One of my favorite parts about attending any big event, whether it be a game, concert, or something else, is the buzz you feel in the air the minute you get there. You can feel the energy in the crowd, the feeling that "yeah, this is going to be a special night". For me, nearly 10 years later, that is still the first thought that comes to mind when thinking about that magical weekend in 2005 when the 16th ranked Nittany Lions met the 6th ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.
Despite having spent the previous four seasons on campus as a student, that game would be my first experience in Beaver Stadium as a regular fan. I was a member of the Blue Band all four years as a student, so my gameday experiences were a little different with rehearsals, performances, and other commitments throughout the day. I had graduated in May of 2005, and well before PSU opened the season 5-0, October 9th was circled on my calendar. I wanted that to be my first trip back as an alumnus.
I am also a native of Columbus, having been born and raised no more than 15 minutes from Ohio Stadium. I ended up working back in Central Ohio after graduation, and as anyone who has ever spent time there knows, I was inundated with Buckeye football coverage non-stop. It must be a great thing when they are your team. It is most decidedly not when you follow literally anyone else.
I listened to more than my fair share of sports talk radio back then. Time has wiped away the memories of some of the exact quotes, but the prevailing thought amongst the talking heads in Columbus was that while Penn State was off to a nice 5-0 start, they had not seen anything quite like Troy Smith, Ted Ginn, Santonio Holmes, A.J. Hawk, Malcolm Jenkins, and many others. In short, Ohio State would do what they had become very accustomed to doing, walking into Beaver Stadium and returning with a solid W. The feelings of friends around town that week were, well, more direct and to the point. Penn State had no chance against the high powered Buckeyes. Meanwhile, I kept my mouth shut, made mental notes about who said what, and waited.
Somehow I had stumbled onto four club seats for face value, along with one of my senior year roommates the week of the game, which as anyone who was looking for seats recalls, was no small feat. Not to mention, only 5 months removed from college, every penny saved was huge, specifically for an evening on College Avenue. On Friday afternoon, I loaded up my car, and pointed it east, towards Happy Valley.
The drive from Columbus to State College takes about 5 hours, and routes you through Akron, Youngstown, and then about 160 miles of nothing across I-80 in Pennsylvania. By the time I reached exit 161, it felt like about 10 hours. With the misting rain of that weekend in the air, you could see the glow of the Beaver Stadium concourse lights from miles away. It was that moment I began to feel the buzz.
I stayed on campus with a few friends who were still students living in Nittany Apartments, and after dropping my things off, quickly headed downtown to meet up with some other friends. Having suffered through a 21-26 record as a student, and 3 losing seasons, I had not experienced much of a true big PSU game atmosphere up to that point. What I felt that night on the street, in the bars, and back at my friends apartment, was something that to be honest, I had never felt before, and have not felt since. This was going to be a special weekend in Central Pennsylvania.
I do not remember much of what lead up to the game that day. I watched College GameDay from the apartment, I met up with friends to grab lunch and tailgate a little, but mostly, I tried to pass the time until we could get inside Beaver Stadium.
As a band member, I was fortunate enough to have been on the field, or in the stands for a number of big moments in PSU football history. Adam Taliaferro running out of the tunnel before Miami in 2001, the 2001 upset of Ohio State for Joe's 324th win, the all around insanity of the 2002 Nebraska blowout. While Adam's return to the field in 2001 was as emotional an experience I've ever had in a stadium, and there was no doubt the energy was at a boiling point that night, it was different. Not bad, but different.
Walking up to the stadium maybe 90 minutes before kickoff in 2005, you could just feel the emotion in the fan base. Not since 1999, had Penn State truly been a national player. In the 5 years since, the storied program had fallen on the "dark ages" we would all like to forget. But this night, October 9th, 2005, was going to be different. 5+ years of frustration was about to be let out.
The story of the game does not need to be retold at this point. We all remember Derrick Williams taking that pitch, turning the corner on one of those vaunted OSU linebackers, and running in from 13 yards out to put PSU on top 7-3. There was Calvin Lowry's interception, and near score, on the following Buckeye drive, which of course set up Michael Robinson's touchdown run. And, of course, Tamba Hali with the signature sack, and forced fumble, on Troy Smith, sealing the game.
I remember turning to my friend, and saying "they're going to review that", not at all convinced that Penn State had just sealed their biggest win in years. When it was confirmed as a fumble, I just stood there, smiling. There were people two or three times my age jumping up and down, hugging, and yes, crying, at what they had witnessed over the previous 3+ hours.
That energy that anyone who was in town felt finally boiled over when that ball hit the ground and Scott Paxson recovered it. Those years of frustration over losing seasons, big losses to college football blue bloods, and hearing how PSU was no longer relevant in college football, all came out in that moment. I do not remember how long we stayed in the stadium, but I do remember not wanting to leave. At the time, it felt like leaving would end it.
Instead, when I woke up the following morning, with no voice, and a bit of a hangover, I loaded up the car and headed back to Columbus. I met my family that night for dinner out to celebrate my sister's birthday. The waiter came to take our orders, and I struggled through my scratchy throat to tell him what I wanted to eat. He asked if I had a rough night, and I proceeded to tell him I was at the football game the night before in State College. He looked at me, dejected, and tells me "man, that was a tough one". I look at my family, who all have varying degrees of smiles on their faces, and respond "not for me it wasn't".
Still, 10 years later, it has not changed.