Article written by CFB Campus Tour/Mike Barker
After a turbulent 2020 college football season filled with cancellations, opt-outs and general uncertainty, 2021 arrived with a renewed sense of “normalcy”.
Though we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, many safety precautions have been implemented to allow us to make plans with confidence that they will indeed pan out. But when Hurricane Ida postponed the Rutgers-Temple contest from Thursday to Saturday, that so-called confidence quickly disappeared and I returned to 2020 mode: adjust on the fly.
With a limited slate of games on Sept. 2, I scrambled for an alternate game. Fortunately, the announcement of the postponement happened early that morning, so I changed course for Stony Brook, N.Y. It was not ideal to drive through the Big Apple during commute time, but the Stony Brook-New Hampshire contest was the only option within a reasonable distance.
This FCS Colonial Athletic Association match-up took place in Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium on the campus of Stony Brook University. Built in 2002 with a capacity of 12,300, it is a really nice stadium. Check it out:
To the Colonial
As for the action on the field, it was a blowout for two and a half quarters. New Hampshire dominated every facet of the game and amassed a 27-0 lead midway through the third quarter.
There was no quit in the home team though, as the Seawolves stormed back with 21 unanswered points. Down 27-21 with 35 seconds and the ball on the Wildcats’ 19-yard-line, quarterback Tyquell Fields’ pass to Shawn Harris Jr fell incomplete and New Hampshire held on for a 6-point road victory.
My goal has always been to see a game at all 130 FBS stadiums, but this game at Stony Brook put me at 31 (of 128) FCS stadium games. The special spring FCS season propelled me to a number where I never anticipated I’d be. Should seeing a game at every FCS stadium be my next goal? I’m not sure about that yet!
A Long Ride Ahead
The detour to Stony Brook was worth it to see a great game, but the punishment came that night when I had to drive back to Virginia in the middle of the night. It was 404 miles to Charlottesville, where I stopped to take a statue picture at the University of Virginia that morning. It was a painful drive and I do not recommend doing it. But it was for the love of the game, so it had to be done!
Friday night was a return trip to Blacksburg for my second Virginia Tech game. My first game was in 2019 and it happened to be one of the lowest points in the post-Frank Beamer era for the Hokies — a 45-10 beatdown at the hand of Duke on national TV. The crowd was completely dejected and it was not what you’d expect for a Virginia Tech game.
Getting a second chance — this time to see No. 10 North Carolina — was a chance at redemption for me on Friday night.
Lane Stadium did not disappoint. Built in 1965 and seating 66,233 fans, it was absolutely lit the entire night. Here’s my “Shot of the Night”:
North Carolina’s potent offense, led by a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Sam Howell, had expectations of putting up big numbers as usual. But the combination of a motivated Hokie defense and the energy from an insane crowd dashed those hopes.
Virginia Tech’s defense held Howell to 17-for-33 passing and came up with three key interceptions. The inspired play led the way for a huge upset 17-10 over the Tar Heels. The home crowd was in a frenzy and stormed the field. And I of course joined them in their celebration.
It was an incredible night in Blacksburg and just the second game in a 4-game weekend.
Game No. 3 was Navy playing host to Marshall. Navy was one of the schools that did not allow fans in 2020 and right away, you could see how grateful everyone was to be back in the stands. Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is a beautiful venue and it was an amazing seen to see it filled with fans:
Trips to service academies hit different, as you are able to experience the best and brightest our country has to offer. I’ve been to games at Air Force and VMI before and it’s humbling to be around the great men and women who attend these universities. I even overheard an officer speaking to attendees at a private gathering with the stadium about the challenges our country has faced over the last 18 months.
Part pep talk, part pat on the back: it was a powerful speech something unique to the Naval Academy.
The Midshipmen faced Conference USA foe Marshall in both teams’ season opener. Marshall came out hitting on all cylinders and looked like a different team than the end of last year under newly-hired coach Charles Huff. The Thundering Herd led 21-0 at halftime and ultimately prevailed 49-7.
The box score is incredible. Navy controlled the clock as usual (41 minutes of possession) and ran the ball very effectively with 337 yards rushing. Marshall, by contrast, had only 19 minutes of possession yet racked up 464 yards of offense and 49 points. How does that even make sense?!?
I wouldn’t have believed it unless I saw it myself. Marshall looked great and will be a forced to reckoned with in Conference USA.
Sunday Night Football — College-Style
That brings us to Sunday night and my final game of Week 1. I love the first week of the college football season because it starts ahead of the NFL opener. That means no pro football on Sunday and college football is there to fill the void!
It’s a great opportunity for a game traveler to stack up games, too. I saw Texas A&M play UCLA in 2017 on a Sunday night opener in the famous comeback by the Bruins. UCLA overcame a 44-10 deficit, as quarterback Josh Rosen threw four fourth-quartertouchdowns in the Rose Bowl. It was an incredible game to take in from the stands.
This Sunday’s match-up was between two legendary programs, as Notre Dame travelled to Tallahassee to take on Florida State. It was my first game at Doak S. Campbell Stadium and I spent an hour before the game taking in all the sights. Perfect doesn’t even begin to describe the atmosphere. Check out this amazing “Shot of the Night” photo:
An Instant Classic
With the scene set, the game itself became the early “Game of the Year” for the 2021 season. Notre Dame’s passing game was on fire, with Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan throwing for 366 yards and four touchdowns. The defense forced three interceptions and the Fighting Irish took a commanding 38-20 lead into the final quarter.
FSU quarterback Jordan Travis lost his helmet at the end of a play, forcing UCF transfer McKenzie Milton to replace him and Milton never left. This was the same McKenzie Milton who suffered a gruesome leg injury in 2018 and feared he’d never return to the field. His insertion into the game energized both his team and the crowd and the Seminoles improbably scored 18 unanswered points to force overtime.
It was absolute bedlam inside “The Doak” and fans were in awe of what they were witnessing from “KZ”. Every time he ran the ball, everyone held their collective breath. What Milton was able to do was inspiring.
Tied at 38, FSU took the ball first in overtime. The drive stalled and the Seminoles were forced to settle for a field goal attempt. Kicker Ryan Fitzgerald missed from 37 yards out and Notre Dame took over needing just a field goal of its own to win. Its drive was very conservative and it led to a 41-yard attempt from Jonathan Doerer for the win.
His kick soared inside the left the upright and the Irish escaped Tallahassee with a hard-fought 41-38 win.
I witnessed four games in four days during Week 1 of what will be an exciting 2021 season. I will be at three games in Week 2.
On Friday, Sept. 10, I will be in Conway, S.C. to see “America’s Team” Coastal Carolina face Kansas. This is a rematch from last year where the Chanticleers defeated the Jayhawks in Lawrence. It should be quite a scene at Brooks Stadium.
Saturday will be the ultimate doubleheader — maybe in all of college football. The headliner is a noon ET kickoff in Columbus for No. 3 Ohio State and No. 12 Oregon. That will be followed by a prime time contest in Ann Arbor as Michigan hosts Washington.
It will be about a 3-hour drive between stadiums, so I will need to book it to make both games.
Follow my travels on both Twitter and Instagram at @CFBcampustour. Contact me to meet up at games or just talk college football. I can’t wait for Week 2!
Don’t worry, you’ll get the updates.