SOLO IN ENEMY TERRITORY PROJECT PART 2: PENN STATE VS. ILLINOIS

By Pat Combs

Driving across Indiana lends itself well to thinking. There’s not a lot out there to distract a driver; this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

 http://www.gourmet.com/images/gmtlive/2012/100312/impact-of-2012-drought_608.jpg

( I didn’t actually take the above picture, but you get the point.)

I drove from my place in Lafayette across the border to Champaign, Ill., last Saturday to see my first Penn State football game in nearly two years.  I hadn’t seen the Nittany Lions play in person since they beat Michigan in 2010.

It’s safe to say that things have changed since then.

That’s primarily what filled my mind as I made my way through metropolises like Wingate and Veedersburg.  As Pete’s story from earlier this week mentioned, he and I each took in a game – or, in his case, games – in “enemy” territory.  It’s always been a dream of mine to see as many different college football stadiums as possible, so at least Memorial Stadium could be checked off the list.

You’ll notice that I omit words like “hostile” from this piece.  There’s a reason for that – Memorial Stadium and its fans couldn’t have been any more welcoming.  Naturally, I was concerned about how Illinois fans would treat opposing fans (namely, me) of an embattled team, but Illini fans were extremely benign.

Almost sleepy.

The worst I saw was a woman sitting in front of me who constantly complained about her team’s play during the game, but she’s an Illinois football fan – how much could she expect?  There was also a couple sitting a few rows behind me who seemed like they were straight out of a terrible football-themed comedy.  The man yelled “BLITZ!!!” before every play of the first half.  Every.  Play.  His wife yelled “TOUCHDOWNS!!!” only slightly less frequently (her use of the plural form of the word went for naught; Illinois scored just seven points).  Other than observing their knowledge of two football words, they seemed to know nothing of the game.

The positive experiences far outnumbered the minor annoyances of BLITZ and TOUCHDOWNS.  To start with, I had a terrific seat.  A woman and her son had an extra ticket and sold it to me for a very reasonable price.  I had gone to the game without tickets, figuring I’d gamble an hour-and-a-half drive rather than pay $50 to see Illinois football (would you?).  I spent some time in the Penn State alumni tent and had a pretty good time…seven minutes in, I’d already secured a free Rice Krispies treat and orange juice.  Big Ten football demands hearty breakfasts.

Not a bad view for $20.

While in the tent, I saw an older Penn State fan named Walter.  I did not discuss the game with Walter, nor did I even talk to him.  I didn’t even introduce myself to him.  How did I know Walter’s identity?  He was wearing a knitted sweater that had to have been 30 years old with his name emblazoned down the sleeve.  If I weren’t a grad student living on a stipend, I would’ve offered him at least $40 for it.  Sadly, the lighting in the tent combined with the obvious creepiness of taking a cell phone picture of an old guy’s arm prevented me from obtaining photographic evidence.

Everyone in Champaign (and Urbana, technically the city in which I parked) was beyond friendly.  Even the Illini band waved to and cheered for the Blue Band.  The parking attendant who took my money wished me luck and told me that the parking lot was full of mostly Penn State fans (she was right).  As I walked into Memorial Stadium, I passed a guy selling programs who was more than accommodating with his sales pitch:

“Yinz wanna buy a program?”

Yes, even the fine people of central Illinois are at least proficient in Pittsburghese.  One woman responded that she felt at home.

Memorial Stadium itself is a venue more notable for its architecture and history than its atmosphere.  It’s a stadium that held many games in which the Illini were led by Red Grange and displays its age well.  It would probably be a pretty cool scene should its inhabitants begin holding more meaningful games; I think the fans would be there to provide a strong environment if the stakes were higher than in the current post-Zook era.  The stadium has 200 columns ringing its exterior, giving it a pretty cool look.  Inside, large banners hung from the rafters display famous former players such as Grange, Dick Butkus and former Steelers legend Matt Cushing.  It occurred to me that I was inside the stadium where my favorite Penn State player of all-time, Brian Milne, scored the biggest touchdown of his career to cap one of the great drives in Nittany Lion history.

The external walls of Memorial Stadium.

The game itself was a successful one for myself and other Penn State fans, but my time on the inside of Memorial Stadium wasn’t all that eventful.  Aside from a convincing 35-7 Penn State win and the several perplexing chants of “OSKEE-WOW-WOW,” it was actually a pretty dull game.

In some ways, my excursion to Illinois was a bit disappointing.  I went to a college football game – a Division I football game!  A Big Ten football game! – completely devoid of animosity or even mild fan-inspired intensity.  I obviously didn’t want to hear anything disrespectful directed at Penn State fans, but I was looking forward to at least some football-related chiding from the home fans.  I wanted competitive banter.  I wanted some jawing back and forth.  I wanted just a little well-placed, football-specific vitriol.

I found none.

But as a Penn State fan traveling to a foreign stadium, I know how fortunate this situation was.  The Illinois fans I encountered were nothing short of classy and I heard not one word from an Illini faithful regarding the events of the past 11 months.  Of course, I’m glad I didn’t, because, for at least a few hours, football was about football, even for Illinois fans.

Now all they need to do is have their offense work on making TOUCHDOWN plural.

The proof of Penn State’s dominant performance.

 

— Pat Combs is a contributing writer for the Keystone Sports Spot. He is a Penn State alum and current Purdue grad student.

 

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About Pete Dombrosky
Pete is a graduate of Penn State University and a life-long Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fan. He covered men's hockey, golf, tennis, swimming and the enterprise beat as a reporter at the Daily Collegian, Penn State's award-winning, independent student-operated paper. He currently serves as the Assistant Managing Editor for Thrillist Media Group (www.thrillist.com).

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