Lions Enjoying Atmosphere

It's been a while since Penn State played a football game of such magnitude, so forgive Matthew Rice for engaging in a bit of hyperbole as he prepares for the 16th-ranked Nittany Lions' primetime showdown against No. 6 Ohio State. "I don't think Beaver Stadium has ever been as loud as it's going to be this Saturday," the senior defensive end said. "It's an atmosphere that you can't even define. It's going to be real loud."

No doubt. But ever encompasses a lot of games, and the venerable stadium has played host to its share of big ones over the years. Just not recently. The Buckeyes' visit to Penn State will mark the first time since Sept. 14, 2002, that two opponents ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 have faced off in Beaver Stadium. Back then, the opponent was No. 8 Nebraska. The 25th-ranked Lions romped, 40-7, and jumped 10 spots in the poll. Penn State has played 23 home games since thrashing the Cornhuskers that night. In only seven of those games were the Lions ranked, the most recent being a 27-14 loss to Boston College on Sept. 6, 2003, that knocked them from the poll after a cameo appearance at No. 25.

The Lions' struggles have created an overwhelming demand for meaningful October football. It's evident in the atmosphere on campus this week. Rice was amazed to learn that students began camping out for tickets Sunday night. He was gratified to see Campus Loop buses sporting “Beat Ohio State” signs. And he hasn't been the only one to pick up on — and appreciate — the surge in enthusiasm. Quarterback Michael Robinson has noticed it as well.

“When you walk around campus, people actually smile at you and say 'great game,' ” Robinson said. “In past years they would look at you and kind of whisper to their friends.”

Players see the team's 5-0 start, and perks such as the arrival of ESPN's GameDay crew, as validation of their off-season preparations. The 2003 and '04 seasons, in which the Lions went a combined 7-16, “definitely left a bad taste in our mouths,” Rice said. Those hard feelings seeped into every workout, every conversation.

“Anytime you found players together, chilling together for longer than 20 minutes, we would be talking about the season and changes we wanted to make, talking about how we wanted to put Penn State back on the map where it belongs,” Rice continued. “It's just real good to see all the things we talked about, all the things we worked for in the off-season, coming true this season.”

Despite the jubilant mood, players insist they've had little trouble staying focused this week. Rice said he began steeling himself for Ohio State as he walked off the field after the Lions' 44-14 rout of then-No. 18 Minnesota last Saturday. After two consecutive losing seasons, it's not hard to maintain one's humility, Rice said. So staying levelheaded shouldn't be a problem this week.

“We know each game is going to get harder and we'll have to step up to another level,” Rice said. “It's a great start, and it's something we're giving back to the fans, but we want to take it to the top level. Our main focus is having an undefeated season. When that's over, my head will not be level anymore. Then I'll definitely look back and enjoy everything. But right now it's work.”

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