I couldn't feel anymore different today.
Two weeks ago, I took a trip to Washington DC to visit my sister. I did not have any kind of specific plans, but just wanted to be there for her as a brother, and hopefully enjoy some of what the city had to offer. The Football team would be playing an away game against Illinois University so the time was a good one I felt, to leave State College for a little trip.
Sometime Friday night and Saturday morning I learned of that she had been invited to a Virginia Tech tailgate, who happened to be playing a 'neutral' game against the University of Cincinnati at FedEx field. Now, Virginia Tech is a great school, and a well coached, well respected program. Cincinnati is what I feel to be a bit of an up and coming school as far as collegiate athletics are concerned, and I have nothing bad to really say about the school other their general proximity to Ohio State.
Still I could not get excited about the game. Neither was ranked, neither had a player spotlighted by the National media that I could think of. As we rode the Metro from my sisters apartment to the Stadium, the most prevalent thoughts in my mind were to not drink too much light beer so I wouldn't have to find a port-a-potty and that I prayed any drinking games I played in college would be played at the tail gate. This I would realize later are two completely juxtaposed thoughts.
As we arrived, the cordial hello's and handshakes started.
"Where are you from"
"What does your shirt say"
"Eat! Eat! Eat!"
"Soda and Juice in that cooler, Lite beet in that one, help yourself"
"(Insert your own lame political joke here)"
"Want a shot?"
And so on...
The words were almost all the same. As I talked to everyone and socialized to the best of whatever interaction abilities I possess, I slowly just became less and less enthused.
Now my smile never wavered, as the weather was great, and to be honest everyone was in a great enthusiastic mood. No one complained as I helped myself to delicious miniature hot dogs and a couple of pulled pork sandwiches that were proclaimed to be the best in Virginia, (which they might have been...but I still prefer Clem's.) I had a blast playing flip cup (crushing my sister in every head to head duel) and met a guy named Jeff (Geoff?) who was genuinely nice guy and seemed very reasonable about everything going on. I even met some guy in an annoying collared shirt (collared shirts don't belong at tail gates period. Jeff/Geoff agrees with me.) who also shared my enthusiasm for Southern Tier's 'Pumking' ale. The fact that I shared a general lust for the same beer as this guy has still not been understood by my brain.
Yet still...I found myself wanting to be part of my crowd.
The Penn State crowd.
On a Saturday, during college football Saturdays especially, there is no place I'd rather be, than in the comfortable rolling hills of Happy Valley.
As the tailgate winded down, and we picked up after ourselves, my sister suggested that we head over to a Penn State bar called the Tortoise and Hare. The sight was a welcome one for sure. Once there, while I still didn't know anyone there with the exception of one of my sisters friends, I felt like for some reason I could "trust" them more.
Though the Penn State game had ended already (they drubbed llinois 35-7, in a performance I sadly only got to see the highlights of) the enthusiasm in the room was omnipresent. You couldn't get away from it.
One Week later, my girlfriend and I went to our first game of the season together. I rarely have the opportunity to do so due to work, so getting to go to a homecoming game against a tough undefeated Northwestern team seemed like a perfect opportunity to enjoy the atmosphere of Beaver Stadium.
The day was chilly, with gray clouds covering the entire sky with seemingly ready to let loose a slow drizzle, or even, *gasp* the first snow of the year (sadly not unheard of in State College). We sadly missed the bus, but the stadium is only roughly two miles from my house. So the walk there warmed both of us up to the point where the chill was not particularly noticeable.
While we were too late to really enjoy any of the tailgate, we were able to score seats pretty easily. The tickets were set to be in the upper deck of the south end-zone, but the season ticket holders next to my girlfriend's cousins' seats had yet to show this season, and we were able to move successfully to a better position without incident.
The game started out great (though I was shocked at the amount of initial open seats) with Penn State jumping out to a lead and our spirits were high. They did not come out flat in any way, shape, or form, something I think home teams always need to fight against on a noon kickoff.
Then, somewhere in the second quarter, things just seemed to go a little bit wrong. A muffed punt, a bogus pass interference call, some drops, a poor throw, or poor blocking. And all of a sudden Northwestern had reversed it's fortunes (and didn't mind letting the home crowd know about it), and went into half time winning 14-10.
I felt cautiously optimistic. While PSU had seemingly outplayed Northwestern, the score happened to not reflect it, and momentum seemed to have begun shifting towards the visiting squad from Evanston, Illinois. Still, we were home, and a win was certainly within reach.
Then the third quarter came. After a 3 and out by the PSU Defense and a touchdown drive by Penn State, my confidence in the team soared. The sun seemed to drift back out for a minute and the crowd seemed enthused and ready to celebrate the rest of our winning ways. In someway, I felt after that sequence that the outcome was not in doubt.
Then, Northwestern responded, like a quality team would. THEY made the blocks and plays offensively to respond with a touchdown drive of their own. Taking the lead right back, and then their defense stood strong for a 3 and out, forcing a punt. Then all of a sudden I was feeling my heart sink as a 3 point mid-third quarter lead had turned into an 11 point fourth quarter deficit.
At the start of the 4th quarter, Penn State was two plays into the drive, needing to convert a critical third down to both give the defense a rest and to possibly establish their own momentum. My heart is starting to move at a faster rate, because with only 15 minutes to go, time is of the essence, and in reality another score by Northwestern of any kind may put the game out of reach.
They convert the third down, the crowd cheers. Then it happens again, and again,...and then again. With 9:49 left in the fourth quarter, Penn State had just driven 82 yards on EIGHTEEN plays. That number is absurd. It speaks to the confidence of and focus of an offense that knew what they needed to achieve and then the preparation and athletic talent to do it.
Still, the Lions trailed by 3, and Northwestern was getting the ball back. Remember, on the Wildcats last possession, they had driven the length of the field to score a touchdown of their own.
Yet the defense was riled up, having seen the offense drive and score, and the crowd cheering and getting louder. (To this point, the noise had not reached the higher levels that Penn State fans have been known for.) The result was another 3 and out.
Now in the stadium, there's a buzz going on about what exactly we are seeing. Because it's not unlike Penn State teams before that have fought back after being down. Yet, it is. It absolutely is. Because you can see the raw emotion pouring out of the kids on the field. With each first down, with each tackle and deflection. Mauti is pounding his chest, McGloin is pumping his fist. The entire sideline is engaged and jumping, and asking the crowd for noise.
As Penn State took control of the ball again, and responded with yet another long drive (15 plays) resulting in one of the least graceful endzone dives of all time (still counts as a great scramble for a score though). The crowd and the team had reached an apex.
Here, some 70 rows up on the 35 yard line at Beaver Stadium, everyone was a neighbor, everyone was high-fiving each other, we all yelled and cheered and for the first time all year, it truly felt like we were all one. The proverbial ONE TEAM that is talked about these days around campus was achieved October 6th 2012.
The offense, the defense, the special team, the coaches, and the crowd itself, were all on the same page, and created a perfect storm. One whose effect can best be displayed by the statistics in the 4th quarter.
Penn State had 195 yards of offense, scoring 3 touchdowns with zero turnovers.
Northwestern had 23 yards, two turnovers, and just one first down.
The performance by the team was one of the best I had ever seen. There have been more talented teams than this one. There have been bigger crowds that have assembled at Beaver Stadium. But in terms of focus, spirit and heart, the intangible things that cannot be quantified and measured, nothing has ever exceeded what happened this past homecoming weekend.
I am certainly happy to be home.