Monday, November 2, 2009


All sports fans have favorite teams. And most sports fans have secondary teams. Those are the teams you root for when they are not playing your favorite team. The reasons for why we root for our favorite teams are deeply rooted in our upbringing and our identity. The reasons for our secondary teams are far more trivial. Perhaps we have family members who live there, or maybe we lived there when we were very young. Maybe they played a style of ball we liked, or had an ex-player from our favorite team there. Or maybe they are just a team from a different conference that was traditionally an underdog that we adopted out of some sort of sports related compassion.

For a good friend of mine that secondary team in college football is Virginia Tech. For several years we have talked about going down to see a game in Blacksburg on a weekend when Michigan is out of town. This weekend, we finally made good on that talk and took in the North Carolina/Virginia Tech Thursday night game.

The drive down was good. We left Wednesday night, stayed in the small town of Marietta that night and drove from there down to just outside Blacksburg on Thursday. The traffic was light, and the scenery was gorgeous. Southwestern Virginia is in full fall bloom right now, and one can easily see where the Hokie color scheme comes from, with a myriad of maroon and orange trees covering every hillside.

We parked in a residential neighborhood about a mile from the stadium early enough to stroll around campus a bit. After the requisite stop at the student bookstore to pick up some Hokie gear, we found a campus eatery for some dinner. It was the type of place you find on every campus, low prices, standing room only, loud music, and yummy greasy food. We especially liked the sign taped on the front door, written on the back of a sandwich wrapper that said they were closing at 7pm. They had to get to the game, just like the rest of the town.

Lane Stadium is set at the southern end of campus, on top of a hill, to the west of a somewhat dense thicket of woods, the type of which seemed to play a pivotal role in just about every major engagement in the Civil War. Approaching the stadium from the east, the massive light towers of the east structure glowed overhead, providing an almost eerie aura to the woods. Only a narrow path separates the woods from the stadium entrance, and after the game, we followed the crowd into the woods, expecting to find a path underfoot, but instead stumbling through branch after branch as we made our way to the tailgates on the other side of the hill.

The stadium itself is pretty basic. Two large stands on the east and west sides contain most of the 66,000 seats, with a large new press box and suite complex on the west side. The north stands are small, and the south stands have recently been expanded to include a second deck.

The atmosphere of the game was pretty electric. The Virginia Tech band is huge (330 people) and did a fairly elaborate pre-game routine that includes forming the shape of Virginia with a pair of tuba players dancing around the state to Blacksburg, spelling out Hokies, and some old fashioned "T-E-C-H" cheers. The entrance of the players was fantastic and is an example of how piped-in music can be used to effectively get a crowd jump started. I took video of the entrance, but I'm not sure I truly captured the entire effect. Somewhat surprising to me, no other piped-in music was played during the game.

We were sitting in what was supposed to be the North Carolina section, but it was only about half Tar Heels, with the other half various Hokie fans. Hokie fans were all decked out in Maroon and Orange, and were fully engaged in the game. The section stood for the entire game, and particularly came alive when Tech was on defense. Like the Michigan student section, the Hokie fans rattled their keys for "key" plays on defense.

Other in-game atmosphere enhancers included fireworks at the start and end of each half, after every Virginia Tech score, and at one random moment in the second half during a North Carolina drive. The score board also had a gobbler sound effect on every third or fourth down for UNC that was twice as annoying as the fake Lion sound they make at Penn State.

The game itself was a thriller, although you got the impression early on that Virginia Tech could have run away with the game if they could have just put together a little offensive execution. But they could put any points on the board while their defense was holding UNC to negative yards in the first quarter, and eventually the Tar Heels found some offense with some misdirection and creative formations. The Hokies responded with a decent passing game in the second half and got a huge turnover early in the fourth quarter to go ahead by three. But in the end, the couldn't stop Carolina from nickel and diming their way down the field. And with a few minutes left in a tie game, they fumbled away the game.

All in all, the game was a great experience, and Virginia Tech's reputation of one of the premier atmospheres in college football is well earned. I would recommend a trip to Blacksburg for any serious college football fan.