I have been fortunate enough to enjoy some of Penn State's biggest Whiteout moments over the last 14 years since Derrick Williams returned the punt in a romp over Notre Dame in the first-ever full-stadium affair. I was a senior in 2004 when the student section first pulled off the feat vs. Purdue and a recent graduate one year later when Tamba Hali announced the Lions' return in front of what Kirk Herbstreit deemed the best student section in the country. They have not relinquished that crown in the 16 years since.
I was with the Alumni Blue Band in 2013 when Christian Hackenberg linked up with Allen Robinson for an improbable catch to set up a tying score and was in the north end zone when Bill Belton ended things four overtimes, and seemingly four hours later. My then-girlfriend and now wife was with me in 2016, her first-ever Penn State home game, when the run to the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl began on the hands of Marcus Allen, and the legs of Grant Haley.
700 days ago this Saturday, however, I actually missed Beaver Stadium's last Whiteout. Oddly enough, I was back at home in Michigan when the Lions knocked off the Wolverines 28-21, recovering from the wedding of my now sister and brother-in-law the evening before. The last time I joined the Sea of White was in 2018 when, well, we won't talk about how that one went.
Perhaps the three years of waiting have skewed my opinion in this matter, but with apologies to the 105,000-plus who made up the first Beaver Stadium crowd in nearly two years vs. Ball State, Saturday's clash with Auburn feels like the true return of college football to our valley. There is just a bit more of that special fall feeling in the air this week.
Perhaps it is the fact we haven't done this in 700 days, or maybe it's just that a major SEC program is making the trek north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but Saturday just feels bigger, and dare I say, wonderfully normal. And before you call me on it, I am fully aware that "normal" is a loaded feeling at the moment. 110,000-plus getting together with Covid-19 still ravaging many parts of our country and world, is most certainly not normal (get the shot).
Putting that aside as best as we can at the moment, something I've struggled with leading up to this trip east, Saturday's atmosphere figures to rival some of those iconic moments in recent Penn State football history. And just maybe, the action on the field will give us another one of those moments that have seared now 16 student or full-stadium Whiteouts into our collective memories.
Maybe this one doesn't carry quite the same weight as those Big Ten clashes. But, for a program fighting to put a massively disappointing 2020 season in the rearview mirror permanently, a win over a top-25 SEC program like Auburn may be the thing that does just that.
And with the whole might of Nittany Nation behind them, for the first time in nearly 23 months, I sure as hell like their chances.