There are few people who can provide better perspective on the White Out than Dan Connor. The former Penn State linebacker was a Nittany Lion when the student section White Out began in 2004 and closed out his college career in 2007 when it became a full-stadium spectacle.
Last season he took it in for the first time as a coach at Penn State after being hired as a defensive analyst. He will do the same Saturday night when the Nittany Lions take on Iowa in this year’s iteration of arguably the best atmosphere in college football.
His experience playing in the electric environment — with 110,000 of the Nittany Lion faithful clad in white, roaring so loud that they shake the press box — helps him prepare the current group of Penn State players for what they’re about to see.
“The biggest thing is trying to avoid distractions going up into the game,” Connor told the CDT. “... When you get to the game, it’s unrealistic to say ‘block it out, this is just like any other atmosphere.’ It’s really not. My advice is usually to take it in when you go out of the tunnel. You have to take it in. It energizes you. It’s the best crowd that I’ve seen, including NFL playoff games, it doesn’t compare to a White Out. ... You gotta take a moment in games like that to see it. Because you’re not gonna see it again in your life.”
The 2007 White Out against Notre Dame was one of many standout performances by Connor, who was the best player on a defense that suffocated Notre Dame for most of that game and helped the team earn a 31-10 victory over the Fighting Irish. Leading up to that game, there was a different feeling around what would unfold.
Connor said the team was much more aware of the White Out than it was in previous years where only the student section participated — and that increased the anticipation.
“It had grown to be this unbelievable spectacle,” Connor said. “Going into 2007, you kind of knew what was in store, what it was going to be like. It still goes way beyond what you can try to picture in your head. ... There was definitely a lot of excitement in 2007, kind of knowing a little bit more of what it’s all about, what it’s gonna look like — the whole crowd in white, the amount of people there. I was definitely more in the loop in 2007.”
He was not the only player whose career spanned the length of the transformation from a student section plan to a full stadium one. Former Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli took in the three early versions, before leading the team to the win over the Fighting Irish.
Like many of the games that have followed over the last 16 years, the matchup with Notre Dame was a different animal when it came to crowd noise, and Morelli felt it in the game’s biggest moments.
“The one specific play that I remember the most was the pass I threw to Chris Bell,” Morelli told the CDT. “It was going away from the (south) tunnel, Chris was lined up on the right hand side. ... I hit him and he split the safety and the corner, and man he was almost gone. He ended up getting caught from behind somewhere in the red zone. And I just remember the place going crazy. That was a special moment and I’ll never forget it.”
Morelli now trains young quarterbacks in Westfield, Ind., and makes a point to tell his pupils that there is nothing quite like what they can see on a White Out game day.
“I tell a lot of the guys I work with now, regardless of if you grew up a Penn State fan or not, that’s one place I would highly recommend you go,” he said. “... It’s just an atmosphere that you’ll never forget. That just doesn’t happen everywhere. It’s special.”
That game is one of 19 White Outs that Penn State has hosted since its inception in 2004. The first three versions featured only student participation (and so did the 2010 game against Michigan), while the other 15 were full-stadium affairs.
Across those 19 games there have been moments of triumph and moments of sorrow for a multitude of Nittany Lion teams that took the field. But there may not be three any bigger than the games in 2005, 2013 and 2016.
In 2005, Penn State’s Tamba Hali sacked future Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith to seal an upset victory over Ohio State.
In 2013, Allen Robinson made a leaping grab over Channing Stribling to help force overtime and ultimately earn a win as the Nittany Lions worked their way back from sanctions that could have crippled the program for decades.
Three years later, in arguably the biggest moment of the James Franklin era to date, Marcus Allen blocked a field goal that Grant Haley returned for a touchdown to take the lead over then-No. 2 Ohio State on the team’s way to a 24-21 victory. One that, it could be argued, changed the trajectory of the program.
Many of those players will tell you similar things about what happened when they had their moment — everything got quiet and there was almost the feeling of blacking out, before a rush of noise came down like an avalanche.
The CDT spoke to Hali, Haley, Robinson, Connor and former quarterback Trace McSorley about those moments and the feeling of finding success for Penn State in a White Out.
DE Tamba Hali (2005 vs. Ohio State)
On sacking Smith:
“In that drive we were tired. We were exhausted. … I just remember the year training up to that point coach (Joe) Paterno would make us do a 16-play drive in practice and then we’d do four gassers. And then we’d do another 16-play drive. It was one of those moments where you were exhausted and you just gotta push through it. Their tight end came across and I just went outside of him because coach said any time he came across I could do it.
“I took off and swiped his hand and when I was coming around, my eyes just got big. I couldn’t believe he was still holding the ball. And then I was just gonna give it my all. He could’ve shook me out of my pants because I was not going to break down (for the tackle), so I just ran right through him. Scott Paxson recovering the fumble was the best part of the entire play.”
On what he felt:
“I can’t tell you I remember hearing anything. He was just standing there. That’s all I could see. I can’t believe he was standing there. And we’re talking split seconds, it was like one, two more steps. And when I ran through it, I don’t even think he realized what happened.”
LB Dan Connor (2005 vs. Ohio State)
On the lead-up to the game:
“My memory, it’s funny, it’s really not from the game. I remember being in the ice tub. Our ice bath was actually broke. Me and (linebacker Paul) Posluszny were in garbage cans filled with ice Thursday after practice. We were both so obsessed with beating Ohio State, being better than (their linebackers). They had unbelievable linebackers, especially that year. Three guys that might have been first rounders, three big time guys. We were obsessed, kind of privately between us, of being the better linebacker unit on the field that night, winning the game. The trash cans were in the managers’ equipment room area as they were fixing the cold tub. We just talked of the importance of it and really what we wanted to do and how we wanted to make a statement coming off a tough 2004 year, but kind of an exciting way 2004 ended. We felt this was going to be the turning point. We had an opportunity. That conversation sticks out more than almost anything in the game.”
On how loud it was:
“The crowd noise of the 2005 one, it was so loud. I think we had them backed up in the student section. My helmet, the metal on it was almost shaking or making noises because of the volume. You can’t really hear anything.”
On Hali’s hit:
“My memory was just the violence of the hit, more than the circumstances of the game or anything like that.”
WR Allen Robinson (2013 vs. Michigan)
On making the catch:
“I just had a feeling that he was going to come my way, just based on the fact that he went to the field before to Brandon (Moseby-Felder). I thought there was a good chance of me catching the ball. … As I’m running down the field I was able to get behind the defender, and as I look up I remember seeing the ball in the air. But as he was getting us lined up, and the play comes in, I just had a feeling he was gonna throw it up and give me a chance.”
On what he felt:
“Once I caught it and came down with it, I just remember it being super chaotic. It was that time of the game, I don’t know how many timeouts we had. We’re in the two minute drill. … We’re trying to get down to spike the ball, the spot of the ball is under review, there’s so many different things going on in that moment. Also for me, I didn’t finish the previous game before, I got hurt in the fourth quarter against Indiana. I had a bad hip pointer. And I actually came down in a very similar way. … I remember talking to our head athletic trainer at that time and I’m like ‘Man after this game I’m definitely gonna need some ice.’ And he was, ‘Just finish this game out, get us this W and you’ll have all the ice that you need.’”
On the meaning of the win:
“Looking back at it, being able to see those games with the teams that we won with, it’s just kind of a true testament to how special it was with some of the odds that were stacked against us. We were still able to beat some good teams and still able to play some good football. Those games against those big teams, they were very meaningful to us.”
CB Grant Haley (2016 vs. Ohio State)
On the blocked kick and his return:
“I think (Ohio State was) deciding what to do. And they were running out on the field and time was kind of running out and they’re rushing to get the kick off. Earlier that game, Marcus was like a yard away from the ball. I remember just being on the sideline, him talking to Coach (Charles) Huff and saying like, ‘I’m gonna block this kick’ and asking where the alignment was, the angle where the kicker might be. Marcus just did a great job of executing. I didn’t really see the ball blocked. I just heard a big thump. And it just took a couple perfect bounces and rolled right in my hands.”
On the moment he scored:
“At that point it’s kind of like a black out. I remember just running and running. Praying that I don’t get caught. It was a moment that was so surreal. Something you dream about going back to when you were a kid. Obviously you know how big of a game the White Out is. The environment, the atmosphere, playing the No. 2 team in the country. … It was like coming out of a shock. … It was almost like time kind of stood still and it was quiet during the run.”
On his favorite memories from the game:
“I remember just taking a walk and, I don’t know, it just felt like we were going to win the game that night. … I think that was more of a personal feeling. I don’t know what the rest of the team thought. When I go back and think about in the locker room (at halftime), I don’t think anyone ever doubted that we were going to win that game.
“And looking back, I have a picture of my dad who passed away about two years ago. My sister and I always laugh because he loved to take selfies. And there’s a selfie of him, because he didn’t storm the field, he was like ‘I’m not doing that craziness.’ There’s a selfie of him with the crowd in the background and he’s not even smiling. He has a straight face. That for me now is a pretty special picture for me.”
QB Trace McSorley (2016 vs. Ohio State)
On the lead-up to the game:
“I just felt a calmness the entire day. It was a night game so we were in the hotel all day long. For whatever reason I felt super calm and kind of relaxed most of the day. Even on the bus ride in I remember sitting there and having that feeling that something special was about to happen. You didn’t know what, you didn’t know how it was gonna go. But I remember sitting on that bus feeling like something special was going to happen.”
On what he saw on the blocked kick:
“We kind of started thinking about what we were gonna do on offense. … We were just sitting there watching it. You see the kick go up and you see the double thud. Then next thing you know, from my memory, I remember Grant picking it up and then it just felt like slow motion. Like it felt like him running felt like it took years. He couldn’t get there fast enough. I just remember the kicker started chasing him down and I was like in the back of my head, ‘there’s no way this kicker can catch him.’ But he keeps getting closer and closer. It almost makes you hold your breath the entire time. I really just remember at that point, everyone goes nuts. The sideline, the stadium, it was crazy. The noise, the sound, it was insane. … It’s almost like you don’t remember hearing the noise and all that type of stuff. It goes quiet in your mind as you’re watching it. Then it’s just the eruption of sound.”