With 15 spring practices and two public sessions in Beaver Stadium behind it, Penn State’s football team is already halfway through its 2021 offseason.
It has been 129 days since Penn State’s last game (that 56-21 “Championship Week” blowout of Illinois on December 19) and it is 130 days until its next one (September 4 against Wisconsin in Madison).
Things are not back to normal for the Nittany Lions, but every day they are getting closer. The open practices with “crowds” of 7,521 last Saturday and 3,815 on Friday night are proof of that.
A big part of that “normal” this fall will be inside Beaver Stadium.
Last Saturday’s #7.5k was the largest group of fans in Beaver Stadium since 98,895 witnessed the final game of the 2019 season, a 27-6 win over Rutgers on November 30, engineered by the since-departed Will Levis. (The Lion-turned-Wildcat had 17 rushes for 108 yards and completed 8 of 14 passes for 81 yards that day.)
It’s a far cry from the 61,000 who packed Beaver Stadium for the Blue-White Game in 2019. Or the regular-season 110,000 that head coach James Franklin passionately Tweets for and also effectively uses as a recruiting tool.
And it is better than the paltry, pandemic-limited few hundreds who populated Beaver Stadium home games last December.
But, it was still quite quiet, almost sadly so, for both of the recent practice sessions despite the presence of the Blue Band, Dean DeVore’s enthusiasm and the musical stylings of DJ PJ Mullen, which only accentuated the echoes of Beaver Stadium past.
The small subset of PSU fans on-hand was not even close to the 47,218 that Alabama recently had for its A-Day spring game in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. (The game also drew 547,000 TV viewers — the most for a college football spring game since 2016 and the third-most since 2010. Alabama’s 2021 game saw a 96% viewership increase from its 2019 spring contest on ESPN2.)
Franklin, a benchmarking enthusiast, took notice of those numbers.
“One of the challenges we have is, we’re recruiting guys that want to come to our spring game and who are going down South,” Franklin said two weeks ago.
“One kid we’re recruiting here in the state of Pennsylvania, he’s going down South, and you would never even know that there was a pandemic,” he added. “They’re having a wide-open spring game with fans and full capacity and everything else. He’s going to go get that experience. Obviously we’d love to be able to provide a similar type of experience. But I do think (practice with limited fans) is a step in the right direction. We’re appreciative of that.”
We’re not just talking about the South, either.
Ohio State had about 20,000 fans, most of them paid (students were free), for its spring scrimmage, which was broadcast on the Big Ten Network. And this coming Saturday, Nebraska is expected to draw about 43,000 fans for its Red-White spring game, capped at 50% capacity of Memorial Stadium, with tickets costing $10. (I betcha Sandy Barbour could use scrimmage petty cash like that.) BTN will broadcast the scrimmage.
LEAVE IT TO BEAVER
A Beaver Stadium filled with fans means many things — a rousing home field advantage, nearly $40 million in ticket revenue for a full regular-season slate, several millions more in seat licenses, and a recruiting advantage matched by almost no one in college football.
Take Friday night. Please. Among a handful of recruits who watched the practice from the Beaver Stadium lower bowl masked up — and then got a post-game hand-slap from Franklin as he circled the stadium — was running back Nicholas Singleton of Governor Mifflin High School in Berks County. Singleton, who ran for over 3,000 yards and 54 TDs in two high school seasons, would be a prime catch for Penn State’s already seventh-ranked 2022 recruiting class. Being there in person matters.
“Being back in the stadium was a real positive for us and we’ll build on that,” Franklin said last week. “Being in that stadium felt great. I can’t imagine what it would mean to get back to what we’ve been averaging the two years before the pandemic, that reaction of 106,000 fans for those two years and whatever we have to do to get that stadium back full. That’s for our community. That’s for state of Pennsylvania. That’s for our university. That’s for the athletic department and obviously, that’s for our football program.”
After traveling to Madison for the season-opener, Penn State will be at home for four consecutive weeks to open the 2021 season. The home opener is against Ball State (September 11), followed by Auburn, Villanova and Indiana.
No decisions have been announced regarding stadium capacity this fall, but a visitor like Auburn from the SEC will surely be a tough ticket. It is not unrealistic that state mandates — now permitting only 50% occupancy for outdoor sporting events in Pennsylvania — will be eased or maybe even erased, resulting in the possibility of a record. (The largest Beaver Stadium crowd was 110,889 for Ohio State in 2018.)
Auburn opens its 2021 season with home games against Akron and Alabama State, and will be playing under new head coach Bryan Harson, formerly of Boise State, where he was 69-19. So, it’s likely that when it comes to University Park for the first time ever, Auburn will be 2-0 and the first Top 25 ranked non-conference opponent to play in Beaver Stadium since No. 3 Alabama in 2011.
Ball State isn’t an easy out, however. Ball State won the MAC last season, finishing 7-1 and ranked No. 23 nationally. BSU is slated to welcome back 20 starters, and 16 seniors from its team are returning to take advantage of the additional year of eligibility being offered by the NCAA.
All Indiana, which has improved steadily under Tom Allen, did in 2020 was go 6-2 overall (6-1 in the Big Ten), nip Penn State in The Pylon Game and finish No. 12 in the final AP Poll.
Other Penn State home games are against Illinois, Michigan and Rutgers.
Home field matters. Especially at Penn State.
The Nittany Lions were 2-3 san fans at home last season, losing to Ohio State, Maryland and Iowa. Prior to that, Penn State had a stellar Beaver Stadium string of success, going 26-2 from 2016 to 2019, with 7-0 records in 2016-17-19. The only two losses came in back-to-back contests in 2018, in a one-point loss to Ohio State (The Good, Great, Elite Bowl) and a four-point loss to Michigan State.
PENN STATE NOVICES
A good bit of the Penn State coaching staff and 2021 roster didn’t experience any of that first-hand, so back-to-back Ball State and Auburn may be an awakening that requires some adjustment.
Franklin hired three new assistants in the run-up to the 2020 season — Phil Trautwein, Taylor Stubblefield and John Scott. Their experience coaching in Beaver Stadium last fall was not anywhere close to normal. Two of Franklin’s newest trio of assistant coaches — Mike Yurcich and Anthony Pointdexter — have never coached in Beaver Stadium. However, new tight ends coach Ty Howle, a former Nittany Lion offensive lineman, has the unique experience of playing 47 games for the Nittany Lions in 2009-13 — over half in Beaver Stadium.
Like Howle, Stubblefield has played in the stadium. As an All-American receiver for Purdue in 2004, Stubblefield caught seven passes for 64 yards, including a TD toss from Kyle Orton, in ninth-ranked Purdue’s 20-13 victory over Penn State. (Beaver Stadium attendance: 108,183.)
The same goes for many of the Penn State’s younger players.
Using the 2021 spring media guide for reference and including transfers and incoming freshmen, I counted 52 players who will be on the Penn State roster in fall 2021 who have never played before a normal Beaver Stadium crowd.
Of that group, 24 have never played in a regular-season game in Beaver Stadium — 16 scholarship freshmen, five scholarship transfers and three preferred walk-ons.
Another 28 were on the Penn State roster in 2020, but the Beaver Stadium they experienced was anything but normal.
That, finally, changes in 137 days.