Illinois football anticipates White Out atmosphere

Juice Williams (7) narrowly escapes this sack in the away game against Penn State, Oct. 21, 2006. Although Juice escaped this one, he was sacked 6 times in the game, which Penn State won 26-12. Erica Magda

By Wes Anderson

Apparently, at Penn State, wearing white after Labor Day is encouraged.

When Saturday’s opening kickoff sails into the night sky, a sea of white-clad fans will engulf Beaver Stadium. This year’s Penn State-Illinois game has been declared the year’s “White Out game”, in which all Lions fans are requested to wear their freshly bleached apparel to the sold-out stadium.

The intensity and emotion the Illini seemingly lacked two weeks ago will be waiting for them in Pennsylvania.

“Everybody’s amped up about it,” defensive lineman Will Davis said. “We went there a long time ago, and that was the hypest game I’ve played in.”

The move only underscores a sweeping change in the dynamic of the rivalry between the two schools in the last few seasons. It has never happened in program history, but an Illini win in Happy Valley will be a very real possibility this weekend.

Last season’s shocking upset at Memorial Stadium still lingers, a game which served as a springboard for the Illini’s Rose Bowl season, and it all but dashed the Nittany Lions’ hopes of a Big Ten title.

Suddenly, what was once little more than a conference schedule afterthought has become one of the week’s most anticipated matchups. Unlike two years ago, when the Illini played in the afternoon, the game will be played at night on national television.

“Those are the atmospheres that are fun to play in. You’ve got 107,000 of your best friends,” head coach Ron Zook said. “You just have to circle the wagons, play as a group and try to use some of their energy.”

Linebacker Brit Miller said playing in hostile environments at some of the nation’s largest venues like Penn State is partly why he came to Illinois.

“It’s something that they bring to the atmosphere of football, and that’s what makes their games a lot of fun to go there,” Miller said.

Since its inception in 2004, the White Out has quickly become a Penn State football tradition in the year’s most prolific regular season matchup. After similar “Code Blue” events failed to catch on, the PSU athletic department created the White Out when Kyle Orton and Purdue came to town four years ago. At that point, only the student section was told to wear all white, although Beaver Stadium’s student section is more than 20,000 strong.

The Boilermakers still won the game 20-13, but the tradition stuck. The White Out was used in a win against Ohio State in 2005, and has since been repeated against Michigan in 2006 and Notre Dame in 2007. Now, add Illinois to the list.

“I’m trying to tell these freshmen, ‘You know, it gets loud there,'” Miller said.

The notion that Penn State would need to take a visit from Illinois so seriously would be unthinkable three years ago.

In that 2005 season, the Illini played host to Penn State in what quickly became a nightmarish homecoming game. Although the Illini took a 3-0 lead after the game’s opening possession, it soon became clear they never stood a chance against the Nittany Lions.

Led by then-quarterback Michael Robinson and defensive end Tamba Hali, the visitors waltzed up and down the field, racking up 56 first-half points before Joe Paterno called off the dogs as Illinois fans streamed for the exits.

The 63-10 final score was the most points allowed to an opponent in Memorial Stadium history, and easily could have been much worse had Paterno kept his first team on the field. Zook referred to the game as “rock bottom” for the program under his tenure.

After that debacle, however, the matchup evened considerably. Zook’s first visit to Happy Valley in 2006 resulted in a 26-12 loss, but the Illini held a surprising 9-3 halftime lead in their attempt to spoil the Lions’ homecoming.

Then came the upset in 2007 – Illinois’ first against a ranked team since 2001 – turning the Illini from Big Ten doormat to BCS crasher.

Penn State wideout and return specialist Derrick Williams said the Lions have “no revenge at all” on their minds this weekend.

“Illinois got the best of us that game (last year). We made some mistakes, and they capitalized on every mistake we made,” Williams said. “We’re going to take it as a game where, if we don’t play hard, we’re going to get beat.”

The fans at University Park may beg to differ, however. Special game-day T-shirts sold at the Nittany Lions online store make the message clear: “Settle the Score.”

And when the sun sets on Happy Valley, the fans’ bright shirts should make their presence even more obvious.

“It can seem like the walls are closing in on you, because you feel everything in that stadium,” Miller said. “After a long day of whatever goes on outside that game, they’re going to be rowdy.”

Wide receiver Arrelious Benn has never played at Beaver Stadium but has experienced the Buckeyes’ reverberating Ohio Stadium, where the Illini staged their biggest upset in front of 105,453 fans last season. Benn has a colorful analogy for describing his attitude toward playing in a hostile environment.

“I feed off of it. I feed off of going to somebody else’s home and taking their food,” Benn said.

Big Ten, Big Crowds

Although the Big Ten standings are in constant flux, as evidenced by the meteoric rise of Illinois last season and the struggles of Michigan this year, the toughest venues to play in are rarely up for debate.

Three schools in the conference have stadiums that can hold over 100,000 fans: Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan. Six-digit attendance figures not only underscore those programs’ traditions, but also ensure a ear-splitting environment for visiting teams like Illinois.

Juice Williams was quick to point out Ohio Stadium and Beaver Stadium as the most hostile in the conference.

“Probably one of those two. There’s a lot of noise in there, fans are screaming. Sometimes they make slurs at you, but it’s all fun and games,” Williams said.

Linebacker Brit Miller said the aura of Penn State’s Happy Valley vaults it past the Buckeyes’ Horseshoe.

“It seems bigger there, it does. Maybe it’s just where it’s at, it’s in the middle of nowhere. You go up and see this huge stadium. Just vast nothingness and then a big old stadium,” Miller said.

Illinois has not played at Michigan since 2003, so players were unable to compare Michigan Stadium to other venues. But Miller joked he could come up with some superlatives before next week’s game against the Wolverines.

“Yeah, then Michigan will be the best,” Miller said.

The consensus among the Illini players seemed clear. Defensive lineman Will Davis, however, looks at it a different way.

“I’m kind of different. I’ll probably be the most different person saying this, but I’d probably say the toughest place to play is either Indiana or Northwestern,” Davis said. “It’s harder to keep the emotion. It’s not so many people just booing you at the same time.”