Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Rice Owls 24 at SMU Mustangs 27 (NCAA Football, Conference USA) - November 26, 2011

Saturday was a blustery fall day, perfect for football. Or so I thought. With the Leafs' victory from the previous night fresh in my mind, I made my way over to Ford Stadium for the final game of the Conference USA schedule between the SMU Mustangs and the visiting Rice Owls.

Gerald J. Ford Stadium

Located on the southern end of the SMU campus, Gerald J. Ford Stadium opened in 2000, making it the last on-campus stadium in NCAA Division I-A to open in the 20th century. It is not named for President Ford (Gerald R. in that case) but a Texas businessman and SMU grad who donated most of the funding necessary to build the stadium.

Parking is $15 or $20 on campus, but I found a spot on a residential street across from the stadium, at most a three-minute walk away. It always amazes me how people avoid saving money when it can be done so simply. The worst case is to park in the overflow lot on the other side of the expressway and walk 10 minutes to the field.

All seats in the stadium are benches, with those on the sidelines going for $30 while end zone seats cost $15. The game I saw was less than half full and you could pretty much sit anywhere, so take that into account. The stadium has a horseshoe configuration, with the open end to the south featuring a grassy knoll on which kids can play.

The concourse is spacious and has a number of concession stands, with Chick-Fil-A the most notable. The visitors side of the stadium did not have as much variety in this area, it is better to sit on the home side, which is more crowded and has better atmosphere. I tried a normal hot dog and found it to be surprisingly good. Naturally booze is not available here.

There is one large video scoreboard at the south end of the stadium which showed replays, as well as two smaller scoreboards at field level behind each end zone.

Along the concourse you will see small posters of past SMU stars, including Eric Dickerson. There isn't much else, but then again, recent SMU history has not been kind. Many of you may not remember, but the SMU football program was given the death penalty back in 1987, where they had their season cancelled due to a number of violations. Can you imagine the NCAA doing anything similar to a big market school these days? Not when there is so much money involved. Anyway, the penalty nearly destroyed the football program, but it has been rebuilt slowly so that they are at least respectable now (they finished 7-5 this year).

The field is colourful and the two sections of seats are painted red and blue, the SMU colours. It makes for a nice scene, even on a cloudy day.

Doak Walker Plaza, named after SMU's former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Famer is located outside the northeast corner of the stadium. The statue here is a replica of the Doak Walker Trophy, given out each year to the nation's top collegiate running back.

Overall, the stadium is well worth a visit. In my mind, this is what college football should be like, without the hype that accompanies the big money programs but a simpler approach where the game is more important. Fans were friendly and there was a real family atmosphere, with kids everywhere and multiple generations of SMU and Rice graduates. There was no animosity between the schools or their fans, everybody just wanted to enjoy a good old fashioned Texas football game.

The Game

Remember I said blustery? By game time, it had turned into downright freezing, at least for Texas. The wind was steady and bone-chilling and it seemed to affect the play.

Both teams were anemic offensively, with no sustained drives in the first half. The only score was on a 45-yd pass and run for SMU, with standout receiver Darius Johnson evading tackles for about 44 of those yards. Out of all the players I saw today, Johnson was clearly the best and I'll look for him to be a late-round draft pick (update: he was undrafted but signed with Atlanta and was a key player in the game I saw on my 2013 NFL Road Trip).

In the second quarter, SMU 's Jared Williams broke a couple of tackles at the line and rushed 52 yards to the end zone to give the Mustangs a 14-0 lead. SMU was clearly the better team, but two interceptions from QB J.J. McDermott (taking a snap above) kept Rice in the game. On the first play after the second pick, Rice QB Nick Fanuzzi found Donte Moore for a 13-yard TD to make it 14-7, which is how the first half finished.

Just to illustrate how brutal the offenses were in this half, there were 9 punts, 4 turnovers, and a missed FG out of 17 meaningful possessions.

The second half began poorly for the home team, when Williams fumbled on their first play from scrimmage. Rice's Cameron Nwosu returned the drop 21 yards and the game was suddenly tied at 14.

Rice took the lead on a FG later in the quarter and this seemed to finally get the Mustangs motivated. On their subsequent possession they drove the ball for 10 plays (the only sustained drive in the game) culminating in a 1-yard TD run for FB Rishard Wimbley (below).

After Rice went 3-and-out for the umpteenth time, Wimbley scored on a 39-yard jaunt to make it 27-17 Mustangs with 9:36 to go. At this point I figured the game was in hand and given that I was very, very cold, I decided to head up to Frisco for the second game of the day. I missed Rice's last TD as well as a recovered onside kick that might have made the game interesting, but ultimately SMU prevailed 27-24.

This game might have been more enjoyable if it wasn't so chilly. From the stats, it might appear as if this was a good game, but neither offense generated much consistency, leading to 15 punts. Despite all that, I had fun at my first NCAA football game in 28 years. The atmosphere is unique and as I sat among the Rice supporters, I was impressed with how they all got along based solely on having attended the same university years ago. I'll keep my eyes open for more games like this next season.


As this was the last game of the regular season, the SMU seniors were honoured during the game by having their names called out during stoppages in play. A nice touch.

Before the game started, there was the invocation, where a prayer is said. They should have prayed for warmer weather.



Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Toronto Maple Leafs 4 at Dallas Stars 3 (SO) - November 25, 2011

Black Friday was anything but for me. Although I did a bit of early shopping, I spent most of the early part of the day touring a couple of attractions in Fort Worth, including a fantastic Caravaggio exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum.

After that, I headed back to Dallas to enjoy the evening's entertainment: the Leafs taking on the Stars. It would be the 17th time I would witness the Buds on the road, and with a cumulative 4-11-1 record up till now, I was desperately hoping for a victory. As I walked to the American Airlines Center, I was happy to see plenty of other Leaf fans; there were so many of us that the building was sold out for the first time this season.

American Airlines Center

Located on the edge of downtown Dallas in Victory Park, the AAC is home to the defending champion Dallas Mavericks (no banner yet though, thanks to the just-finished lockout) as well as the Stars. It opened in 2001 and is still a great place to watch a top-notch sporting event.

There is plenty of parking around the stadium for $15. I drove around a bit before the game and didn't find any free parking in the immediate vicinity, but since I was staying in a hotel about a mile away, I didn't look very hard. There is also transit available, with DART's Victory station mere steps away from the stadium.

From the outside, the stadium is very impressive. As I drove north on 35E, the AAC majestically appeared on my right. It could be an old train station or airport terminal, and with the naming rights purchased by American, the locals often refer to it as "The Hangar".

There are entrances on each side of the building, but it is the south side that includes AT&T Plaza, which is where various events are held and a large screen shows highlights and other videos both before and after the game (above).

Tickets for hockey are not cheap but not ridiculously overpriced, particularly for the upper deck. I found a seat in third row at the blueline for $45 which was more than reasonable. Considering that lower bowl seats range from $70 to $300, the upper bowl is the better choice. Sightlines from here were perfectly fine.

The two seating levels are separated by the luxury boxes and club seats. The concourses are spacious enough as you can see below.

There are few bells and whistles once inside. On the lower concourse, one atrium has some small model AA airplanes hanging (above), and there is a cool exhibit illustrating just how high Dirk Nowitzki can jump (138") and testing your vertical leap as well (below). There is also the Jack Daniels Old No. 7 Club which offered appetizers and seemed popular with the locals.

The upper concourse is more limited, with the Dr. Pepper Plant (below), a small eatery with a bit of history about the beverage invented in Waco back in 1885.

Food options are plentiful and there are concessions everywhere. I had an Italian sausage from Sheriff Blaylocks which I would recommend, it was piled high with peppers and onions and made for a full meal for the three hours I was there.

The end zones have scoreboards that show other statistics on a continuous basis, something that I really appreciate.

Overall, AAC is an excellent venue for hockey. There isn't a lot of history yet, but they do have plenty of banners celebrating their success, including that one Stanley Cup banner that Buffalo fans refuse to acknowledge. The place is clean, staff are friendly, and the fans were great, even to a visit team supporter like myself. If you haven't been here, put it on your to-see list.

The Game

The Leafs and Stars had both started strongly but had faded of late, with Toronto lying 5th in the East at 12-8-2 while Dallas was 4th in the West at 13-8. This was the third of a 4-game road trip for Toronto, who had thrashed Tampa Bay 7-1 three days earlier behind a suddenly potent power play. The Stars were finishing up a 4-game homestand in which they had won the last two.

Given that the previous day was Thanksgiving, I expected a lethargic start but Dallas jumped out quickly when Eric Nystrom took a pass from Michael Ryder, deked around Phil Kessel and beat Jonas Gustavsson (above) with a low wrist shot to make it 1-0 after just 4 minutes.

In past seasons, I would have expected the Leafs to fold but this team is different and they fought back quickly. Just after the midway mark of the period, Joey Crabb deflected a Dion Phaneuf (above in the warmup) point shot on a play that looked to be offside and then Phaneuf himself added a power play tally 4 minutes later that just got under Kari Lehtonen (below, also in the warmup). The period finished with the teams level in shots at 7, so it wasn't a barnburner by any means.

The second period was highlighted by a fantastic Dallas goal. The puck began behind the Stars net and was moved forward via just four passes, with each player on the ice touching the puck once. It went Grossman to Daley to Benn to Dvorak to Nystrom who tipped the puck past a helpless Gustavsson. I don't like seeing the Leafs scored upon, but in this case, I had to admire the brilliance of the play. It's worth checking the highlight out here.

There were further problems in the second with two Leafs getting knocked out of the game. Both David Steckel and Carl Gunnarson were hit on the hand by shots and had to leave. Coincidentally, I was taking pictures when Gunnarson got dinged, which you can see below.

The third period was tough for Toronto. Down two men and on the road, I was hoping they could hold out for overtime as Dallas completely controlled the play, outshooting Toronto 6-0 in the early going. Only a couple of miracle stops by Gustavsson kept the Leafs in the game. Then against the flow, Tim Connolly threw what appeared to be a blind pass to the front of the net where a streaking Clarke MacArthur tipped it home with 13 minutes to go. The play was reviewed and emphatically called a "good goal".

However, the Leafs were visibly flagging and couldn't stave off the relentless Dallas attack. Eventually Dvorak tied it after the Stars had maintained possession in the Toronto zone for at least a minute. It was obvious that the Leafs were tired and when they drew a stupid penalty with 3:38 to go, I was sure it would be the end. Again though, this squad is different and they managed to kill the penalty and even get a power play in the process. Although that did not yield any goals, it did bring us to the end of regulation and the Leafs had secured a point.

Overtime was scoreless with the Leafs gaining the only two shots to finish the contest down 29-23 in that category. That brought on the shootout, the third in four games for me at a Leafs game. The Leafs had won the previous two, so I was quite hopeful as Gustavsson had been solid all night.

After the first two shooters for each team missed, Joffrey Lupul beat Kari Lehtonen to the short side to give the Leafs the advantage (below, the puck is in the net already).

The Stars' last shooter was Mike Ribeiro, who has a patented move that was highlighted during one of the intermissions. In that move, he turns sideways and brings the puck from his backhand to the forehand, trying to flip it over the netminder. Gustavsson must have seen the video because he was prepared and although the puck dribbled to the line, it didn't go in.

Leafs win! Leafs win! It was the first time I had seen a Leafs road victory by myself, as in the past other fans had joined me. I was a bit sad to not have anyone to high-five with, but the whole trip to Dallas was worth it just to see the scoreboard below.


The Stanley Cup was in the house as the Stars had it brought to town for a local tournament. It was at Cowboys Stadium the day before and then here, drawing a line of fans who wanted a picture of themselves with Lord Stanley.

After the game, I paid a visit to the nearby Fan Sports Lounge, where I was offered the grand sum of $40 for my vintage #7 Greg Terrion jersey. Needless to say, I refused the offer. Nothing less than $40,000 for those interested.

I flew back on Sunday, missing the Leafs 5-2 win in Anaheim. Three in a row on the road?! Seriously, this team is good and so much more fun to watch than two years ago. Already planning my trip to Alberta in February.



Friday, November 25, 2011

Miami Dolphins 19 at Dallas Cowboys 20 - November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! For me, it was a great day highlighted by a pretty good football game at Dallas Cowboys Stadium. The Miami Dolphins were visiting and with both teams riding 3-game win streaks, I had high hopes of witnessing a good battle, and I wasn't disappointed.
Dallas Cowboys Stadium

Everything is bigger in Texas, and this stadium is no different. Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones opened this monster of a venue in 2009 amongst much fanfare. It is the largest domed stadium in the world, seating 80,000 with room for an extra 30,000 persons standing. I could write dozens of "largest" or "most" facts about this place, but such a statement becomes too much about the numbers rather than the fan experience. Suffice to say that Cowboys Stadium is very big and very impressive.

The stadium is located in Arlington, next to the Texas Rangers Ballpark, which is visible to the east.

The first thing to note is how outrageously expensive parking is. I didn't see prices next to lots as they are all for season ticket holders, but judging from people selling parking, you would expect to pay around $75. Parking at nearby businesses was $30. There may be free parking around, but I was staying close enough that I didn't have to look for it. There is also a shuttle bus from Fort Worth that costs $10 round trip, so not really worth it if you have more than two people.

Once you have taken care of your transport, you will need to get tickets. These are also very expensive, but relative to the parking, not as much of a rip-off. You can buy a Party Pass at $29, which allows for access to the stadium but no seat. There are party decks at both end zones where you can stand, but these were quite crowded.

There are four levels of seating, but if you want to sit between the 20-yard-lines, you will be looking at the 400 level as the other 3 have club seats in the prime locations. The first six rows of this level are the Sideline loge and cost $149. This section is separated from those above by a wall, which means that row 9 of the upper deck is the first row in that section. Seats here range from $75 to $109. There are 27 seats per row up here, but only one listed entrance per section. However, you can walk behind the sideline loge seats to another stairwell which is not visible from the concourse. It takes 4 escalators to get up to the 400 level, but the seats aren't that terrible. Binocular rentals are available for $10 though.

Clubs and suites ticket holders have their own entrance to the stadium which are essentially on the north and south side. Below is shot of field level suites, which would seem to be a poor location for actually watching the game as the sidelines are packed with a lot of people.

The rest of us enter through one of two plazas, depending on your ticket. These areas are filled with promotion, large TV screens, and concessions and are a good place to enjoy the weather before the game. Note that lineups at some gates were huge, perhaps 20-30 minutes to get in, but I found one nearby that had no waiting, so walk around if you have time. Below is the AT&T Plaza, located on the west side of the stadium.

Once you are inside, you will immediately notice the insanely huge HD video screen, which is so compelling that you might forget that you are at the game. The screen is 160 feet long by 72 feet high, and the quality is incredible. The picture above shows it from the corner of the end zone on the lower concourse, while the shot below is from an upper deck seat, where you can see how big it is in relation to the stands.

For a while, I sat close to the action, as you can see below. Ha, fooled you! This picture is taken directly from the screen. Truly amazing.

Concessions are plentiful but not particularly varied. I had a chopped BBQ burger for $8.50 and it was OK. Nachos were the plate of choice judging from the locals. An interesting option is a huge dill pickle for just $3. If you don't plan to drink, then sign up for the Designated Driver program to get a free bottle of water, which is normally $5. There are vendors walking though the stands, including some selling $16 margaritas, which were surprisingly popular.

Restrooms were crowded at halftime and after the game, with long lines at both. Plan to avoid them if at all possible, if not, use one of the many TV timeouts to dash down. The Ring of Honor is between two suite levels and contains the names of 20 Cowboys who have been honored for their service to the club. Below are a couple of names you might recognize.

The Art Program is a collection of sculptures and paintings scattered throughout the stadium. It is a cool idea and adds some colour where otherwise you would be looking at concrete. I saw a few of them but this is the only one I could snap without other fans blocking the view.

Overall, this is one of the most amazing sports venues I have seen. It is unfortunate that it costs so much, but I cannot argue with supply and demand. The Cowboys are like the Yankees, and fans are paying to be part of the experience. After today's game, I can see the appeal; I hope to come back soon, perhaps to try the party pass and spend more money on food and drink.

Finally a couple of comparison shots, one at sunrise above (thanks jet lag!) and one in the afternoon below.

The Game

The first half was pretty crap as neither team could do much with the ball. Tony Romo (above, practicing his holds) threw two picks in the Cowboys' first three possessions, but Miami couldn't capitalize, getting just a field goal from Shane Graham (below) after the second interception.

Dallas tied the game when Dan Bailey hit a 32-yard FG with 4:42 left in the half. After both teams followed with ugly 3-and-out possessions, Miami took over from their 28 with 1:45 left. On 2nd and 9, QB Matt Moore bobbled the snap and the ball bounced back toward the end zone. Dallas LB DeMarcus Ware reached it first and the Cowboys had possession on the Dolphins' 5-yard line.

Romo wasted no time, hitting a crossing Laurent Robinson on the first play and the Cowboys had the lead 10-3. It was Robinson's 5th consecutive game with a TD. Miami ended the half with a decent drive, helped by a pass interference call, but again they could not find the end zone and settled for a field goal to make the halftime score 10-6 Dallas.

The 3rd quarter was a nightmare for the home team. Miami used nearly 7 minutes on their first possession, moving the ball down to the Dallas 9 before being forced to again kick a field goal. After the Cowboys did nothing on their subsequent possession, the Dolphins scored quickly, when Moore hit Brandon Marshall for a 35-yard touchdown. Marshall was being choked by Terence Newman but still managed to make an outstanding catch and the Dolphins led 16-10.

I'm open Matt! Look at me!

Dallas drove to the Miami 23 as time expired in the 3rd. The first play of the fourth was a pass to Jason Witten who gained 18 yards before being forced out of bounds, where he slammed into a cheerleader. She was unhurt, quickly getting up and smiling to the crowd. On the next play, Romo again found a streaking Robinson in the end zone to tie the game. After the extra point, the Cowboys led 17-16.
The Dolphins then drove another 7 minutes, helped by two Dallas penalties, only to be stopped 5 yards short of the goal line. Graham hit his 4th field goal of the game and Miami was poised to upset Dallas, leading 19-17 with 7 minutes left.

The Cowboys couldn't execute on their following drive, and Miami took over with 4:47 left, needing a couple of first downs to really put the game away. But they went 3 and out and Dallas had one last chance, taking possession at their 36 with 2:59 left.

A 23-yard pass to Witten put the Cowboys into Miami territory and two good runs by DeMarco Murray (#29 above) brought the ball to the 20 with 1:52 left. This was easily close enough for Bailey, but the Cowboys needed to take time off the clock, which they did with Murray running 3 times for 12 yards. After Romo knelt, the Cowboys took their final timeout with 3 seconds left. Bailey calmly walked out and booted a 28-yarder to win the game as time expired. It was his 26th consecutive made FG and sent the fans home happy.

In reality though, this was not a good game. Yes, the finish was exciting, but neither team was effective. Miami outplayed the Cowboys but could not get a TD in the red zone, going 0-4 with a FG to show for every trip. If you are a Cowboys' fan, you should be worried; your team will not do well in the playoffs if they don't improve their offense.


Kudos to the Cowboys for showing all highlights, not just those that are good for the home team. Fans deserve to see replays of any meaningful action.

Former 1st overall pick Jake Long had a terrible game, getting flagged for three false start penalties as well as an obvious hold. He was beaten a couple of times for sacks as well.

The cheerleaders live up to the hype, performing before the game and at several points during and being very energetic and pretty good as well. The best use of the large screen is when they show close ups of them. You can see the cameraman in the shot below; not a bad job.

The national anthem was sung by a boy band known as Big Time Rush. As a Canadian, I believe no other band should be allowed to use the word Rush in their name.

There was also a halftime concert but I didn't bother watching. It amazed me though how quickly they can disassemble a stage; it took less than 2 minutes from the concert ending until the field was ready for play.
The last time an NFC East team defeated an AFC East team by a 20-19 score? The Giants Super Bowl victory over the Bills back in 1991. Ugh.

Next Up

Leafs at Stars tomorrow night! Hoping for a visitor victory in this one.