We booked airfare to Cincinnati last month, planning to go to the USC/Ohio St. game on Saturday, followed by the Bengals/Broncos game on Sunday. But on Tuesday, our baby came down with a fever, and we took him to the doctor. "Swine flu", the doctor said. "But he has a mild case. He should be fine in 4 days." We asked him to do a test, so we could be sure. If he had the swine flu, not only would we worry more about his prognosis, but it would be irresponsible for us to pile into a plane and possibly sicken a bunch of people with a virus we just caught from our baby, even if we didn't yet have symptoms. The doctor said it was unnecessary to test him, however, because the treatment was the same whether it was H1N1 flu or any other kind of flu. So we got a second opinion, and by Friday morning, a nurse was phoning us with test results - negative. It wasn't swine flu. Even better, the fever was gone.
We were good to go.
So with about 12 hours notice, and without any game tickets in hand or awaiting us in Columbus, we hopped on a red-eye bound for Northern Kentucky, just outside of Cincinnati. We arrived just before dawn, rented an SUV and headed for our hotel in downtown Cincinnati for breakfast. By 11 a.m., we were in our room, where everyone took a nap. Around 1 o'clock, I left for Columbus with my wife's brother. We had no tickets and no prospects, but we had a plan. We knew tickets would be plentiful for a game at a 102,000 seat stadium, but we wanted to sit in the USC sections, which were only about 5,000 seats. To assure that we could score tickets in USC territory, we figured our best chance was at the USC Alumni tailgater.
Here we are, on campus five hours before the game. By 3 p.m., we had made it to the Ohio State campus and found a parking spot about a mile from Ohio Stadium, on the side where the USC Alumni tailgater was happening, and we started walking. They had stopped selling tickets to the tailgater online a few days earlier, but the weekender website said tickets could be purchased at the door. Worried that it would sell out quickly, we hustled over to get there early, well ahead of the 4 p.m. start time. When we arrived, we found out that "at the door" included "at the hotel where USC people were staying." They had sold out "at the door" the night before. However, they promised to let a few of us buy tickets if enough seats remained unclaimed by the time the band arrived around 6 p.m. It was only 4 o'clock, however, and that two hour wait was unappealing.
I let everyone who was standing around know that I was looking for a pair of tickets in the USC section, and I waited. After about 15 minutes, a Trojan with an extra pair showed up, and someone told him that I was looking for a pair. We struck a deal and I walked off with his seats near the top of section 8c. After another 10-15 minutes, someone showed up for the tailgater with more people than tickets to the event. He didn't want to waste his tailgater tickets, but didn't want to leave his buddies outside, either. So I offered to buy them, and we were in.
Here, the USC Song Girls and Spirit of Troy perform for us about two hours before the game. The tailgater was a blast. We met the guy who is responsible for all those "Leave No Doubt" stickers, and made a few new friends while drinking Bud Light and enjoying brats, hot dogs, barbecued chicken and beef and various side dishes and desserts. Some Buckeye hospitality reps rolled by with some free buttons and warm wishes. They told us what a Buckeye is. It's a poisonous nut. Or, as the guy at our table said, "a useless toxic nut." We grabbed some signage and pom-poms, enjoyed the performance of the band and the Song Girls, then headed for Ohio Stadium.
On our walk to Ohio Stadium, we saw that the Ohio State tailgating crowd was vast, and great food, drink and games were everyone. As shown in this photo, the Buckeye fans love to "cornhole" before the game. It's not as dirty as it sounds. There were a lot of street vendors selling strands of buckeye nuts. They were going for five bucks a necklace. With about 20 nuts on the string. We did the math, and concluded that if the guy from the tailgater was right, then a buckeye was a two bit useless toxic nut. But the real Buckeyes weren't that. Contrary to my expectations, I encountered only three instances of douchebaggery on my way to the stadium - some jackass tried to trip my brother-in-law, a guy yelled "Oregon State" in our faces, and one guy tried to hold us back with his arm, because "No Trojans are getting around me!" Most people, however, were warm and receptive, and more than happy to carry on a civilized conversation about football with a USC fan. We flashed the victory sign to a couple of ticket buyers who were holding up two fingers. They didn't get it. We didn't elaborate, either.
There it is. Ohio Stadium. One of the greatest cathedrals in all of the religion of sports. But it was a zoo trying to get in. I asked a Buckeye if it was like this every week, and she said it was not. I assume, therefore, that the reason it was nearly impossible to move was because 90% of the over-capacity crowd of 106,033 fans (the largest crowd in NCAA college football history was 112,118 on November 22, 2003 for a Michigan home game against Ohio State) in attendance stayed outside the gates until they could watch the finish of the Michigan 38 Notre Dame 34, UCLA 19 Tennessee 15, and Houston 45 Oklahoma State 35, then headed in as soon as the Wolverines and Bruins finished taking care of business. The good news is that the crowd made it a lot easier to sneak in my forbidden SLR camera with telephoto lens. The stadium lighting was strange, too. This was only the 5th or 6th night game there, ever, and the lights were not mounted in the stadium. They were on four huge portable posts, outside the stadium. So the four sections in front of them were bathed in light all night. The others were under varying degrees of brightness.
The "Best Damn Band in the Land" dotting the "i". This week, it was some tuba player. Last week, it was John Glenn. Before they did this, they played, among other things, "Fight On!" I loved it. Eventually, however, I got a bit tired of "Hang on, Sloopy", followed by the Y-M-C-A-ish "O! H! I! O!" Someone warned us that you need to get in 45 minutes before kickoff to see the dotting of the eye. That rumor was false. This photo was taken about 15 minutes before kickoff, and just 5 minutes before the supposed 8 p.m. start time. USC's band director, Art Bartner, led the Ohio State band for the Star-Spangled Banner.
USC began the game with a Chris Galippo interception return inside the Buckeye 10-yard line, setting up this 4th and goal play.
Touchdown, USC! Stafon Johnson on 4th down. USC 7-0. We were pretty excited by this time, hoping that the rout was on. It wasn't. For a brief moment, however, the crowd was silenced by this.
The scariest moment of the night. Taylor Mays goes down with a mild knee sprain.
This was a great play, and we thought it was going for the go-ahead touchdown to make it USC 13 (going on 14), Ohio State 10. Instead, we had to settle for a missed field goal bouncing off the crossbar. In the stands, from way across the field, it looked to close not to review, especially since there had already been several reviews. However, once I got home and watch this on TV, it was quite clear that this was not a catch.
This is the kick that bounced off the crossbar. The Buckeye fans were insanely loud after that ball landed in the end zone.
After a great defensive stop, USC got down inside to the Buckeye 3-yard line with 8 seconds left, but Matt Barkley missed David Ausberry in the left corner, setting up this field goal to tie the game at 10-10 going into the half.
Halftime entertainment by the Ohio State marching band, complete with pyrotechnics. Other entertainment: the playing of the White Stripes hit "Seven Nation Army", during which the Ohio State fans jump up and sown (especially in the south end zone seats) and chant "Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh-oooh!" They often then booed when the USC players would start jumping up and down on the sidelines during the song. At one point, the big screen showed Will Farrell chatting with someone along the USC sideline. They then had fun putting up a couple of photos showing Farrell wearing Ohio State shirts. Vince Vaughn was in the house, too. He was in Buckeye attire.
Some USC offensive action in the third quarter. Sadly, USC had almost no offense in the third, with just 20 net yards and two drives that ended without positive yardage. USC also gave up a safety and a field goal to go down 15-10.
In the 4th quarter, the Buckeyes still led 15-10 when they got a first down at the USC 35 with 9:27 to play. The fans were absolutely frenzied. When the Buckeyes ran for three yards on first down, with a 2nd-and-7 at the USC 32, I started losing faith that the Trojans would win. I've never taken a road trip and experienced a loss in another team's house. I've been to a couple of bowl games USC lost, and a few losses to UCLA at the Rose Bowl, but never on a real road trip. Notre Dame, Nebraska, Virginia, Cal, Arizona, Stanford, to name a few, all ended up with us quietly leaving the other school with the victory. I wondered what it would be like to walk out of Ohio Stadium wearing the losing team's colors.
I thought, among other things "I am missing the D23 convention for this!"
Fortunately, Everson Griffin got a sack on 3rd-and-7, and Ohio State decided to punt. After a fair catch, USC got the ball back on their own 14 with about 7:15 to play. When Matt Barkley got sacked on first down at the 7:10 mark, it was so loud, there are no words to describe how loud it was. The guy behind us yelled "the freshman is getting rattled!" We thought, "yeah, the dude's right." Then USC committed a delay penalty and it got even louder, with around 6:15 to play, and the Trojans getting ready to snap it on 2nd-and-19 from their own 5-yard line. We had to have a touchdown, and it was 95 yards away. What followed was the coolest possession since the last drive in South Bend in 2005.
Joe McKnight ran for 11 yards to the USC 16, leaving 3-and-9. Matt Barkley passed to Joe McKnight for 21 yards to the USC 37 for a 1st down. We started to hope again, down 5, and moving the ball. Then Matt Barkley threw to Anthony McCoy for 26 yards to the Ohio State 37 for a 1st down. Matt Barkley threw incomplete; Joe McKnight ran for a yard to the Buckeye 36 and Barkley passed to Damian Williams for 8 yards to the Ohio State 28. It was 4th-and-inches, with 3:38 to play. 106,033 people knew what was coming. The famous USC QB sneak. O'Dowd and Byers blew a hole that I could have run through, and the crowd went from insanely loud to moderately quiet, if only for a moment.
When he got up, it was clear that Barkley's arm was hurting. After a run of 4 yards and another of 9 yards, McKnight earned the Trojans another first down with 2:10 to go. The USC band was the loudest sound in the stadium. "Fight On!" After an incomplete pass and a Joe McKnight run, it was 3rd-and-1 for the Trojans just outside the Buckeye 6-yard line. Ohio State needed two stops for the win. USC needed 6 yards. The place was hopping again. Once again, the Trojans ran Barkley behind O'Dowd and Byers. Now it was first-and-goal with 1:11 to play.
After USC converted the 3-and-1, Buckeye fans sensed the defeat. They pretty much shut the hell up. They weren't just silent, either. They were motionless, too. You could hear people yelling down on the field from the top rows. Someone several sections away yelled "Go Trojans" and everyone could hear it. When Stafon Johnson broke to the outside on first down, the whole stadium took a deep breath. Then it became apparent that McCoy had the block, and Johnson was going to get into the end zone.
Here's my blurry shot of Stafon Johnson's touchdown on first-and-goal, behind a great outside block by Anthony McCoy. Everywhere except the north end zone was silent. The north end zone was going berzerk. Buckeye fans were dead silent. Their heads down. Barely moving. So silent that they surrendered the crowd noise to that north end zone. When McKnight converted the 2 point PAT, the Trojan fans cheering made it sound like USC was the home team.
There was still 1:05 on the clock, so it was a little early for USC fans to start congratulating each other, but they did. Meanwhile, a shockingly large number of Buckeye fans started heading for the gate. For the final possession, Buckeye fans were out of it. Ohio State had no timeouts, but they only needed 30 yards to get into game-tying field goal range. Despite this, the fans had seemingly resigned themselves to the loss. When Pryor threw the ball away on first down and got called for grounding, a steadier stream of scarlet and gray began to filter down the stairs. On 2nd-and-28, it sounded like the whole stadium was shouting "Defense! Defense!" For their final 4th down play, the Buckeyes had almost zero vocal fan support.
Final score, USC 18 Ohio State 15 (If you have a better shot of the scoreboard, send me an email). The USC fans lingered in the 'Shoe for a while, bouncing up and down and chanting "Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh-oooh!" I'd been warned that if USC won, it could get ugly for Trojan fans leaving the stadium. Texas fans got a strong dose of abuse after their 2005 win, but I saw none of that. Just some quiet grumbing - things like "It's like Groundhog Day" and gripes about Tressel this and Tressel that. Oh, and someone tossed their Game Day t-shirt in a puddle of mud.
The only real downer was the mess getting out of the parking lot. The game ended just after 11:30 p.m. We sat in the parking lot for more than an hour without moving an inch. It took fully two hours to walk to the car and wait for it to start moving. That frustration was tempered a bit when we discovered a nearby White Castle, where we celebrated the win with some tasty little White Castle burgers. You can't get those back home. As we drove the 105 miles back to Cincinnati at 2 a.m., we thought "It's a great day to be a Trojan."