STATE COLLEGE - On the fringe of Penn State's campus, the daunting steel football haven that is Beaver Stadium sits quietly for 358 days a year. But on those seven Saturdays, the second-largest stadium in North America and the area around it filled with burgers and beers come alive.
In the last few years, however, fewer people have made the pilgrimage to watch the Nittany Lions, and the stadium's attendance numbers are down for the sixth straight season. Granted, this season's average (96,266) is down by less than 500 from last season's figure and it could change after Penn State hosts Nebraska this afternoon, but it's part of a larger trend of more and more empty seats in the 106,572-seat stadium.
The Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal and the ensuing fallout - including NCAA sanctions against the university - have taken an obvious toll on attendance, and the Lions failed to draw an average of 100,000 or more fans last season for the first time since Beaver Stadium was expanded to its current capacity in 2001. Some fans had sour feelings about the way the school handled the scandal, the firing of longtime coach Joe Paterno and the acceptance of the penalties, and a few of those emotions were reflected through attendance.
In 2012, Penn State's first full season without Paterno as its head coach since 1965, Beaver Stadium averaged 96,730 fans per home game and broke the six-digit barrier only once, when 107,818 people watched Ohio State clash with the Lions.
This year, the attendance numbers have been very comparable with last season's, as Beaver Stadium hosted 100,000 or more fans again on only one occasion (107,884 people witnessed Penn State's four-overtime win against Michigan on Oct. 12) and the first three home games of the season all drew fewer than 93,000 people. Coach Bill O'Brien is hoping that changes when the Cornhuskers visit for a 3:30 p.m. showdown on Senior Day.
"We just can't wait to come into Beaver Stadium, and hopefully it will be a great crowd," O'Brien said. "I'm not in charge of ticket sales or anything like that, but I would imagine that the Penn State fans will turn out in force to show their respect for this senior class that stuck with this university and stuck with this football program."
Though a crowd of around 96,000 is low by Beaver Stadium standards, Penn State still ranked fifth in the nation in attendance last year, behind only Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama and Texas. And it is not only Penn State having problems getting behinds in the seats. The average attendance at Division-I FBS games in 2012 was 45,440, the lowest mark since the 2003 season.
Like a lot of commodities, college football tickets are becoming pricier, and Forbes.com said Penn State had the nation's 18th-most expensive ticket, at an average of $133 - a number that dropped 33 percent since 2010.
The team has no trouble filling the student section of 21,000, but it's had a more difficult time keeping season ticketholders. In 2011, the team instituted the STEP (Season Ticket and Equity Program) program, which shifted the seats of some season ticketholders two seasons ago. The team reported 90 percent of last year's season ticketholders renewed plans for this season, though in a stadium as big as Penn State's, 96,000 people doesn't look as big as it is.
Regardless of attendance, the on-field product has still been pretty successful at home in the past few years. The team's seniors who play on the Beaver Stadium turf for the final time today will be attempting to build on a 20-7 home record since 2010.
"We're looking forward to the opportunity to play Nebraska and play in front of Beaver Stadium again," senior center Ty Howle said. "But it's going to be tough knowing this is our last opportunity."
Here is Beaver Stadium's average attendance since its 2001 expansion
* Penn State plays its final home game of the 2013 season today vs. Nebraska.
Penn State vs. Nebraska
Today, 3:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, University Park
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: WNTP (990-AM), WNPV (1440-AM)
Records: Penn State 6-4, 3-3 Big Ten; Nebraska 7-3, 4-2
1. A Penn State side motivated by its seniors: Penn State's 2012 senior class got a lot of attention, and rightfully so, for keeping the team together after the NCAA sanctions last year. The Lions secured a come-from-behind win in overtime against Wisconsin on a memorable Senior Day last season. The 2013 seniors haven't goten as much recognition from outside, but are still much-appreciated by the coaches and underclassmen, and there's no doubt the game means a lot to everyone in the locker room.
2. Lots of Ameer Abdullah: The Huskers have had a carousel under center this season because of injuries, but running back Ameer Abdullah has not only been consistent, he's been the best rusher in the Big Ten. Abdullah leads the conference with 133.6 yards per game and has seven rushing touchdowns. He'll be the best running back Penn State has seen to date and will be a handful for a defense that has allowed 144 rushing yards per game, the sixth-best mark in the Big Ten.
3. A 250-yard afternoon from Christian Hackenberg: Penn State's 18-year-old quarterback has been down the past few weeks. Hackenberg threw for more than 300 yards in back-to-back weeks in October against Indiana and Michigan, but in the four games since, the true freshman has averaged only 181.8 yards per contest. Nebraska is better defensively against the run than the pass, and the Lions churned out 289 rushing yards last week against Purdue. But if Penn State can establish a sound running game early, it will open things up for Hackenberg, who is 101 yards away from hitting 2,500 on the season.
Prediction: Penn State 28, Nebraska 25: Both teams have had some good wins and not-so-great losses this season, and this should be a rather even battle. Abdullah will have success on the ground, and Penn State will be able to move the ball pretty well against the Cornhuskers. This game could come down to who can execute better in the red zone, and that's where Penn State and Bill O'Brien's play calling have the advantage against Huskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who had three turnovers last week against Michigan State.