Monday, November 17, 2008

A Day in Death Valley

So our dear friend in New Orleans invited me down for a weekend to visit the Big Easy and attend the Alabama/LSU game in Baton Rouge. It seems that he discovered that members of the Louisiana state high school coaches' association can get complimentary tickets to any LSU game, provided you get there early enough.

So we left New Orleans around 9:30 for a 2:30 game. Traffic there was pretty light until we got about two exits from the campus. We parked just north of campus, in what appeared to be a typical student "ghetto". Along the walk to campus, there was plenty of "talent", all appropriately dressed for a warm, late-fall day. We stopped in a convenience store that was packed with young adults from both LSU and Alabama looking to buy beer. First time I've ever seen a security guard in a gas station. After a brief stop to visit an old colleague, we made our way over to the stadium. Because we wanted to make sure to get there early, we didn't get to sample the famous Tiger tailgating scene, other than just to walk through it.

We got to the stadium about an hour and a quarter before game time. Most of the student section was already full. The marching band was already in their seats, as was the Alabama band. Our seats were in the upper deck along the eastern sideline. Because there are no basements in Louisiana, the stadium is not built into the ground at all. It appears to be a Huey Long-era, all-concrete project that has been added to and updated numerous times. The upper deck starts about six stories above the ground. It is also quite steep. Unlike Michigan Stadium, where the seats in front of you are at your ankles, the seats in front of you are below your feet. I could have put my feet up on the shoulders of the people in front of us, without too much problem. From our seats we could see downtown Baton Rouge, the state capital and the mighty Mississippi. The combination of the height and the angle was just enough to kick start my fear of heights and make me slightly uncomfortable, at least until the game started.

Shortly before the game started, the band left the stands and came onto the field for a pre-game show. No dramatic entrance like the high steppin' MMB, but still some nice numbers with nice formations and good audience participation. The entrance of the team was a big production with smoke, fireworks, and piped in music. The piped in music continued throughout the game, but the crowd really didn't react to it as much as they did to the marching band. According to our friend the piped in music is new this year, so maybe people haven't gotten used to it. Hopefully they'll reconsider and get rid of it. The sound system was pretty bad. As far as I could tell, there were no speakers in the upper deck. The video screens were also quite small, nothing like Texas' monster video board.

When the game started, the fans were very engaged. The fans near us stood to start the game, and remained standing for the entire first series. I was quite impressed, and wondered if they would actually stand for the entire game. Eventually, as the teams settled into the game, the fans did as well, sitting down for most of the action, but still standing at appropriate times. The noise level in the stadium was good, you can really tell how much the steepness of the stadium affects the noise level. It was curious that a lot of people who were sitting near us left early, starting in the 2nd quarter. To be fair, there didn't appear to be anyone checking tickets in each section, so it's possible they moved to lower seats. It was also clear that the fans were much more engaged in the second half. At the start of the fourth quarter, the PA announced, "The sun has now found it's home in the western sky. Night has come to Death Valley" With that the band played a number of tunes that got the fans fired up, and the team came alive. You could really tell that there is something special about night games there, and the fans and team knows that.

Interactions between Alabama and LSU fans around us was limited, but there were a few odd occurrences. At one point an old guy sitting near us stood up and started shouting at a few young Alabama fans about ten rows behind us. He threatened them, called them faggots, and told them he'd kick their asses if they were man enough to come down to his seats. The weird part is that there hadn't been any interaction between the guy and the Tide fans before his outburst. The whole thing had a "get off my lawn" type feel.

Only a few people said anything to me about my Michigan jersey. One guy told me that Michigan was losing to Minnesota (I found out later that there weren't) but not to worry, because Rich Rod would get it turned around in three years. Another kid informed me that Michigan was 3000 miles to the north. If I had thought quicker, I would have told him, "We're 2-7 and that's the best you could come up with?" I got a few other weird looks, and met one guy after the game who was from Michigan and was doing the same thing I was. "Had to see some good football this year," he said.

The game itself was a classic. The blocked field goal at the end of the game was unbelievable, the atmosphere was absolutely electric. I think they are both solid teams, with few weaknesses, save one glaring exception. LSU has a real issue at Quarterback. Like Michigan, they were hurt when the expected starter this year (Ryan Perriloux) left the team in the off season. His replacement, Jarret Lee, threw four interceptions, which is about his average for the season. I think their defense played well, and for the most part their lines got the best of Alabama. Alabama has few if any weaknesses, but they don't have many difference makers, other than freshman WR, Julio Jones. They remind me a little of the 2002 OSU team that upset Miami. I do think they will get trounced by Florida in the SEC championship game.

All in all, it was a great experience, and I hope I'll get a chance to get down there again.