Penn State football ready to embrace benefits — and challenges — of return to full crowds

JON SAUBER
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
The Penn State football team is expected to play in front of packed crowds at Beaver Stadium this season.

It's been nearly 20 months since Penn State football played in front of a Beaver Stadium crowd — or in front of a full-capacity away crowd for that matter.

The Nittany Lions played all of the 2020 season in front of — at most — friends and family. The lack of fans in the stands didn't go unnoticed by the players last season. The program faced many issues on the field in 2020 but the lack of a full crowd had its own impact.

The 2020 season started with five straight losses for Penn State, including three games at home. Defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher and his Nittany Lion teammates are fully prepared to get back into Beaver Stadium with the team's raucous crowd at their back — and even to head on the road to play in front of away crowds.

"I think every moment we're in front of fans this year is going to be crazy," Mustipher said. "We were robbed of that last year, we didn't have that. Being at Penn State, you play in front of 107k-110k each week. When you go in the stadium and nobody is there, it's much different. It definitely has an effect because that's not what we're used to. It's definitely going to be huge having all of those fans back."

Teams like Penn State frequently begin their seasons with lower-level opponents to ease into the season with a win and to get their feet wet before taking on big-time opponents and dealing with the big-time crowds they're used to seeing.

Badgers up first: Instead, the team is set to take on one of its most difficult season openers in recent memory with a matchup against the Wisconsin Badgers in front of one of the most hostile crowds in the nation.

The Badgers are the favorites to win the Big Ten West this season and have one of the best rushing attacks in the country. Now, unlike in 2020, they'll also have their fans packed into Camp Randall Stadium for a "stripe out" in the season opener. A Big Ten opponent is tough enough to open a season against, but Wisconsin takes that difficulty to another level. In fact, it's caused Penn State to mentally lock in even more for the start of the season.

"Obviously, challenging schedule opening up on the road against Wisconsin, a team that we have tremendous respect for as an organization, as a university, tremendous history and tradition," Penn State head coach James Franklin said. "So that will be a great challenge to open the season. ... We have had a countdown clock going on in our facility like we do every single year, but I must admit, having Wisconsin's logo up there, I think has really kind of raised the standard for our guys and they understand we better be ready to go, come the first kick of the first game of the season against a tremendous opponent."

The matchup will gather plenty of attention across the conference and has changed things for Penn State's opponent, too. Wisconsin cornerback Faion Hicks knows the difficulties that come with facing that type of opponent early in the season, but he's ready.

"We always look forward to big games," Hicks said. "Penn State is definitely an exciting game, the fans are going to be excited. It's going to be a nice atmosphere. ... It definitely adds a little more fuel to the fire and kind of gets your mind right. ... The fact that our fans couldn't come for a whole year, I'm pretty sure it'll make it even more crazy. I'm looking forward to it."

Return to normalcy: While that game with Wisconsin looms, the thought of playing in front of fans, home or away, is a significant sign of a return to normalcy for the Nittany Lions.

Senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, who decided to forgo the 2021 NFL Draft and return to Penn State because he didn't want to end his Nittany Lions career 4-5, doesn't plan on taking that for granted.

"It's been a while," Castro-Fields said. "Last year, we just played in front of our parents. Of course, I'm happy to play in front of my mom and stuff, but 107k is unmatched. Y'all know that. I can't wait."