'It's definitely going to be weird'
Everyone at Beaver Stadium last October remembers Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh calling a timeout before the first play from scrimmage. Penn State's 'White Out' crowd absolutely forced that moment, which was the first step of a 28-21 victory.
But will it be the same this October, when Penn State hosts Ohio State for what likely will be the annual 'White Out' game? No one knows at this point, as Penn State continues to compile its reopening plan for football.
But several players said that, if required to play in front of smaller crowds, they'll find a way to muster their own atmosphere.
"You always talk about the 12th player, the fans, they're the best," sophomore cornerback Keaton Ellis said. "They really can change a game and change a play, just by their support and by being vocal, so that's definitely going to be a change for us.
"But as far as mindset, I think we're all going to be just as hungry. We'll find something within, find that extra juice that you normally would get from the fans."
Penn State had another strong year for home attendance in 2019, averaging 105,678 fans per game. It was the second-highest season average under coach James Franklin and ranked second nationally behind Michigan (111,459).
It's difficult to envision the 2020 season at Beaver Stadium reaching anywhere near the same attendance levels. Penn State recently surveyed season-ticket holders to gauge their levels of comfort with attending games. The survey didn't address expected crowd sizes, though the responses will help determine that.
Players, meanwhile, seemed to hold realistic expectations about the season. They understand the necessity of limiting attendance at Beaver Stadium. And they know that will affect them.
"It's definitely going to be weird," tight end Pat Freiermuth said. "It's definitely a thought, but if we play in front of no fans, in front of 20,000 fans or in front of 100,000 fans, it's still the game of football. You only need a field and two goalposts to play."
For some players, a sparse Beaver Stadium would remind them of playing in front of small crowds when they were younger. Safety Lamont Wade remembered playing the last game of a long day of youth games and watching parents filter out of the field. Receiver Jahan Dotson said he routinely played in front of maybe 50 people during his year at a New Jersey prep school.
"But we were going out there, going hard and playing the game simply because of how much we loved it," Wade said. "... I love the game, I'm going to play hard regardless, because the film is still going to get sent out. We still want to win, and I've still got to do whatever I have to do for my brothers. So I feel like it's easy, whenever I think about it like that."
For Penn State, crowd limitations could diminish the impact of its home-field advantage, which has been significant under Franklin. Penn State went unbeaten at home in 2019 for the third time in four years. The Lions have won 10 consecutive games at Beaver Stadium and 31 of their last 34.
With smaller crowds, players said they'll simply have to find inspiration elsewhere.
"Of course the atmosphere and the home-field advantage would be taken out, but that's when you have to find the inner motivation and get the job done," cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said. "If that's what we need to do to be the best team and win the most games, then that's what we have to do."
Added Freiermuth, "If you really love the game of football, you're going to play it regardless. I would just be grateful to go out there and play in Beaver Stadium one more time, with or without fans. I think most of the guys would say that, too."