KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The Montana Grizzles turned left on Philip Fullmer way, motored past Peyton Manning Pass - which points at the statue of General Robert Reese Neyland - and made another left down Tee Martin Drive.

Then they filed off three buses and around the roped-off, checkerboard-painted end zones onto the field at Neyland Stadium.

It's a stadium that held 3,200 fans when it first opened (it was named Shields-Watkins Field) in 1921 and expanded to 6,800 in 1926 and then 17,860 in 1930 and kept going until now, after a recent trade-off of seats for suites, it holds 102,455.

"I knew it'd be big, but not this big," said left tackle Jon Opperud, as the Grizzlies prepared for their Friday afternoon walk-through.

It's the third-largest stadium in college football behind Michigan Stadium and Penn State's Beaver Stadium, and it's been home to five national championship teams - four coached by Neyland and another by Fullmer, in 1998.

Forty-three NFL first-round draft choices made cuts on the pitch, which was artificial turf from 1968-93 but now is perfect Bermuda hybrid grass.

Reggie White, Manning, Al Wilson and Johnny Majors all played here and are immortalized in the stadium.

"It's kind of eerie," said UM kicker Brody McKnight.

But the Griz have to forget about all of this by 4:07 p.m. Mountain Time Saturday. They're playing up a level, and it'll be tough enough without being in awe of the surroundings.

"That's what it comes down to," said Opperud. "We still have to approach it like every other game. It's just going to be in front of a lot more fans, and that's really the only difference. They're a bunch of warm bodies in jerseys just like we are."

"We need to realize this is a business trip; this is no vacation," said defensive end Ryan Fetherston, who'll wear the legendary No. 37 jersey for the Grizzlies on Saturday. "We're not here to just have fun. We have to come play the game, and I think everybody realizes they have the stadium and they have the players, but we've got heart too.

"We'll see how it comes out Saturday."

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247 or at fneighbor@missoulian.com.

 

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