The Whiteout at Penn State is a relatively new tradition that was created in 2004 during what many call the “dark years” – when Penn State Football was not very competitive. They had just come off a 3-9 record – their third losing season in the previous four years. Considering they had only one losing season in the previous 60+ years, you could understand why then Coach Joe Paterno was constantly criticized by some that he was too old and the game had passed him by. The marketing team needed a way to get the fans more engaged.
Much has been documented about the now annual gathering that creates the best atmosphere in all sports – but it’s hard to NOT write about this incredible event.
Beaver Stadium is the second largest stadium in the country and on seven Saturdays each year, it doubles as the fourth largest city in Pennsylvania, behind Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Allentown. You would think that alone would make any gameday special. But it doesn’t. Just look at the other large stadiums in the country. Even though they pack in 100,000+ fans, it doesn’t generate the unique spectacle that is “The Whiteout”.
Over the years, The Whiteout was reserved for Penn State’s most significant anticipated matchup of the year. In most years, this meant Big Ten foes Ohio State or Michigan. Detractors scoff at the Whiteout due to the fact that before this year, the Lions were 8-8 in these special games. Their logic would seem to be that you should win every Whiteout game. What they fail to admit is that the opponent for these matchups is usually ranked nationally. This isn’t like high school homecoming where you pick the game that you know you’ll beat your opponent so your alumni and fans will feel good.
No. This is a game that you need every possible advantage to help the team overcome a tough opponent. In fact, only three times in its history has the opponent NOT been ranked coming into the game. And on almost half of the games, the opponent was ranked in the Top 10 Nationally. Another interesting stat is that in years in which their opponent finished in the Top 10, Penn State was 3-5 in Whiteout games. Not bad considering the strength of their opponent. There’s only so much a crowd can do for the team.
Truth is, in normal conditions, home field advantage is worth 3 points to oddsmakers, but Urban Meyer, the former Ohio State coach, said last year that he believed that the Whiteout bumped that number to 10 points. Not bad.
Only two other non-conference opponents through the years had the “honor” of being invited to a Whiteout – Notre Dame in 2007, and Alabama in 2011. Penn State went 1-1 in those games, beating ND 31-10, but losing to the eventual National Champion Tide, 27-11.2021 presented a unique challenge to the marketing team at Penn State. Fearing they’d dilute the value of the Whiteout by having more than one per year, do they call for the Whiteout against an SEC blueblood or do they remain true to the B1G, as they had for the past eight years and name Michigan again? They decided to select Auburn as the Whiteout and Michigan a “Student Section Whiteout”. I’m sure Harbaugh will use that slight as motivation for the Wolverines, but my guess is that the 90,000 non-students will don their whites as well. Fear not Jim.
Setting a 7am alarm for a 7:30pm kickoff might seem a bit overenthusiastic, but I can assure you that a Whiteout isn’t just about the 3-1/2 hours during the game. In fact, tailgate lots were scheduled to open at 8:00am. We were up and out early – so early that the fog was still settled in around Happy Valley.
Our first stop would be to check out ESPN’s Gameday atmosphere that was set up on the Old Main Lawn. This year marked the fifth straight year that Gameday would be in Happy Valley – something no other college town can claim! Clearly, the “monochromatic mayhem” that Chris Fowler coined is a sure-bet for TV ratings for the unofficial home of college football.
It should also be noted that the signs you see so prominently displayed during Gameday have been attributed, by Kirk Herbstreit, as starting at Penn State years ago. Sure, a guy in Lincoln might have been the first to hold a sign, but the Penn State students took it to a whole new level and the tradition contnues..
While it would be considered a decent crowd for many schools, the young Lions were sleeping in after a late night of studying. Either that or they were all out getting COVID tested or vaccinated before the big game.
After a quick stop to check out the crowd, we popped into Sowers Harvest Cafe for breakfast, a hidden gem in town. If you haven’t been there, check it out. It’s run by Mennonites and offers some of the best “quick-serve” breakfasts and coffees in State College.
When you’re in State College, shopping along College Ave is a must. You can get anything and everything Penn State – from clothes to housewares. Before long, it was back to Old Main for Gameday to see the celebrity guest picker and the final hour.
ESPN had their choice of options for guest picker this weekend with many fan-favorite alum in town for the key matchup – including Michael Mauti. Mauti, along with Matt McGloin and Michael Zordich were the core vocal leaders that kept the 2011 team together during the Sandusky scandal. Their leadership earned the entire team a spot on the wall of fame in Beaver Stadium. All of the men were in town for the premiere of a new documentary about the team, Saving the Roar, available via streaming.
Check out the trailer here…
With the studying, COVID tests and vaccinations behind them, the students showed up in force for the entrance of the “celebrity guest picker”, Saquon Barkley. Barkley would not normally be available for a Saturday night game but since his Giants played (and lost a heartbreaker) on Thursday night, he was able to come “home” to a warm welcome.
The crowd grew to the point where it was easily one of the largest to attend a Gameday set. While many claim to have the largest crowds, it’s difficult to measure. TV viewers however, are not as difficult to measure. ESPN’s ratings for the show indicated that it was the most-watched Gameday since Rivalry Week 2019 and the final hour drew over 2.4 million viewers. Football is back!
The show comes to a close as Lee Corso makes his pick in dramatic fashion and puts on the “headgear” of his choice. Today, with the Lions a 6.5 point favorite, it was expected that he would select the home team and he didn’t disappoint – but not before bringing up Penn State’s recent record against the SEC. Regardless, the crowd went wild!
The end of Gameday at noon means one thing – the official start of tailgating! As the hosts get swept away in golf carts, the attendees take their final pictures and make their way towards the stadium and tailgate lots – with only 7:30 hours until kickoff.
WALK THROUGH CAMPUS
Walking the 1.3 miles through the middle of campus on a gorgeous game day is something special. Everyone’s smiling, joking and laughing. Happy. They are all anticipating a full day of tailgating with the greatest spectacle in sports awaiting as night falls.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made this gameday trek across campus in the rain, sleet, snow or cold, but with wispy clouds overhead, it just screams “welcome back”!
You could tell early on that the Auburn fans would be there in force. And who could blame them? With only the second non-conference opponent to ever witness the the Whiteout in person, I’d be mortgaging the house to make that trip and witness what many in college football have on their “bucket list”. And to see your team in the matchup, sign me up!
Before the game, however, many of their fans got word to hit up the Creamery – a welcomed treat on this warm afternoon. The line looked pretty long, in part to the number of people they let inside at a time due to COVID restrictions, but it does move very fast.
Regardless, we made our stop last night and now have a new favorite flavor – Crazy Charlie.
And of course, the freshmen in East Halls were welcoming Bo Nix and the Auburn faithful with their infamous sticky note window signs. Some Auburn fans must have loved the messages so much they decided to capture the messages on their phones.
Did I mentioned the weather today was spectacular? Mount Nittany was showing off her green dress before she changes. Soon, the leaves will turn and the campus will explode in full colors before winter sets in. While I love the fall in Happy Valley, let’s just say I’m glad we were there earlier in the season as opposed to later.
Approaching the stadium, the excitement builds. You start to see tailgaters camped out under trees and in the lots across from the stadium. Still 7 hours before kickoff and the place is buzzing.
On the way in, we passed an incredible chalk artist, Erik Greenawalt, aka “The Chalking Dad”, as he created his artwork in real time along Curtain Rd.
As we continued past the stadium and towards one of our tailgates, we ran into the guest picker, recent grad, and instant PSU legend, Saquon Barkley (check out his 26 earring). He and his entourage were making their way to another tailgate but he happily obliged a selfie request. Yes, that’s my hat in the lower right hand corner of the screen. And yes, he was on the sidewalk and I was on the street. Clearly, I need to work on my selfie skills.
There’s just something about tailgates at Penn State. The huge areas of grass surrounding the stadium are covered with cars and RVs. It was such a different experience at Madison two weeks ago and ASU last week. Yes, every college has tailgates, but few rival what Penn State has to offer. The vast majority of the numbered lots pictured below are grass fields.
Our first stop was in Lot 21, the Preferred RV Lot to meet up with some of our daughter’s friends and their family.
And this is just one of the lots! Nothing beats tailgating on grass. NOTHING! Well, in this weather anyway 😉
While Lot 39 and the Overnight RV (ORV) Lot above are about a 10 minute walk to the stadium, some get to tailgate in the shadow of the scoreboard.
Our second stop was in the reserved area known as “The Tailgate Guys”. The Tailgate Guys allow you to reserve a spot close to the stadium where they do a lot of the work for you. They supply the tents, tables, chairs and coolers loaded with ice. You supply the food and bev – or have it catered directly to your spot. This works out well for our friends from Arizona that that fly in for games and don’t have the ability to set up their own tailgate. Coincidentally, the company actually started in Auburn. Genius!
Our third and final stop was in Lot 41, directly south of the stadium. Our friends from Scranton have a couple of spots just steps from the stadium across from Nittanyville – the place where hundreds of students camped out all week in order to secure front row seats for the game. Check out the post below to get a sneak peak at how the campers keep themselves entertained all week.
This tailgate location is perfect since they are set up along the route for Bus Arrival – the celebrated entrance of the team.
The crowd swells two hours before kickoff as the team makes their way down the gauntlet of fans, led by the Penn State Blue Band. The captains usually hand out footballs to some of the young fans as the Nittany Lion fires up the crowd – as if they need it tonight!
For many regular games, you’d have plenty of time to continue tailgating after Bus Arrival, but with the Whiteout, they suggest you get into the stadium at least an hour before kickoff to take in the atmosphere. We had just enough time to go back to the tailgate and down an Alabama Slammer before heading into the stadium early – avoiding the crowds at entry.
The concourse of the stadium provides another perspective of the surrounding area. Trees cover the tailgate lots and a rainbow pops through. A sign of good things to come?
Beaver Stadium is often referred to as an “erector set” – and you can clearly see why in this photo. The stadium opened up for the 1960 season. Now 61 years old, it’s showing its age even after numerous renovation and expansion projects.
Once at our seats, a full 35 minutes before kickoff, the sunset provides an awesome backdrop for the crowd. The place is packed – especially the student section (the left end zone around to the 5 yard line). Rarely, if ever, have I seen it this full this early.
The Goodyear Blimp is floating above so you know it’s a special event tonight.
Finally, after a day of pregame activities, the Blue Band takes the field at 7:26pm. There’s a superstition that if the Drum Major sticks both flips, the Lions will win. Will the pressure get to the first year Drum Major? Watch until the end…
Once the Blue Band takes the field, they perform the Alma Mater and a few of the fight songs to get the crowd fired up. A fan favorite is the “Floating Lion”.
With the performance behind them, the Blue Band lines up creating a path for the team to come through as they enter the raucous stadium.
Throughout the game, the fans stayed engaged. It didn’t hurt that the score was tight the entire time.
The officiating was beyond sketchy. The agreement for this home-and-home series called for the visiting team to bring their conference officials. There were numerous questionable calls throughout the game – all of which seemed to go against the Lions.
One egregious call was early in the second quarter. Penn State was forced to punt on 3rd Down after the SEC refs inexplicably lost track of the downs. Penn State argued but was unsuccessful. The officials actually reconfirmed to the crowd that it was fourth down when in fact it was only third down. This was on the same series that they also inexplicable called intentional grounding on a broken route.
After the punt, Blakeway Panoramas set up for another gigapixel photo.
Zooming in, you can see the look of bewilderment on the Penn State sidelines and what looks to be a very confused Referee.
Then, shortly after the second half kickoff, Auburn turned the ball over and Penn State capitalized, scoring a touchdown and extending their lead 21-10. During the TV timeout, the place was electric!
During the game, they introduced the Honorary Captain for today’s game, Adam Taliaferro. Adam played for Penn State and was paralyzed during a game at Ohio State in 2001. Through the care of his medical team, Adam was able to walk back out onto Beaver Stadium a year later. Today, Adam holds a law degree and serves on the New Jersey General Assembly. He was also a PSU Trustee from 2012-2015. Needless to say, he received a very warm welcome!
Early in the 4th quarter, it was announced that 109,958 fans were in attendance! If you can believe it, it was only good enough for tenth on the all-time attendance list for Penn State. The record is 110,889 during the Whiteout game against Ohio State in 2018 followed closely by #2 at 110,823 for the 2017 Michigan game – two games which I was thrilled to be able to attend.
In the end, the Lions held on to notch their 3rd straight win this season. After a tough, gutsy road win against Wisconsin in Week 1 and easily dispatching the reigning MAC Champions, Ball St in Week 2, Penn State’s defense contained Auburn’s league-leading scoring offense to remain unbeaten. What’s even more amazing it that last year, Penn State didn’t pick up its 3rd win until December 12th! What a turnaround!
After the final whistle, the Penn State faithful stayed in the stands to savor the win. The combination of gorgeous night, big win and 109,000 of your friends back together again had the fans celebrating long after the teams had gone to the locker rooms.
I’ve said this time and time again. If you’re a fan of college football, you should to get to a Whiteout. If your team is playing in the Whiteout, there’s no question. Just do it. Make it a priority. And remember, a Whiteout isn’t just the game, but the entire weekend. The town starts buzzing Thursday night when they open the RV lots and doesn’t stop until Sunday morning.
A QUIET SUNDAY
The next morning, we drove through campus one more time before heading back to Pittsburgh for our flight. Not a soul in sight. Hard to imagine these streets were covered with fans less than 12 hours ago.
Another incredible trip to Happy Valley and The Whiteout. The place never gets old and memories continue to build.