‘Something that I’ve never seen Michigan pull off’: What it’s like to attend a whiteout game
As much as any single game in college football, the Penn State whiteout is a spectacle. This year’s edition — Penn State-Michigan on Saturday night — was announced way back in April, when college football is the last thing on most fans’ minds.
The announcement wasn’t much of a surprise. The Nittany Lions have been holding whiteouts since 2004, and Saturday’s will be their sixth against Michigan, the most of any team.
For home fans, the whiteout is a way of life. The stadium is surrounded by open fields and parking lots, perfect for huge tailgates and RV parks. Fans buy into the experience. Their dedication to wearing white combined with a metal stadium that shakes under the weight of more than 100,000 screaming fans makes it an imposing experience for away teams and fans.
But for those away fans, it’s also an experience rarely matched by any other in the sport — for better or for worse. The Daily spoke with seven Michigan fans who have attended whiteout games to get a picture of what a whiteout is like from an outsider’s perspective.
Most people interviewed said that the whiteout was unlike anything they’ve seen at Michigan Stadium, perhaps with the exception of the first “Under the Lights” game in 2011. Penn State is located two-and-a-half hours from Pittsburgh, the closest city, and it’s hard for casual fans to get to — so those that come are the diehards, and the whiteout game is the crown jewel of every season. The diehards all buy in.
Kelly Heller, attended in 2013: When you walk into the stadium, you can’t miss it.
Zack Kessler, attended in 2013 and 2017: This is gonna sound dumb, but it is very white. It is astoundingly white.
Brendan Warren, attended in 2017: I was the only one not wearing white in the entire student section. Actually, there was one other guy in yellow. But out of like 20,000 in that whole section, it was all white.
Steve Rosenberger, attended in 2010 and 2017: The first game wasn’t as hyped up … because it wasn’t an undefeated ranked matchup like the one I went to two years ago. But Penn State kind of got better at the whiteouts since then.
Ken Davidoff, attended in 2015: I didn’t know about the whiteout until I showed up at the stadium. It’s actually very funny because I had a white Michigan golf shirt, like a polo shirt. Just having no idea about the whiteout.
Warren: I was getting booed the entire time.
Davidoff: (Penn State fans) were turning to high-five me and I would pull my zipper down and show them the block ‘M,’ the blue ‘M,’ and they were like … ‘What are you doing? It’s a whiteout! Why are you wearing a white Michigan shirt?’ And I laughed, I said ‘I’m a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I didn’t know about the whiteout.’
Dan Mickelson, attended in 2010 and 2017: If you go to a night game in Ann Arbor, life is still going on outside the game. But everyone in Happy Valley is wearing white except for the away fans there for that game.
Heller: It’s something that I’ve never seen Michigan pull off. … Even a maize out, people wear gray, people wear white, people wear blue. There was not a person 90 years old or an infant that wasn’t wearing white.
Rosenberger: When I was there two years ago, the fireworks got amped up and the rock music gets turned up. … They do it to a point where it takes a bunch of inauthentic things, combines it and it kind of becomes something authentic just by, they’re not apologetic about it.
The Wolverines haven’t had much luck in whiteout games, losing three of the five matchups. Though Michigan won in 2006 and 2015, the matchups it lost were perhaps more memorable. In 2010, the Nittany Lions won, 41-31, in a shootout.
Jack Warner, attended in 2010: We were sort of licking our chops the whole time, the whole drive out there, and we were pretty optimistic that this was gonna be Rich Rod’s signature win and this was gonna jump-start the program. And obviously that’s not how it turned out.
In 2013, Brendan Gibbons missed three field goals en route to a 43-40, quadruple-overtime loss.
Heller: For (Penn State) it’s the best part. For anybody else it’s the worst part, is that the students come in early, they stay until the end, and their goalposts are white. So at night, when they’re behind the goalposts and they’re going for a field goal, the students start swaying and you can’t see the goalposts.
Mickelson: It’s hard to go into a stadium like that. … I was a student manager back in ‘07 so I know you can’t replicate that in practice. There’s no way to pump in noise like that and prepare a team for an away game like that.
Heller: I fully believe, obviously if they were at home, they would’ve totally won. But if not for the whiteout … they would’ve made those field goals.
And in 2017, Saquon Barkley ran for 121 yards, cutting through the Wolverines’ defense in a 42-13 blowout.
Warren: (Michigan) started the game on defense, so everyone was silent. Dead silent. And I was just screaming because we were on defense, and then Saquon Barkley scored very quickly and that kinda shut me up.
Mickelson: From our vantage point, (Barkley) was running towards us. It was just wild to see the whole place shake.
The environment provides what many believe is a built-in advantage for the Nittany Lions.
Rosenberger: I don't think it (affected) as much for Denard (Robinson), because they were used to going no-huddle all the time and Rich Rod’s teams … called their plays in with hand signals from the sideline. But when you’re trying to huddle up, the sound is of another — it’s even louder than any other stadium I've been to.
Warner: We’ve seen better Michigan teams go into Penn State in a similar environment and win, like in 2015. … I think the impact of the crowd is often overstated, and that’s often especially the case with Penn State because I think the whiteout is more a marketing scheme than an actual difference maker on the football field.
Rosenberger: They make the whiteout their biggest game of the year, so they see it as an advantage, and they move it around. They use it as a weapon.
The whiteout is seen as an unparalleled experience, especially in the Big Ten. Most people interviewed were impressed with the atmosphere. As with any time you’re an away fan, those interviewed had mixed experiences with Penn State fans, but one way or another, it was a memorable experience and the images still stick with them.
Kessler: It’s just crazy. There’s signs and people are heckling you and most people were very nice about it, like a very good-natured heckling, but one percent of 100,000 people is still a lot of heckling.
Mickelson: (The fans) were shockingly nicer, maybe because they knew they were gonna beat us pretty bad. … Our expectations weren’t very high and theirs were sky-high. So we had a great time. Fans were inviting us to their tailgates, one guy bought me ice cream at the creamery, people were overly nice.
Heller: I take a loss very hard (but) I couldn’t take that loss very hard. … It was (quadruple) overtime, anybody could’ve won, and the whiteout was just insane.
Warren: I just had a great time. It was one of the most fun games I’ve been to, even though we lost. … It’s a different type of environment. I made TV. That was fun. They were just panning over the crowd, kinda zoomed in on me. I got like 10 texts at halftime from friends and family. You stick out like a sore thumb when you’re wearing not white.
Davidoff: I went to an Alabama game a few years ago, 2014, just that whole atmosphere is phenomenal. Just tailgating before the game, the night before, the bars, that was pretty incredible. But in terms of the in-game, in-stadium experience, the whiteout has to be at the very top.
Warner: I hated every minute of it, and I hated it even more knowing that after watching this horrible game, we had to wake up at like 5 a.m. the next morning to drive all the way back to Ann Arbor. So I was pretty miserable and didn't take anything positive away from the experience.
Kessler: There just is this passion that, it means so much to everyone there, which can be a negative and a positive, as we’ve seen. But it certainly is something that people just love. It just means so much to them.
Davidoff: Just a really smart idea, cleverly executed, and the fans and the students are clearly into it. It’s a very simple instruction, right? Wear white.
Mickelson: It was just wild to see the whole place shake. It was pretty cool. And I’ve gone to away games at other stadiums. This is a must-see experience.