Chris Fowler remembers when Beaver Stadium was a snoozy place for college football.
The ESPN broadcaster, who will work the Ohio State-Penn State game on ABC, spent a lot of his boyhood autumn Saturdays in the stadium.
“My formative years in college football were spent in State College,” Fowler told The Dispatch on Wednesday. “My dad was a professor there. So very dull Penn State teams in the mid-‘70s were my first exposure to the sport.”Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
By then, Joe Paterno had built Penn State into a power as an independent. But it was very much a sit-on-your-hands crowd, a stark contrast to the frenzied White Out crowd of 107,000 that awaits No. 4 Ohio State against the No. 9 Nittany Lions.
“It was a very passive crowd,” Fowler said. “It’s a whole different animal than it was in eras past.”
The first White Out was in 2004, created by Penn State’s former director of communications and branding Guido D’Elia. It has grown into one of Penn State’s signatures.>>Read more: Get more Gameday news at BuckeyeExtra.com/topics/Gameday
“All of a sudden,” Fowler said, “the students taught the older fans how to be a factor in the game, how to make it difficult for opponent, because it was a very quiet, passive crowd. It took a whole lot to get them to put their hands together, much less get them on their feet.”
Ohio State is used to being Penn State’s designated White Out opponent, just as the Buckeyes are used to getting every opponent’s best shot, especially under coach Urban Meyer. In 2014, Ohio State squandered a 17-0 halftime lead after quarterback J.T. Barrett injured his knee and needed double overtime to win. It was a turning point in a season that culminated with the College Football Playoff championship.
Two years ago, the Buckeyes seemed to be in control of the game before a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown won it for Penn State.
This game features the country’s top two scoring offenses, with Penn State averaging 55.5 points and Ohio State 54.5. But both numbers might be deceiving. The Nittany Lions’ previous opponents — Appalachian State, Pittsburgh, Kent State and Illinois — are hardly a murderer’s row. Ohio State’s starters have played deep into the second half only once, against TCU, because the Buckeyes have been so far ahead at halftime.
For several Ohio State players, this will be the first time playing in a truly hostile environment. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. rallied the Buckeyes last year past Michigan in Ann Arbor, but he didn’t have a week of buildup for that.
“That’s a very different deal,” Fowler said. “He did great there. Talking to Dwayne, he told me he’d never been nervous for a game since his sophomore year of high school. Urban kind of laughed at that when I shared that.”
Haskins has been superb this season, and Fowler believes that his demeanor and passing accuracy should help him combat what he’ll face on the field and with the crowd.
“He’s a pretty chilled guy, so he has the right emotional makeup to deal with this,” Fowler said. “But it’s still uncharted territory. That’s the beauty of sport and what’s fun about college football somewhat early in the season. These are firsts. The first time on the road (vs. TCU), OK, they handled it well, but that was a pro-Ohio State crowd in Arlington. This is definitely not.”
The crowd energizes Penn State and also makes it difficult to function for opponents, particularly regarding communication on offense.
“When you’re deprived of one of your senses — in this case, hearing — it can be challenging,” Fowler said. “It can be disorienting. You cannot be yourself. It basically starts with the noise.”
The Buckeyes have practiced against piped-in noise all week. Their veterans can share their experiences with younger teammates. But nothing can quite prepare them. That’s why it’s so important for the Buckeyes to play well enough from the start to minimize the effect of the White Out crowd.
Meyer has repeatedly described the Penn State atmosphere as one of the top five in college football. But when asked if he liked playing there, he gave a puzzled look.
“I think that’s what makes college football great,” he said. “Do I like it? I like it if we find a way to win.”