasn’t convinced yet. The defense kept NC State in this thing, but the offense just seemed to lack the firepower. It wouldn’t be until 2 minutes left when NC State stopped one of many key Seminole drives and blocked the ensuing punt sending the crowd into a screaming frenzy. NC State still had 43 yards to secure the winning score, and again, it felt like Charlotte was closer than the end zone. To add to the intensity and uncertainty of the situation, NC State faced three 4th downs, converting them all including the final play of the drive – a fourth and goal with 16 seconds remaining that resulted in the winning touchdown sending the exasperated crowd into a flurry of high pitched disbelief. 17-16. Final. Florida State fans collapsed as they watched their national championship hopes evaporate into the Carolina air. Carter-Finley Stadium, now at a decibel level resembling a true wolf den, partied on as fans pinched themselves to reinforce this reality. Hoots, hollers, and howls echoed from every direction upon leaving the arena. I kept shaking my head wondering how it could have happened. I’ve seen bigger comebacks measured in point deficits, but the way NC State was playing in the first half, 16-0 really felt more like 56-0. It truly was a remarkable game, and I am proud to have been part of such a historic night in Wolfpack history. Can this momentum last? We’ll see how much howl the Wolfpack has left after tonight.