As SuperFan of the Maize Rage student section at the University of Michigan, I have the opportunity to travel to all of the Michigan football away games and experience what football Saturday means in different parts of the country. This feature will run after each away game this season, detailing the gameday experience for Michigan games outside of Ann Arbor. Previously: UConn.
When Michigan fans travel to different schools to watch the Wolverines play on the road, they regularly have to get used to a much smaller stadium and quieter atmosphere. In Week 4, the Connecticut Huskies broke a Rentschler Field record by packing 42,000 people into the stadium; about 70,000 less than that of a typical Ann Arbor game day.
This weekend was a different story. As the few Wolverine fans trickled into Beaver Stadium they realized that the structure was possibly even more impressive than our very own Big House.
When I first arrived in State College, one of the first things I learned was that this was the biggest game of the season for the Nittany Lions. On Friday night before the game the students were happy to explain their hatred for both Michigan and Ohio State, but it was clear that the night game against the Maize and Blue would be Penn State’s bowl game this year.
Not having been to Penn State since the Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky scandal, I wasn’t sure how touchy of a subject it was among the students. Surprisingly, it was basically the butt of all the jokes. Though our little group in maize never brought the scandal up, we did end up discussing it multiple times throughout the weekend. Penn State students want to prove that they have moved on from the nightmare and won’t let it define them.
Instead, they just want to beat Michigan.
While tailgating before the game on Saturday, Penn State fans made it very clear that Michigan was their main target. An enormous homecoming crowd of almost 108,000 couldn’t have included more than a few thousand Michigan fans. It was easy to pick them out because of the famous Penn State white out.
The white out stands for what separates the Penn State game environment from that of Michigan. During a maize out, Michigan Stadium has one maize section where the students stand and a mixed bag of maize and blue throughout the rest of the bowl. Fans don’t put much stock in participating in the game atmosphere but simply want to watch their team win. It’s tradition.
But in Happy Valley every single fan is ready to cheer like crazy for Penn State from the opening kickoff. The white out was breathtaking. Over 100,000 strong were decked out in all white and shaking white pompoms as Bill O’Brien led his team onto the field. This scene was unlike anything our little group of Michigan students had ever experienced, but we had faith that our undefeated Wolverines would quiet things down.
For much of the second half, we were exactly right.
Michigan came out of halftime with a bang, returning a fumble for a touchdown on Penn State’s first offensive play. A quarter later, the Wolverines were ahead by 10 points with six minutes to go and we were enjoying the eerie silence in the enormous stadium.
Though it has a smaller capacity than the Big House, Beaver Stadium is built entirely above ground and is much more intimidating both inside and outside. Second and third decks keep all of the sound in while reaching up much higher than the final rows in Ann Arbor. If you’re wondering how a structure like this can be safe, you aren’t alone.
Penn State’s famous chant is the Zombie Nation cheer, which gets the entire audience involved in jumping and screaming along. Because it was one of the things I was really looking forward to, I asked our host, a senior at Penn State, about Zombie Nation.
“There’s a new rule that we can only do it two times each game,” he told me. “We were doing structural damage to the stadium so they had to limit us.”
At the suggestion of damaging a concrete structure like Beaver Stadium I was astonished, but when Penn State came back and tied the game with under a minute remaining in regulation, Zombie Nation blared and the back wall of the stadium was visibly wavering back and forth with the Nittany Lion faithful.
It was the most incredible atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of, and I wasn’t even in an appreciative mood. Four overtimes later Michigan had missed easy kicks and taken costly penalties and Penn State was celebrating an unbelievable win.
Following such an emotional win I expected to be mercilessly harassed by the Penn State students all night, but was surprised when they continued a trend set before the game. While migrating toward the stadium for the game, our little group of Michigan fans was welcomed to Happy Valley countless times. Students, alumni and others went out of their way to walk past us and say good luck.
It was extremely strange. We weren’t sure how we felt about the hospitality because it didn’t feel right, but it was much better than being harassed in Columbus or East Lansing. After the game there were fans that laughed and jeered at us, but the number that told us good game probably outnumbered them.
Even though they always seem to beat Michigan in recent years, and they ended our undefeated season, it’s hard to hate Penn State fans because of how cool they were; both when they were sure they would lose and after they had won.
I hope that Michigan fans can learn from the atmosphere that exists within Beaver Stadium. The students lead the charge, but alumni and casual fans set it apart by participating much more than those around other Big Ten schools. Even the younger fans are fully invested in Penn State football, as we found out when a couple of three-year old girls started the “we are” “Penn State” cheer all by themselves from atop an RV after the game.
While I wouldn’t trade game day in Ann Arbor for anything, I do think that Michigan fans can learn from the commitment in Beaver Stadium. Michigan’s tradition and history set it apart, but there is room to make the Big House even better.
Winning on the road is a great feeling, but losing is definitely the worst. Thankfully, the Penn State faithful were bearable after the game, but I still had a bad taste in my mouth after Michigan blew the 10 point lead.
The first loss is one of the hardest each year, but Michigan won’t have to deal with an atmosphere like Penn State’s for the rest of the season.
Losing is never fun, but witnessing a Penn State night game was an incredible sports experience. Hopefully Team 134 can tighten things up and send us home with more road wins in 2013.