The Lions face Minnesota Saturday in Beaver Stadium in a critical Big Ten game. Penn State has not beaten the Golden Gophers since 1998 and figures to have its hands full again, with star tailback Laurence Maroney going into the game as the country's rushing leader. But while the defense will be tested, particularly the front seven, Rice said the Lions' home-field advantage will come into play.
“It's a big factor,” he said. “We feed off the crowd. They've always had our backs, whether it's a winning season or we're starting off 0-4. We definitely lean on our crowd, and our crowd leans on us. That's a key to our team. I expect them to be there, and I know they will be there for us.”
Players said they've noticed more enthusiasm on campus this week with the Nittany Lions heading into the game 4-0 and hoping to make a run at the Big Ten title. This will be the first time since 1999 that they go into October unbeaten.
“There are a lot more smiles, a lot more congratulations, a lot more people buying into it, I guess,” defensive tackle Scott Paxson said. “It feels good.”
The Nittany Lions are hoping such enthusiasm carries over into the stadium. While the team's fan base is both massive and passionate, support has waned in the aftermath of two consecutive losing seasons and four in the past five years. Many of the club seats in the south end zone remain unoccupied, and Penn State has had to advertise its tickets, something it never did before the stadium was enlarged to 107,282 seats in 2001.
Moreover, Beaver Stadium crowds, no matter what their size, tend to be passive at times on game day. Fairly or unfairly, Penn State fans have a reputation for sitting on their hands. Their muted enthusiasm has often frustrated the team's more demonstrative supporters.
But even though the Nittany Lions have yet to play to a full house this season, Rice said players have been grateful for the support they've received.
“Our crowd, our fan base, has been there no matter what situation we've been in,” he said. “I love them for that. I don't think you can go anywhere else in the world and experience two major losing seasons and still get that much support from a crowd and a fan base. I don't think [support] is picking up so much; it's more like an overdue feeling. It's something our crowd, our fans and Penn State in general deserve and have been lacking for a while. We're just trying to do what we have do to make sure it stays that way.”