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Outback Bowl fans mark 'beautiful day for football'

TAMPA — On the way to the stadium, Ashley Kearns blasted the Michigan State fight song.

But her husband, Army 2nd Lt. David Kearns, wore Georgia red for his parents' alma mater.

The Brandon couple clashed Monday over the Outback Bowl as the Michigan State Spartans faced off against the Georgia Bulldogs.

"She has no taste or class," David Kearns, 23, said with a big grin. That earned him a playful slap across the face.

The game drew 49,429 spectators — the third-smallest crowd in the bowl's 25-year history, according to officials.

Played a day later than its typical schedule for New Year's Day, Monday's game capped a week of events in the Tampa Bay area, including a day at Clearwater Beach and a parade in Ybor City.

Well before the 1:08 p.m. kickoff at Raymond James Stadium, fans filled the parking lots with plenty of trash talk over tailgating.

Tailgating, said Georgia alumnus Garrett Garcia, "is a lifestyle. It's a Southern thing."

In Georgia, good weather allows Bulldogs to throw plenty of outdoor barbecues, he said. How, he wondered, could Michigan State supporters and their wintery weather possibly come close to matching that?

"Anyone can tailgate in the sun," scoffed Michigan State fan Jason Kwiatkowski, 33, who lives in St. Pete Beach.

It's suffering through cold and snow to celebrate a football game, he said, that requires true talent.

Car stickers and flags declared each group's allegiance. In the parking lot aisles, people threw footballs and tossed beanbags. They clustered around coolers, folding chairs and tents, setting up tables for booze and firing up grills for special recipes.

The showiest partiers saved spots in their trucks or RVs for mascots: An inflatable Spartan took a stand in front of a Michigan State gathering, while a concrete Bulldog accompanied a Georgia gang.

Fans from both sides agreed the postseason competition seemed more laid back and friendly than most regular-season games.

"This isn't a big rivalry," said 25-year-old Jess Reum, wearing a Michigan State shirt. "It's about a beautiful day to enjoy football."

Still, she had to set straight a Georgia fan who mistakenly called her team Michigan instead of Michigan State. In turn, Georgia fans chuckled when Reum said she expected Southern girls to show up for the game in dresses.

Though some fans flew or drove to Tampa, the Outback Bowl, which Michigan State won 33-30 in three overtimes, also attracted a slew of locals.

Several devoted Florida Gators fans refused to don either team's colors.

"We love being a family, but we can't quite put the red and black on," said Michele Pires, 37, of St. Petersburg. Surrounded by relatives decked out in Georgia gear, Pires and her husband stubbornly dressed in neutral colors.

Under a University of South Florida flag, a crowd played drinking games. For every Outback Bowl, USF matchup or Tampa Bay Buccaneers game, the group brings the same party, said Doug Englehardt, 32, of Tampa.

"I think it's fun no matter what," he said.

Times sports writer Greg Auman contributed to this report. Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

Outback Bowl fans mark 'beautiful day for football' 01/02/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 2, 2012 9:49pm]
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