By Martin Cleary
Football with spectators has returned to the highly acclaimed and boisterous Beaver Stadium on the campus of Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.
And Jesse Luketa and Jonathan Sutherland, a pair of key senior defensive Nittany Lions’ players from Ottawa, were beside themselves.
While Penn State played five of its nine NCAA division 1 football games in 2020 at home, health guidelines relating to the COVID-19 pandemic prevented any fans from attending the games. But in July, the university announced athletic competitions could have full-capacity attendance.
Luketa and Sutherland experienced that full adrenaline rush last Saturday, when they joined their teammates to run out of the tunnel and onto the field for their first home game with spectators in the Big Ten Conference in 22 months. They were greeted by the deafening cheers of 105,323 fans.
In that game, undefeated and 10th-ranked Penn State rolled to a 44-13 win over Ball State University. Luketa shared in the highlights with a one-handed interception that he returned for a touchdown.
Luketa and Sutherland are scheduled to do it all again Saturday night at home against No. 22 Auburn University. It’s the White Out game as all fans will be wearing white shirts in the second largest stadium in the Western Hemisphere and fourth largest in the world.
“Being able to play in front of our fans, you know, it has been two years since we’ve been able to pack the stadium. It was huge for me,” Luketa, a hybrid linebacker and defensive end, said after the game.
While more than 105,000 seems overwhelming, it was just short of a sellout as the official capacity is 106,572. The team has played in front of crowds exceeding 110,000 on nine occasions with the record being set at 110,889 in a 27-26 loss to Ohio State on Sept. 29, 2018.
“We had 105,000 fans and that’s huge. I’m looking forward to next week (vs. Auburn) because we need this place to be sold out. We need everybody on their feet rocking,” he added.
“It was a great feeling and it was humbling that we have all that support. We do it for them, we work so hard to come in here and put on a show for them because, ultimately, they are our biggest supporters. I’m extremely grateful.”
Sutherland, who is a team co-captain for a third straight year, also was thrilled to have the fans back in the seats to support the team.
“With COVID last year and not having the opportunity to play in front of these fans, it was a real humbling experience. The camaraderie and the environment (were) crazy,” he said, following the Ball State victory, which included one solo and three assisted tackles for him. “We love the fans and appreciate those who came out.”
Luketa loved hearing the crowd as he made his pre-game run onto the field, but he stirred the crowd’s emotions even more when he made a left-handed interception and ran 16 yards for a touchdown with 5:56 remaining in the third quarter. He also recorded two solo and two assisted tackles.
“I kind of just put my paw out there and I gripped it with my hand,” Luketa said, detailing his first career interception in his four years at Penn State. “I was like ‘oh, I might really catch it.’ And, I got it.
“It’s funny because right before it happened, coach Terry Smith told us we had to get the crowd more involved. So, I went straight to the student section and I just heard the whole stadium erupt. It was a great feeling.”
The Penn State defense had a turnover target of three, and came close at two, which was still impressive.
“It was great to see,” Sutherland, a safety, said about Luketa’s interception turned touchdown. “Everyone is happy for Jesse. It was an outstanding play. It speaks to his athleticism and just the football player he is.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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