STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Chants ring out under the night sky as autumn exhales. Under the looming presence of Beaver Stadium, a giant erector set of a structure, students sit and chat near their tents while others toss footballs.
An official count puts the number of students here in Nittanyville, a weeklong campout in front of Gate A, at 1,200. This isn't the first iteration of Nittanyville, but it's certainly the largest. Bigger than other contests against Ohio State, Notre Dame and Alabama, when students discussed bowl games and rankings mattered. Bigger than the nearby borough of Houtzdale (pop: 941) that assistant coach Mac McWhorter visited a few months ago.
"This is such a big game," said camper Meghan Riegel, a freshman. "It's kind of the culmination of showing everyone that we're not done, that we're not kicked down."
About 6 percent of Penn State's student section is here now. Some students' faces are reflected in the dim screens of their laptops, feverishly working on term papers, while at least a half-dozen footballs spiral in the air at any given time.
Some students chat about the resurgence of Penn State as if a national title just escaped its grasp. Another group sits in a small circle, philosophizing and smoking from pipes like they're Hugh Hefner. Another student sprawls out on a bench, staring up at Beaver Stadium in awe, while a book -- "50 Shades of Grey" -- rests on her lap.
Saturday's game, ultimately, might not mean anything on paper. The Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes, win or lose, cannot play beyond November. But the Nittanyville campers shake their heads and thrust up their hands when someone suggests this game means nothing.
On the contrary, they say, it has never meant so much. That's why everyone is here. That's why a white booth is set up so students can recharge their laptop batteries and cell phones without meandering to their dorms. That's why Beaver Stadium opened a restroom. That's why 144 multi-colored tents dot the corner of Curtin and Porter roads. And that's why businesses, teams, and athletes seem to visit hourly with food and games.
"I don't even know where to start with how important a win is," said senior Troy Weller, president -- yes, annual elections are held -- of Nittanyville. "It starts with proving to the country that any sanctions that were levied on us didn't hurt the will of this team or this school."
Students here know how others in the country perceive them. Residents in California or Texas hear of past riots and Joe Paterno apologizers, scandals and Jerry Sandusky, but students here believe exaggerations and truth are as intertwined as shoestrings at this point. They remember the candlelight vigils and the anger and embarrassment when Sandusky's pedophilia was discovered and when several administrators could have stopped it.
But they've united in this small space, amidst colorful trees and green mountains, to forget some of that controversy and show the actions of a few will not derail the mindset of many.
"To be honest, people are here because of the sanctions," said Jared Daily, a freshman who grew up in State College. "People are rallying behind this football team to show that, no matter what happens, we're one university and one team."
It's a little bit overwhelming, to be honest with you. I just think it says a lot about our school and our student body.
”-- Penn State coach Bill O'Brien
Campers will sleep or hang out in shifts to attend class or take showers. Many non-campers visit this place simply to experience the spectacle. Hours after Bill O'Brien, Matt McGloin and other football celebrities visited Nittanyville with grins and a sense of wonder, the Blue Band's drum line marches in -- and the women's ice hockey team later hands out posters. The night didn't grow calm until 11 p.m., when chants of "We are Penn State!" trickled to one every few minutes.
"It's unbelievable," O'Brien said Thursday afternoon. "It's a little bit overwhelming, to be honest with you. I just think it says a lot about our school and our student body."
Added McGloin: "The support we have now is better than ever."
Drivers along Curtin Road often pause at the nearby stop sign with bemused grins. An older gentleman with a bushy moustache pulls his car off to the side to get a closer look. Others check their rearview mirrors at the sign and stare for a minute.
Around 2 a.m., traffic will slow and students will finally retreat inside their tents. It's one part carnival and three parts family reunion, without the eccentric uncles, and at Nittanyville -- and quiet time doesn't last long.
"Sometimes I wake up at 5 a.m. to go home, just walking through Nittanyville, and it's dead silent," Weller said. "Knowing that soon it's going to be a completely electric atmosphere, it's just something that's incredible once you comprehend it.
"There's no bowl, but this is a statement game."