Flip Week: Penn State

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
10:30
AM ET
Editor's note: During Week 12, 10 ESPN.com reporters changed conferences to experience college football in unfamiliar territory. Here is what they learned from the experience.

One of my best friends in Oklahoma City is a Penn State grad who moved to the Sooner State a couple of years ago. Since we met, she’s always talked about how special a place Penn State is.

As fate would have it, my Flip Week assignment happened to be State College, Pa., which gave me the chance to inspect firsthand whether she’s been telling the truth.

Turned out, she was.

My visit to Penn State exceeded even the expectation she set for me. The food was great. The people were even better. And the experience was a memorable one.

Below is an overview of my trip to a place I hope to return to someday soon:

(Me eating a Penn State mooseburger)
Best meal: Does this have to be an actual meal? The best thing I ate in State College was a grilled sticky from Ye Olde College Diner. The grilled stickies are akin to cinnamon rolls, only more delicious. ESPN.com Penn State reporter Josh Moyer gave me the sage advice of ordering it a la mode (with ice cream). Add in a cup of black coffee, and it was tremendous. So tremendous I ordered a to-go box to take to the tailgate I had been invited to the next day. And I learned, there’s no better way to win over a group of Penn State strangers than a box of grilled stickies from Ye Olde College Diner.

Must-see sight in State College: The heartbeat of the Penn State football experience is the tailgate. Before every game, tens of thousands descend to the parking lots and fields outside Beaver Stadium for pregame camaraderie. As several tailgaters explained to me, the Penn State tailgate is a way for family and friends who might not live close to one another to reconnect, which is difficult to do during the actual game. The tailgating doesn’t end when the final whistle blows, either. Floodlights outside the stadium are kept on hours after the game, so the tailgates -- and the reunions -- can carry on into the night.

Biggest surprise: Despite everything that has happened the last couple of years, the school spirit at Penn State couldn’t be stronger. Students camped out for the best seats the night before, even though the opponent was Purdue. Downtown State College was hopping the night before the game. Penn State bumper stickers lined the highway all the way back to the airport I flew into (Pittsburgh). I couldn't detect any malaise on campus, and thanks in large part to coach Bill O’Brien, there is an infusing optimism that Penn State will be back on top before long. That’s saying a lot, considering the program was on the brink of decimation just a year ago.

Biggest difference from Big 12: The fans in the Big 12 are great. The student sections are great, too. But I'm not sure any students in the Big 12 would camp out in 30-degree weather the night before to get tickets for a game featuring an opponent the caliber of Purdue. In fact, I’ve seen many student sections in the Big 12 with empty seats under similar circumstances. Not only was the student section at Penn State overflowing, but it was boisterous the entire day. I’m not sure I’ve seen a student section live or die on every single play in a game that was never really in doubt.

They said it: “In this state, the one thing you have to do before you die is go to a Penn State tailgate.” – Penn State fan Luigi Puglia

If I could go back: I would take in more of the State College nightlife and the Penn State campus. Because I was on official assignment, I avoided State College staples such as Otto’s Pub and Brewery and the American Ale House & Grill, but both came highly recommended. Because my itinerary was crammed, I didn’t have a chance to just walk around the Penn State campus and go through buildings like the Hub, either. Apparently, there’s a mule skeleton on display there.

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