Most of the Irish players, excluding starting quarterback Jimmy Clausen, have played in hostile environments, but the atmosphere at Beaver Stadium may just take the cake.
Poised to make a run at a Big Ten championship and a National championship, the 14th-ranked Nittany Lions (1-0) have to beat Notre Dame (0-1) Saturday night, or those goals will likely be unattainable. Last season's 41-17 whipping the Irish put on Penn State in South Bend, is still fresh on the program's mind, and they're pulling out all the stops for this one.
A rabid crowd, wearing all white, having tailgated all morning and afternoon, will be screaming and shaking noisemakers in trying to make the Irish players uncomfortable. Adding to the excitement, Penn State is holding a team reunion for the 1982 National Championship team.
Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis, his staff and players, like to use the us against the world mentality when playing on the road. This is about as close as that statement is going to get.
"That's the mentality we are going into Happy Valley with; us against the world, because the guys on the field are the only ones rooting for us," fifth-year senior center and captain John Sullivan said. "We are going to be the only ones in our corner. We are going in with 110,000 fans or whatever it is and it's going to be a harsh environment. If we are focused and focused in on the things we need to do individually and go out and execute, it should be no problem going out there."
"I think even home games, the adrenaline starts pumping and you're ready to go on game day," senior tight end and captain John Carlson began. "But even more so an away game, especially when the crowd is hostile, the focus is even more intense. I just feel more, I get more pumped up in an away game or where I feel like everyone is screaming at me and against me. I feel like I'm backed into a corner."
Like he does for every away game, Weis did the best he could to emulate for his team what it's going to be like for tonight's game. On Thursday, Weis had the sound cranked up inside the Loftus Center as the team practiced.
"The only thing you could do is practice noise," Weis said on Wednesday. "You can't practice the environment. We'll practice noise on Thursday and any time (Clausen is) calling a play on Thursday, no one will be able to hear him or barely be able to hear him. But as a player, as best you can, you've got to try to get him that tunnel vision and just worry about running that play and not being caught up in the environment.
"A lot of that environment is the hoopla that even takes place before the game," Weis continued. "A lot of young players spend more time looking in the stands than they do just worrying about getting warmed up. I think it's really important for coaches to stay on their players and make sure they control their emotions and don't get caught up with the circus atmosphere that's on the sideline sometimes before the games."
Though the Irish will play a lot of young players against Penn State, nobody will be more scrutinized than Clausen.
Clausen got his feet wet during mop-up duty in the Irish's 33-3 season opening loss to Georgia Tech. He completed 4-of-6 passes for 34 yards. Clausen looked good, but that was South Bend, and the game wasn't on the line.
Based on what everyone is saying about Clausen, they're expecting the freshman from Westlake Village, Calif., to be a cool customer amid the storm.
"He really is a calm, laidback person by nature," Weis said. "I think in an atmosphere like that, if the players see you sweat, figuratively, if they see you lose your composure early, they start to lose confidence. Because he carries himself so well and is calm and composed almost all the time, I have very seldom, since the time he has gotten on campus, seen him act much different. He acts pretty much the same every day."
A Penn State defense that has pitched three shutouts in their last six games, including a 59-0 pasting of Florida International to open the season, looks to change that. A white-out crowd will try to rattle the kid as well.