Penn State’s White Out games, explained: How ‘stroke of genius’ become one of college football’s best traditions
ESPN’s Chris Fowler’s viewing of Penn State football has run the gamut.
From rooting for “some of Joe Paterno’s dullest teams” in the 70s, to returning to the place where grew up watching college football this weekend for his “favorite annual event,” the longtime college football announcer has seen it all.
And yet, despite the poor quality of the teams and the less than dynamic offenses that often took the field at Beaver Stadium on Saturdays in the mid-70s, seeing those games is what got Fowler hooked on the sport.
“My first taste of college football was as the son of a faculty member. We got $6 season tickets — that was a total price for the season — and got to go in and see college football,” Fowler said “If I hadn’t had that experience I don’t know if I’d be on this path, because I grew up in Illinois and didn’t see college sports in person. So coming to Penn State was an eye opening thing for me, and sort of sparked my passion in this sport.”
Nearly 50 years later, Beaver Stadium is home to one of the top experiences in college football — Penn State’s White Out game, slated to take place this weekend — wherein all roughly 110,000 fans wear white in Beaver Stadium for a bout of “monochromatic mayhem,” as Fowler described it.
But the atmosphere that now envelopes the central Pennsylvania cathedral of college football is a far cry from what Fowler saw growing up.
“Even though Beaver Stadium has changed a lot since when I went there as a kid, I still get a special feeling going back in that place,” Fowler told the media Thursday ahead of this year’s iteration of the White Out against Auburn. “It wasn’t one of the more raucous college crowds back in the 70s.
That’s changed in recent years, though, and it’s in large part due to the White Out.
“I don’t think you would have said Penn State was one of the toughest environments for a road team back in the day back when I was there, but I think it is now,” Fowler said. “As the stadium grew, as the student section grew and the students I think over the years that sort of taught the regular fans, how to be involved in the game every play and how to play a part in the outcome by making it a very tough environment. That’s what I think the White Out has been partly responsible for.”
The Nittany Lions are 2-0 on the season and didn’t host a White Out last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sporting News has everything you need to know about the tradition, which has become one of college football’s marquee events every year.
How did Penn State’s White Out tradition start?
In the early 2000s, Penn State was struggling.
From 2000-05, the Nittany Lions posted just two winning seasons and the fan base was in need of being invigorated.
So one day in 2004, during the throes of the gridiron doldrums in State College, Penn State’s former director of communications and branding for football, Guido D’Elia approached Joe Paterno about the idea of a White Out.
Originally meant for just students, it eventually grew into a full stadium affair, with Fowler’s friend D’Elia’s help.
“I think it was a very inspired idea. I love the way that it kind organically grew from a student-only thing and then the full stadium, as the story goes, the fans sort of demanded it and then they made it happen in a really kind of restrained way,” Fowler said. “They didn’t want to overplay it, overdo it, they wanted to keep it special, and rare, and once per season and reserve it for a big game.”
Since then, the annual tradition, now in its 17th season, has grown to become one of the sport’s preeminent spectacles, and one which Fowler said is hard to describe.
“Once you see it in person for the first time, you can really appreciate it,” Fowler said. “It looks phenomenal on TV and I call it the most telegenic experience in sports, because it’s a night game and the stadium is lit up by everybody wearing white, the fireworks and the game ops — everything is just beautifully executed.”
Why Penn State doesn’t wear white uniforms during White Out
While most inside Beaver Stadium will be adorning white, James Franklin’s squad itself will likely don its classic blue uniforms with white numbers, white pants and black shoes when they take the field against Auburn.
The uniforms, none of which have names on the back, have become synonymous with Penn State over the years and though Penn State does wear white jerseys, it’s never in the confines of Beaver Stadium, even for a White Out.
The reason, essentially, deals with NCAA rules surrounding dress codes of away teams, who are required to wear white unless the home team receives express written consent prior to the start of the season.
Penn State’s record in White Out games
There have been 16 White Outs in Beaver Stadium so far since 2004, with none being held last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Penn State is 8-8 in White Outs and has played one of either Michigan or Ohio State in every White Out from 2012-19
|Oct. 9, 2004||No. 9 Purdue||L, 21-13|
|Oct. 8, 2005||No. 6 Ohio State||W, 17-10|
|Oct. 14, 2006||No. 4 Michigan||L, 17-10|
|Sept. 8, 2007||Notre Dame||W, 31-10|
|Sept. 27, 2008||No. 22 Illinois||W, 38-24|
|Sept. 26, 2009||Iowa||L, 21-10|
|Oct. 30, 2010||Michigan||W, 41-31|
|Sept. 10, 2011||No. 3 Alabama||L, 27-11|
|Oct. 27, 2012||No. 9 Ohio State||L, 35-23|
|Oct. 12, 2013||No. 18 Michigan||W, 43-40 (4OT)|
|Oct. 25, 2014||No. 12 Ohio State||L, 31-24 (2OT)|
|Nov. 21, 2015||No. 14 Michigan||L, 28-16|
|Oct. 22, 2016||No. 2 Ohio State||W, 24-21|
|Oct. 21, 2017||No. 19 Michigan||W, 42-13|
|Sept. 29, 2018||No. 4 Ohio State||L, 27-26|
|Oct. 19, 2019||No. 16 Michigan||W, 28-21|
|2020||No Whiteout Held||N/A|
The Nittany Lions score an average of 24.8 points per game in White Outs and this year’s is just the third non-conference matchup for the White Out after Alabama in 2011 and Notre Dame in 2007.
Best White Out Game moments
Oct. 22, 2016: vs. No. 2 Ohio State
Arguably the defining win of James Franklin’s career and of the last decade of Penn State football, the Nittany Lions knocked off then-No. 2 Ohio State at home thanks to a blocked field goal by Marcus Allen which then knocked the ball to Grant Haley, who scooped it and scored as they held on to win 24-21 despite being 19.5 point home underdogs.
The play, which game with just over four minutes left in the game, won it for Penn State as the Nittany Lions won the fourth quarter 17-0 after trailing 21-7 after the first half. As a result of the win, the fans stormed the field following the final whistle and riots occurred in downtown State College.
It was the first ranked win of James Franklin’s career and was also the first road loss for the Buckeyes under Urban Meyer.
Oct. 12, 2013: vs. No. 18 Michigan
The longest game in Big Ten history, Penn State hosted then No. 18 Michigan and eventually downed the Wolverines 43-40 in quadruple overtime after a touchdown run from Bill Belton ended the game.
The game was tied at 34 heading into the initial overtime period, where neither team scored. After trading field goals in the second overtime period and neither side scoring in the third OT, Bill Belton eventually ended it on a handoff from quarterback Christian Hackenberg, scoring the winning touchdown.
Coming off a 42-22 loss in Bloomington to Indiana the week before, then-Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said at the time that it was “crazy to expect it would be just another game,” as the matchup was both the Homecoming game and the White Out for the Nittany Lions.
O’Brien had lost his first White Out the year before when Penn State fell to then-No. 9 Ohio State 35-23, but O’Brien left his mark and won his final White Out in walkoff fashion.
Oct. 21, 2017: vs. No. 19 Michigan
Easily Penn State’s most dominant White Out to date, the Nittany Lions trounced Michigan 42-13 to run their season opening winning streak to seven games.
Ranked No. 2 in the country, a program best under James Franklin, Penn State was coming off of two dominant wins in a row over Indiana and Northwestern and the Nittany Lions wasted no time and got off to a hot start against Michigan.
Star running back Saquon Barkley opened the game with a 69-yard rushing touchdown less than a minute in, his first of three total touchdowns on the day and his first of two rushing touchdowns in a four-minute span in the first quarter.
Quarterback Trace McSorley also contributed two rushing touchdowns and added another in the air, pushing Penn State to 7-0 on the season, before losing its next two and then winning out to finish the season. 11-2 with an eventual Fiesta Bowl win over Washington.