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On the Ground: Maine driver takes on Highway 1, what could go wrong?

What happens when you put a longtime Maine resident in the driver’s seat with a New York passenger on Los Angeles highways? I don’t know. It all happened so fast. 

Well, not really. It happened at the speed limit (or slightly below). 

Our trio (Maine, New York and the poor Maryland resident witnessing the blend of passive driving and *mostly* constrained city aggression) traveled to USC for Notre Dame’s regular season finale. Arguably, the direct flight from South Bend to Los Angeles was quicker than my driving from our hotel to the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon, but hey, both the pilot and I got our passengers from the start point to the end point, and that’s what really matters when it’s all said and done. And I did it in a nice and safe Nissan (as I quickly turned down the … opportunity(?)to drive a Dodge Charger). I didn’t feel my 54-in-a-55 on the highway style of driving merited such a vehicle. 

Most driving jokes aside, this trip, minus the result of the game for the Irish, was an absolute blast. Firstly, the three of us were on the same page from the get-go — arranging our travel time to make sure we were through the extensive South Bend Airport security lines by kickoff of the England-USA soccer game. But beyond our well-planned travel, we landed in Los Angeles just before 5 p.m. local time. Unlike my trip to Stanford last year, I managed to wait more than 20 minutes before trying In-N-Out. Instead, we opted for a nearby spot called Century Taproom, which got our west coast dining off to a fantastic start. 

On Saturday, we didn’t do too much prior to leaving for the game. Part of it was a very appetizing slate of college football games — watching Clemson lose is always pretty fun. But also … more than necessary driving in game-day traffic in Los Angeles? I’ll pass. 

The actual drive to the Coliseum took two hours, minimum. I’m being fact checked and told it was 45 minutes, but I stand by my claim. “Getting” to drive on Highway 1 was certainly an experience that I’m all right not repeating for a long time. Once we got off the highway, however, we began to be able to take in a little bit of the atmosphere, courtesy of the stop-and-go traffic as we tried to make our way to a parking garage. 

With about three hours till gametime, there was some general buzz right outside the Coliseum where we drove, although the restrictive laws regarding open containers and drinking pushed the tailgate a little away from the lots immediately outside the stadium. With this weekend marking my last true road game as a student, I’m yet to find a tailgate scene I like more than Notre Dame. Once inside the Coliseum, however, I was more impressed. The stadium was definitely a sight, and the open-air press box was conducive to soaking in the beautiful weather and pregame atmosphere. I’ll also give USC some culinary props — the press box food was definitively not as good as Notre Dame’s, but it was a decent spread. And they had coffee! (Please, Syracuse, for the love of God, put coffee in your press box when you have a noon kickoff). 

With about an hour to go before kickoff, we did get situated at our seats and took in the environment. Our general take? The pregame atmosphere was probably a little better than at Notre Dame, with an in-house DJ occasionally hopping on the mic to pump up the crowd. The crowd itself was a bit late-arriving, particularly in the student section, which was a little surprising for a rivalry clash. The Irish’s student section can be late arriving for smaller games, but it’s usually packed at kickoff for the bigger games, and USC students still seemed to be filing in several minutes into the first quarter. 

As the game progressed, it felt like the Coliseum reached peaks that were higher than Notre Dame, but I’d maintain that Notre Dame Stadium, in games of these magnitude, maintain a higher noise level throughout the game. On big third downs or after a big conversion, the USC crowd would roar, occasionally receiving some encouragement from that aforementioned in-house DJ. That concept was a little odd to me — the DJ would start cheers or amp up the crowd, which was something different than what I’ve seen elsewhere. I’m not necessarily against it, but I thought it was weird that the crowd frequently fell quiet if the DJ wasn’t pumping them up. 

The student section itself was decent, but, and maybe I had too high expectations, it didn’t overwhelm. And, more shockingly to me was being able to visibly see Trojan fans leaving as the game finished. As we made our way down to the field, we fought our way through a horde of departing fans … and they were mostly USC fans. Basically the whole Notre Dame student section stayed to sing the alma mater in losses to Cincinnati, Marshall and Stanford in the last three games. The concept of leaving early barely exists among the Irish fanbase — and definitely not in one of the biggest games of the season. To be fair, maybe I’d be annoyed too if my band could only play one song, but that’s a rant for another time. But hey, cute yellow capes. 

Once the game and the subsequent writing was over, we departed and finally made the obligatory In-N-Out stop on our way back to the hotel. I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out the pair of enthusiastic USC fans who saw the USC logo on my press credential and gave us an earnest “Fight on!” as we enjoyed our burger. We then got to hear a little more about Caleb Williams’ brilliance, as we hadn’t quite seen it enough all night. 

Our Sunday was uneventful, with a smooth plane ride back. Certain members of our traveling party got Panda Express at our gate (“It’s 11 a.m. on the East Coast!”) which I can’t condone in good conscience, but to each their own. Other than that, I happily turned in my keys to the rental and said good bye to Los Angeles driving. ‘Til we meet again — maybe I’ll try the Dodge Charger next time.

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