Penn State tradition lures ESPN's GameDay to Michigan game

Gameday
The GameDay set begins to take shape near Beaver Stadium. Photo by Jill Beckman / Staff

Since the beginning of the season, ESPN’s College GameDay crew has hoped it would visit Penn State on this particular weekend.

The decision-making process started weeks in advance, host Rece Davis said. The crew makes a list of possible sites for each week and then adds or eliminates games as the season progresses. Davis said the decision this week was a close call between the “White Out” game in Beaver Stadium, and No. 11 USC versus No. 13 Notre Dame.

“I think we all anticipated and were hopeful that this would be the site this week,” Davis said in a phone conversation Wednesday. “And once the season started unfolding and the last couple of weeks went the way they did, we were happy that that became official and that that was what we were going to do.”

Camera icon Jill Beckman / Staff
You know its Michigan week on the Penn State campus. Photo by Jill Beckman / Staff

When choosing a location, the biggest factor that goes into the decision is the storyline, and then what kind of atmosphere and interest the location brings. Davis emphasized that these factors are more important than high rankings.

Penn State athletics also prepared in advance.

“We’ve had a small group meeting regularly since before the season so that we would be ready for the call from GameDay, ” said athletic director Sandy Barbour, according to a release from Penn State athletics.

ESPN announced the location after Michigan slid by Indiana 27-20 in overtime last weekend. The Wolverines dropped two spots to No. 19, but they could have been wiped from the AP Top 25 poll completely if they suffered a second Big Ten loss.

Because Michigan (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) was able to pull out the win and No. 2 Penn State (6-0, 3-0) is still undefeated, the matchup made sense to ESPN.

The show has broadcast from the site of Penn State games 16 times and has visited Happy Valley six of those times. For the show’s first appearance at Penn State in eight years, the crew will set up on Old Main lawn and broadcast from 9 a.m. to noon. The kick off for the prime-time game is at 7:30 p.m. and will air on ABC.

After the announcement last Saturday, Penn State worked with ESPN to finalize the location for the set on campus. Barbour said Old Main lawn will be a “memorable” setting for the seven-time Emmy Award-winning show.

On ESPN’s end, Davis said the show looks for landmark-type locations that can also be intimate.

“What we found is that if we set up in places that give a good campus vibe, as opposed to, say, setting up in the parking lot of a stadium, we feel that that is a better experience for the people who come out to the show, and we hope that there will be a ton of them Saturday morning,” Davis said. “And I think it looks better to the people at home.”

Davis is joined by analysts Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Desmond Howard and David Pollack, as well as contributors Chris “The Bear” Fallica, Jen Lada, Tom Rinaldi, Maria Taylor and Gene Wojciechowski.

According to the release, College Football Live will originate from the set with Taylor, Howard and Pollack at 3 p.m. Friday. In addition, there will be several SportsCenter segments originating from the set Friday afternoon and early Saturday morning.

While Davis has seen Beaver Stadium White Outs on television, he’s never been to one. But he’s looking forward to being in the “cauldron” on the field.

“I don’t know how to describe it other than it just sort of looks intimidating,” he said. “It looks a little different than all of the other color-outs you see. … There’s something about the white at night in Beaver Stadium that, based on television, it looks like it’s on top of you more so than the other color-outs.”

While Penn State’s campus is buzzing about GameDay, and students are bouncing sign ideas off each other that fans traditionally make for the show, coach James Franklin is preaching to his team to block out distractions.

While Franklin mentioned the show to his team, he shifted the focus completely to Michigan, cornerback Amani Oruwariye said.

“There’s going to be College Gameday, it’s a White Out, rankings,” Oruwariye said. “He just wants us to focus on what we can control, and that’s winning the day, winning practice today, doing everything we can; eating right, sleeping right, nutrition, everything. Just doing what we can do to be the best of our ability when it comes to Saturday, and not worry about the outside stuff.”

But the coach isn’t ignoring the fact that those distractions mean the team is doing something right.

“My message for the team this week is — they’ve earned these things,” Franklin said. “These things are nice. The rankings are nice. The fact that ESPN and College GameDay are coming is nice. The fact that this is a White Out is nice. But at the end of the day, none of those things matter. A lot of times, I think the most important job of a head coach, in my opinion, is to eliminate distractions. If not handled right, that’s what these can be. We’re going to stick to our routine and our SOP (standard operating procedure), kind of go from there.”

However, Franklin embraced one recent distraction. Last week, Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley was a guest on ESPN’s Herbstreit & Fitzsimmons podcast, hosted by, of course, Herbstreit and Ian Fitzsimmons. Herbstreit asked Barkley about Penn State players’ consistent behavior off the field.

“Of all the schools out there that I’ve covered, the Penn State player is the most consistent,” Herbstreit said on the podcast. “I have four boys. If they could grow up to be like you, or grow up to be like a Jason Cabinda … Why are all these Penn State guys the same? Why are they so buttoned up? Why is it so consistent for 50, 60, 70 years?”

Franklin addressed the praise at his weekly press conference Tuesday. He started by mentioning Herbstreit is an alumnus of a Big Ten school, Ohio State.

“Kirk didn’t have to say that,” Franklin said of the compliment. “I talk about studying best practice. There’s nobody that has got a better perspective on college football than Kirk Herbstreit because he travels all over the country seeing it. The fact that he comes out and makes a strong statement like that about our players and our program is one of the best compliments I think we could get.”

Saturday will be the show’s first appearance at Penn State since before the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The progress the program has made from the time the NCAA lifted Penn State’s sanctions in 2014 until now are nearly unfathomable. Just three years later, the Nittany Lions are ranked No. 2 in the country, are the defending Big Ten champions, possible playoff contenders and have a leading Heisman candidate.

“When you hear the name, Penn State, there’s a recognition and a reaction to that,” Davis said. “People understand what that brand of football has stood for over the years and how it’s had a resurgence over the last couple years under coach Franklin. I think all of those things are our reaction when you try to think of what it means to take the show back.”

And the crew is in for a competitive matchup. The last time Penn State faced Michigan, the Nittany Lions were demolished, 49-10, at the Big House.

“Now they get tested by, really, the last team that was able to bully them,” Davis said.

While the host said Penn State is the more complete team, he predicts a close, defensive matchup that’ll be a “stern test” for the Nittany Lions.

“If Penn State is explosive on offense against this defense,” Davis said, “then I think this will tell us a great deal about what exactly the ceiling is for the Nittany Lions this year.”

The difference is this time, the Wolverines are coming into one of the most intimidating places and situations to play in college football — a Beaver Stadium White Out.

And Davis is calling for a “mini” White Out at the set of GameDay Saturday morning.

“I hope people engage with the show and listen and react,” Davis said, “and hopefully cheer when we talk about Penn State and ‘boo’ every time the name Harbaugh is mentioned or any of their other rivals. I don’t know that Pittsburgh is going to be getting a lot of talk in this show.”

His advice for fans making signs? Walk up to the line. Toe the line. But don’t cross the line.

When asked what his sign would read if he could make one: “Hey Kirk, let Rece talk more.”

“We’re taking [the show] back to a place where football is important, to a place where they’re a championship contender, and to a place that hopefully and seemingly — at least if my Twitter feed is any indication — a place that is very eager to have the show.”