Column: Working the Crowd

Matt Herb, BWI Editor
Blue White Illustrated

The following story appears in the latest edition of our Blue White Illustrated magazine.

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From his very first day on the job, James Franklin has talked about creating a feeling of community around his football program, so it makes sense that he would want to bring the family together for the Blue-White Game.

The extended family, it should be noted. Franklin has said several times during the past few months that he would love to see Beaver Stadium packed with fans. “We’re expecting the place to be rocking,” he said earlier this spring.

That’s a big ask, of course, even at a place like Penn State, where a lot of people would tell you their second-favorite spectator sport, after football, is spring football. Unlike Ohio State, which set a record for spring game attendance when it welcomed 100,189 fans to the Horseshoe last year, Penn State needs to draw from well outside its local community to have any shot at filling the stadium. The total population of the Centre Region is approximately 105,000, so even if every man, woman and child in State College and its surrounding townships showed up on game day, there still would be empty seats. That’s not the case in Columbus, which is home to about 2 million people, many of whom are so engrossed in Buckeye football minutia they could probably tell you what Urban Meyer had for breakfast this morning.

Not that Penn State is entirely dependent on Happy Valley. It also draws from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the Lehigh Valley and the Baltimore/Washington, D.C., region. But for those fans, attending the spring game requires more than just a three- or four-hour commitment. It often entails three or four hours on the road just getting to State College. And with this year’s game kicking off at 3 p.m., a lot of those fans are going to end up staying overnight. So even though the game itself is free to attend, the ancillary costs (which now include stadium parking) aren’t inconsequential.

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The best-attended spring game in school history was the 2009 edition, in which an estimated crowd of 76,500 fans poured into the stadium to watch the Nittany Lions return to action for the first time since falling to Southern California in the Rose Bowl nearly four months earlier.

As with most spring games, the scrimmage did less to showcase the team’s stars than to give some up-and-comers a platform to show off their potential. Daryll Clark played sparingly for the Blue, attempting only 13 passes, of which he completed 10 for 123 yards. Veteran tailback Evan Royster was even less busy, carrying three times for 21 yards. Meanwhile, playing for the backup-laden White squad, a young quarterback named Matt McGloin completed 5 of 8 passes for 49 yards and a touchdown, while also rushing for 28 yards on his only carry of the day. Michael Zordich led the White in tackles with six, while one of his fellow linebackers, Michael Mauti, made four stops and also picked up the Jim O’Hora Award at halftime as the team’s most improved defensive player. A lot of people seemed to think those kids had a bright future at Penn State.

As the Lions get ready to wrap up their latest batch of spring practice sessions, there are a couple of obvious parallels with that game eight years ago. Once again, Penn State is coming off a loss to the Trojans, and once again it will be trying not to expose its standout quarterback and running back to much if any risk on the final day of off-season drills.

Saquon Barkley didn’t play in last year’s Blue-White Game, with Franklin explaining that “to go live in the spring game, I didn’t think it made a whole lot of sense.” Presumably, it still doesn’t.

Trace McSorley did play, and he was fantastic. Making his debut at the controls of Joe Moorhead’s revamped offense, he was the breakout star of the game, completing 23 of 27 passes for 281 yards, with four touchdowns and only one interception. While a lot of people probably chalked up those numbers to the game’s quarterback-friendly ground rules and assumed they were unlikely to be duplicated once he began taking live fire during the regular season, McSorley went on to lead the Big Ten in pass efficiency. Looking back on it, his performance last April doesn’t seem the least bit fluky.

Come Saturday, McSorley will likely have Franklin standing directly behind him on the field, possibly ready to throw a block if any would-be tacklers look as though they might violate the rules that protect quarterbacks from contact. And then he’ll head to the sideline and watch Tommy Stevens, Jake Zembiec and a walk-on or two battle it out.

No matter how much (or how little) Barkley and McSorley play, the game should be closer than the 37-0 shellacking that the backups absorbed last year. Franklin talked recently about the likelihood that this year’s scrimmage will be more competitive and entertaining than the first three spring games he coached at Penn State. Since his arrival, the Nittany Lions have rebuilt a sanction-depleted roster to the point where they can not only compete against the league’s marquee teams but can defeat three of them – Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State – in the same year. The gulf between the starters and the backups is diminishing as the team’s overall talent level improves, and Franklin hopes that this year’s game will reflect that growth.

“You’ll see the spring game will be a little bit different this year,” he said in March. “I don’t want to go ones and twos vs. everybody else. I want to have ones vs. twos and hopefully, for the first time, have a really competitive scrimmage. That should be fun and exciting.”

That sounds good; excitement is always better than tedium. But at the risk of offending anyone steeped in the history and tradition of the Blue (or the White), no one goes to the spring game for the outcome. They go for the individual performances, particularly those of the younger players who will be stepping into bigger roles, those who have been winning rave reviews in spring practice and those who will be making their public debuts. This year, that means most eyes will be on receivers Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles, defensive backs Ayron Monroe and Lamont Wade, and defensive ends Shane Simmons and Shaka Toney, among others.

Of course, there will also be a contingent of attendees who won’t be paying attention to those players or anyone else. In recent years, the university has promoted the Blue-White Game not just as a pigskin fix wedged into the middle of a long football-free off-season but as the centerpiece of a reunion weekend, a chance to catch up with your college buddies and revisit old haunts, Beaver Stadium being one of the oldest. So in addition to the hardcore football crowd, a lot of the people on hand Saturday will be there for the tailgating or the autograph session or the chance to work on their tan.

But hey, those people count, too. Part of Penn State’s effort to build on last year’s success involves sending a message – to the rest of the college football world and especially to potential recruits – that there is a groundswell of energy running through the program. An attention-grabbing attendance figure would help further that cause. It may be the only number from the spring game that really matters.

“A lot of people say, ‘Why is spring game attendance a big deal?’ I would make the argument that, No. 1, it’s an opportunity to get together with your buddies. I kind of look at it as a homecoming during the spring,” Franklin said. “I think it does make a statement, nationally, that football is important at Penn State. I think it shows our players that we’re all in this thing together.

“It makes a statement to our recruits, it makes a statement to our team and it makes a statement to the country that football is a very, very important part of Penn State. No more important than anything else, but an important part of what Penn State is all about.”

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