Don’t fear the Beaver

It won’t be easy to ignore, that much is for sure. How much it will affect the players is far from being seen, though it’s just two days away.

Over a thousand miles away, through five mountain states on a plane trip to nowhere, sits the second-largest college football stadium in the country: Beaver Stadium, a.k.a. Happy Valley, home of the Nittany Lions.

It seems nostalgic, unbelievable and astounding that in only its ninth season the USF football program is playing in such a historic – not to mention notoriously famous – college football haven.

The Bulls face Penn State on Saturday, a team whose record was 4-7 last season, but ninth in total defense. The Nittany Lions are a team whose turnaround will hinge on their 84-year-old coach Joe Paterno and the help from the 107,282 fans who just might be in attendance at University Park.

Over 100,000 people – a figure that’s more than twice the enrollment at all the USF campuses – may be on hand for the season opener for both teams, and the Bulls aren’t sweating it.

“They (PSU) don’t know how to play in front of that many people either,” said senior safety Johnnie Jones, who missed last season with a neck injury. “There’s mostly freshmen on the team. They won’t be able to handle it as well. I mean, what can (PSU fans) expect?”

The team has had its share of crowds before. There have been three away crowds of more than 70,000 and another two of more than 50,000. The largest came last season on Sept. 18, when the Bulls traveled to Williams-Brice Stadium in South Carolina for a 34-3 loss in front of 78,900.The Cockpit – that stadium’s pseudonym – seats 80,250.

“I’ve played at Oklahoma (74,432), at USC (and) at Alabama (76,780),” said Jones, who’s played 19 games in his USF career and now makes the start at strong safety. “(I) can’t say yeah, (I) can’t say no (on being nervous). We haven’t played yet. But with (PSU), it boils down to having freshmen leading this team. They have to deal with the same thing we have to deal with. You know, those fans, they don’t have to play. We do.”

This game could set a record even outside the realm of USF’s grasp. It could easily be one of the largest crowds to see a Big East team. Syracuse holds the record, with 111,012 at Michigan in September 1998. Miami played before 109,313 at Penn State in 2001.

And though the largest Beaver Stadium crowd was 110,753 at the Sept. 14, 2002, Penn State win over Nebraska, the Nittany Lions are no strangers to seeing many people come in all season long.

PSU had a total season attendance of more than 1 million for the first time in 1991 (1,017,843) and have done it five more times in the past eight years.

Not only are players such as Jones and senior running back Andre Hall taking it in stride, a player like Hall may not even notice until he gets back to Tampa.

“Last year at USC, I really couldn’t tell there was that many people till I saw the pictures and the tape later the next week,” said Hall, who rushed for 41 yards on eight attempts against the Gamecocks in 2004.

“You see all this stuff around us? You see everyone doing their own thing and going about their business? I don’t. I don’t notice it or pay attention to it. So, I’m not going to notice (the fans). I’ve just got to focus and play,” Hall said.

So while Hall and Jones strut into Beaver Stadium with confidence, it might not be as easy for their fellow underclassmen. Many of their backups are sophomores and freshmen, like redshirted running back Ricky Ponton and freshmen kickers Mike Benzer and Kyle Bronson.

“Ricky redshirted last year,” Hall said. “He hasn’t played one game yet, so (he and other freshman) might be a little nervous. We’ll have to talk. I’ll have to sit down with them and talk to them, but I think they’ll be fine.

“It’s what we wanted. It’ll be tough and we’ll have to step up, but its what we asked for in our schedule.”

And if the attendance figure doesn’t scare the USF players, this figure should: The average media attendance for a PSU game is 450 people.