CAN’T TOP ROCKY TOP

It’s hard to estimate the amount of major pro sporting events I’ve been to in my life. I’d put the number roughly around 100 or so. I’ve been to many MLB contests, over a dozen NBA games (including two playoff games) a fair share of NFL games (including Super Bowl XXVI) and a few NHL games as well as an MLS match and the World Cup.

However, I can easily count the number of Division I college football games I’ve been too. After last Saturday…three.

Yet, Saturday night’s Tennessee-Montana game may be the most memorable event I’ve spectated. Here’s why…

Our bus needed to part the sea of orange just to get us into the game...

The Montana Grizzlies – from my other hometown state (where I’ve spent about 27 of my 29 1/2 years)  – a “big” smaller D-I football program (it’s hard to explain to the uninitiated), were playing in Neyland Stadium (according to wikipedia it’s the sixth largest non-racing stadium in the world, and third in the U.S. behind Michigan and Penn State’s stadiums). Tennessee, a Southeastern Conference program has long been one of the mainstays of big-time college football and with a heritage that includes a few titles (including the 1998 National Championship) and Peyton Manning, they are no one to sneeze at.

Here I am in the Montana section, wearing a Billings Mustangs cap, of course...

The matchup itself was a dream. As I wrote in the Billings Gazette’s Cat-Griz Insider after the game – this was the stuff as a fan that you usually make up in your imagination. Montana and TENNESSEE?!? Under the lights, no less. In front of 94,000+… Grizzlies fans have never seen anything like it, and other than the couple thousand or so that made the trip (which was a great, colorful group of people), not many will. Not to downgrade the Montana football experience in the least, Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula is rockin’, especially come playoff time. But it was more than bizarre to be witnessing the team I helped cover for five years from the bowels of the Gazette office playing in one of college football’s historic haunts.

Time for kickoff!

The noise of the massive crowd shattered my expectations and literally drove chills right down my spine. They were INTO this. They could have been playing a community college and they would have been going crazy. I imagine it gets more deafening against a true conference rival, but cover the few empty seats way up high and this could have been against Florida, Georgia or LSU. And here were the Griz playing against the Tennessee team you see so many times on national TV. And here were the pocket of Grizzlies fans, from all over the state of Montana and US, assembled in the middle of Knoxville, TN to cheer the underdogs on.

Griz moved the ball well, but couldn't find the endzone enough

And after Montana silenced the crowd with a big sack on 3rd and long, they muffed the punt return. Tennessee scored on this play (see below)…and as if the Griz weren’t south of Montana enough, things went further south from there.

Defeaning, I say…

Griz get a safety to make the score 28-9

Yes, the Griz fell down quickly 28-0, so much for the hanging in there and making things interesting part. After the brutal start, Montana scored 9 “unanswered” points with a touchdown and a safety and showed some cajones. Tennessee scored a few more times just to keep the Grizzlies from actually thinking they could come back. All in all, the final 42-16 line wasn’t that bad (and the Griz covered the spread too). If the Griz played a perfect game, they likely would have still lost, but perhaps kept themselves in the ballgame a bit longer.

Griz fans send off their beloved team...

That said, it was an unbelievable experience and the atmosphere was unreal. If the Griz (or Montana State Bobcats) ever decide to play at another major program’s stadium, I’ll be there. It’s too good to miss, even if the odds are stacked against them.

Check out more photos below…

2 thoughts on “CAN’T TOP ROCKY TOP

  1. Hey Phillip,

    Great post! It’s a little unfortunate you didn’t get better weather for the game, which means some of the pageantry was missing like the running through the T. But it’s great that you had a blast. I’m sure the rain had a noticeable impact on the attendance, but all in all, you got to experience most of a normal game. Montana looked much more impressive than I had anticipated. I hope they have a great season, and I’ll be checking their progress.

    Cheers and Go Vols!

  2. Actually the rain kind of added to the dramatic effect, and to get the whole game under the lights was an added bonus. Plus, it certainly cooled the place down that day – we needed that.

    I definitely have a great appreciation for the Vols and their fans. They treated Griz fans (at least the ones I interacted with) with a great deal of respect and genuine interest. It was a great time!

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