The ultimate Wisconsin football fan's road trip

October 19, 2016

Sometimes bar-room bluster turns into the best ideas.

A few months ago, in a bar in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, the late-night conversation turned to sports. Ron Doron, proprietor of TheDriversSeat.TV and a devout Dallas Cowboys fan, said he'd love to see a Green Bay Packers game at Lambeau Field. Harvey Briggs of RidesandDrives.com had a line on tickets and said he could make that happen. We checked the schedule, and saw that the Packers were playing the Cowboys at Lambeau on October 16. Better yet, the Wisconsin Badgers were hosting The Ohio State Buckeyes on the 15th. A public relations rep from Toyota became the fourth member of our party, and thus was born the ultimate Wisconsin football fan's road trip.

As we approached the weekend, the stars aligned to make the road trip even better than we had planned. The Badgers, unranked before the start of the season, had risen all the way up to no. 8 and the Buckeyes, a perennial college football powerhouse, checked in at no. 2. The Packers started the season 3-1, while the Cowboys, under the direction of rookie Dak Prescott, were a surprise at 4-1. These were the two marquee matchups of the weekend and we would be on hand for both.

Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

Road trip choices

I had three choices of Toyota Motor Company products from the press fleet for the weekend. I could choose a Lexus RX, a Toyota Highlander, or a Toyota Sienna. I opted for Highlander. The RX would likely be too small for four good-sized dudes and our accompanying tailgating gear. The Sienna would have the most room, but I really don't want to drive a minivan until I have at least two kids. That meant the Highlander was the pick. We could fold down the third row of seats, pack our tailgating essentials back there, and still have enough room for four idiot sports fans.

The vehicle in question was an XLE model ($38,285) with a rear DVD entertainment system ($1,810), the more comfortable second-row captain's chairs ($275), carpeted floor mats and cargo mat ($225), and a $900 destination charge for a total of $41,485.

Armed with the Highlander, the trip began on Saturday morning. Starting from Chicago, I picked up our Toyota rep, Greg Thome, at the Hilton O'Hare, and together we set off to Madison, where we would meet Harvey and pick up Ron from the airport.

Mad time in Madtown

Harvey has lived in Madison since the 1990s and I spent the first 33 years of my life in the Milwaukee area, so we both wanted to give our California friends a taste of Wisconsin. With that in mind, we parked the Highlander about a mile away from Camp Randall Stadium and sought out a college bar where we could mix with the locals and taste the local fare.

We found a pub called The Library and camped out for a couple of hours while introducing our friends to the wonder of fried cheese curds.

After a few barley pops, we headed over to the game, which proved to be as good as the hype. The Badgers were able to run up the gut on the Buckeyes and mix in a few well-timed passes in the first half. However, time and again, Wisconsin settled for field goals instead of touchdowns and went into halftime with a 16-6 lead, despite dominating the first half.

In the second half, Wisconsin had no answer for the quarterback keepers and equally well times throws of J.T. Barrett, and the Buckeyes quickly got back into the game with a third-quarter touchdown. Ohio State then took the lead early in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin fought back, though, forging an 81-yard scoring drive that gave them the lead. Ohio State responded with a 61-yard drive that ended with a field goal and eventually forced overtime.

Barrett was the star again in overtime, finding Noah Brown for a 7-yard touchdown. Wisconsin was able to drive from the 25 to the 4, but that's where Ohio State's run defense held and the Buckeyes won the game.

I may be from Wisconsin, but as an alum of Marquette University, I have only a mild interest in the Badgers. I would have liked to see a win, but I was happy to see a great game.

The Highlander is a fine tailgater

Tailgating isn't big in Madison, but it's a way of life in Green Bay. The next morning, we packed up the Highlander with our tailgating essentials, and headed north. The flat rear load floor and 42.3 cubic feet behind the third row proved to be perfect for our grille, cooler, brats, burgers, and snacks.

The spacious second row, with optional captain's chairs, also meant there wasn't a bad seat for any of the four of us. Each of us had the cupholders, storage trays, and charging outlets we needed for our phones, keys, and other small items. As the guy who did most of the driving, I was especially happy with the little shelf on the dash below the center screen. I used it to hold my wallet, sunglasses, and cell phone. The deep center console also made for good storage space.

ALSO SEE: 2017 Toyota Highlander review

Traveling north on Highway 41, the Highlander's 3.5-liter V-6, which adds 25 horsepower this year for a total of 295, had plenty of guts to move quickly around slower moving trucks. This is an exceptionally smooth engine that works well with its new 8-speed automatic transmission to provide that passing punch.

That pleasant powertrain teams with a smooth, if sometimes wobbly, ride quality that almost never disrupts passenger comfort.

We find the Honda Pilot to be the most user-friendly mid-size SUV, but the Highlander is also very easy to live with when packed with people and their cargo. That's a good reason for families--or professional tailgaters--to buy the Highlander.

Disappointment on the not-so-frozen tundra

I may not be so interested in the Badgers, but I am a diehard Packers fan, so I was happy to see that this mid-October day in Green Bay turned out to be 75 and sunny. Arriving three hours before game time, we found a very unique parking spot in the backyard of a local resident a block and a half from Lambeau Field. There, with about 20 other carloads, we set up our Weber Q grille, pulled out the chips, popcorn, and beverages, and had ourselves a heck of a tailgate party.

Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

2017 Toyota Highlander, Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

2017 Toyota Highlander, Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

Ultimate Wisconsin football road trip

Come game time it was cool to see the appreciation our two out-of-state fans had for one of sports' all-time cathedrals. The pomp and circumstance included a V-22 Osprey fly-over just prior to kick off and Brett Favre's ring of honor ceremony at half-time. That was it for the good stuff.

The Packers kept things close early, but then the imposter that has been inhabiting Aaron Rodgers body took over, throwing an interception and losing a fumble down near the Cowboys' goal line. Meanwhile, rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott had their way with the Packers, and a quick-strike touchdown drive that started at their own three yard line with less than a minute to go to halftime brought out the boo birds at Lambeau.

With a bad case of fumblitis, the Packers couldn't mount a second-half comeback as I watched dejectedly from the stands. The only thing that could make this worse would be to watch it with a Cowboy fan, which I did.

After the game, we headed back to the Highlander and grilled up some more food as we waited for traffic to clear. The homeowner came out to commiserate with us, and after an hour, we packed up the SUV, and I dropped off each sports fan on my way back to Chicago.

The trip back to Chicago involved some bruised egos, dozing passengers, and rehashing the events of the weekend.

The tally for the trip? A total of 540 miles with an average of 20.6 mpg, three disappointed Packers fans, one happy Cowboys fan, and the memory of a fantastic, if disappointing, Wisconsin sports weekend.

Toyota provided the Highlander for this trip, covered the cost of the Packers tickets, two of the Badgers tickets, and some food and lodging expenses. Nissan picked up the other two Badgers tickets.

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