To prepare for Penn State's ground-shaking crowd, Michigan turns practice down to a whisper

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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 9, 2013

When Beaver Stadium is at its loudest, scientists have determined, the sound is loud enough to cause physical pain to the eardrum. During a 2007 game against Ohio State, Andrew Barnard of Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory’s Structural Acoustics Department recorded a sound of 122 decibels at its brief peak.

For reference, that’s two times louder than a loud rock concert. It’s four times as loud as a jet flyover 1,000 feet overhead. It’s as if each person on the field is standing near a chainsaw.

To replicate loud playing conditions, most teams blast music to obscure the snap count. The Michigan football team has done the same in the past.

But when the Wolverines began practice Tuesday, there was no music, no noise. Instead, Michigan is fighting chainsaws with silence. When redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner called out the snap, he did it in a faint whisper.

As redshirt sophomore center Graham Glasgow tried to explain: “Instead of, like, being louder, we’re trying to be, like, quieter.”

The idea originated with offensive coordinator Al Borges. When Borges approached Gardner with the idea, “I busted out laughing,” Gardner said.

“I thought it was a joke,” he said. “But if you think about it, conceptually it is a good idea.”

That idea is this: music, especially outdoors, doesn’t provide an accurate imitation of crowd noise. A whispered snap count, on the other hand, can be reliably heard only by Glasgow when Gardner is under center. That’s closer to what the line will hear — or more precisely, not hear — at Penn State.

At the sustained levels recorded by Barnard, only those standing 1.5 feet or closer to the quarterback would be physically able to hear and understand his calls. That means only Glasgow.

“That’s kind of how it’s gonna be when it’s really loud,” Gardner said. “Just like I’m whispering even if I’m yelling at the top of my lungs.”

By Wednesday, Gardner was a believer — so much so that he gave a demonstration for the reporters assembled at his press conference.

Gardner leaned in to the microphone. “Set hut, black 17, black 17, set hut.” His voice was audible above the noise of the ventilation system and cars rumbling past outside, but not by much.

“That’s how low I was talking,” Gardner said. “It was pretty cool. Everybody got off the ball just fine, so that’s refreshing.”

When Michigan has played on the road, it has battled against more than just its opponent. Often, it has struggled with the atmosphere, and just as often, its been beaten by itself.

Under Michigan coach Brady Hoke, the Wolverines have gone 5-5 in true road games, excluding neutral-field contests. Hoke has been clear about the source of the road woes: turnovers.

In the Wolverines’ 10 games on the road during Hoke’s tenure, they have turned the ball over 28 times. In losses, they’ve averaged more than three turnovers per game.

Those losses have come at hostile venues like Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium, Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium or Ohio State’s Ohio Stadium. Hoke isn’t sold that crowd noise is to blame, but he acknowledged that it can be a factor.

“Believe me, some guys do get distracted,” Hoke said, noting that at Michigan State his first year as head coach, the team had communication issues. “That’s not a good thing.”

Compared to the other Big Ten venues, Beaver Stadium is louder and more boisterous than all of them. There, the sound is all-enveloping, wrapping around the offense like a dense fog.

Because Michigan last made the trip to Happy Valley in 2010, most on the team haven’t played there. Those who have remember.

“It felt like the ground was shaking,” Gardner said.

“Sometimes we’ll be standing face to face, and I won’t be able to hear myself think or hear you talk,” said fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan.

That left such a lasting impression that Lewan was inspired to text Hoke at 11:30 last Saturday night, saying the team needed extra crowd-noise work this week.

Borges was ready. Hoke said this isn’t the first time Borges has used the whisper technique. At San Diego State, Hoke and Borges used it when playing Brigham Young or Utah.

Did it work?

“I think so,” Hoke said. “It’s hard for me to remember to be honest with you. We got crushed one year up there at Utah, so it probably didn’t help that game.”

That’s not too surprising. The whisper is a close facsimile, but it’s not the real thing. If Penn State approaches 120 decibels again on Saturday, the point where the ground shakes and your head pounds, it will be a full 10 billion times louder than Gardner’s whisper. And that’s impossible to prepare for.