TEMPE – College football is often celebrated for its animated and passionate student sections. On Saturday, Arizona State quarterback Emory Jones will be forced to listen to 60 minutes of “pow pow” as hundreds of paddles bang against the sidelines surrounding the oldest venue in the Big 12.
Welcome to Stillwater, Sun Devils.
After securing a routine victory against Northern Arizona 40-3 last Thursday, the Sun Devils (1-0) are off to Boone Pickens Stadium to face No. 11 Oklahoma State.
From mascot Pistol Pete to the Spirit Walk, Oklahoma State football is rooted in gameday traditions. The sea of orange surrounding the stadium and the sound of the band marching down Hester Street let you know that you’ve arrived in Stillwater.
Yet, one tradition makes gameday in Stillwater a chilling thought for opponents. Smacking their bright orange paddles along the sidelines before every play, the Paddle People represent Oklahoma State’s 12th man.
“We know it’s going to be a hostile environment. We know it’s going to be loud. We know it’s going to be rocking,” Jones said. “But honestly, that’s when you go out there and play your best ball.”
Due to the high demand and limited seating, students must go through extreme measures to be part of this exclusive group.
Paddle People must camp outside the stadium, affectionately known as “Gundyville” for coach Mike Gundy, for two days before the game. To avoid disqualification, students operate in rotating shifts, bringing food and supplies to last through the stay. Students who endure receive a wristband Saturday morning, permitting them entry into the stadium and access to the special row.
Although rising temperatures and humidity did not provide ideal camping weather in Stillwater this week, Cowboys fans are expected to make the west end zone an uncomfortable place for the Sun Devils.
“We’re going on the road. And obviously, when you go to the sideline it’s going to be a little louder,” ASU coach Herm Edwards said. “How do they handle that? It’s another experience we’re going to experience together as a team, and we’ll figure that out. I think these guys will. I think they will hopefully stay calm and stay focused on the job at hand.”
Last week, Oklahoma State was battle-tested against a surprisingly tough Central Michigan team that put up 44 points against the veteran Cowboys defense. However, the offense flourished under quarterback Spencer Sanders, who threw for 406 yards and four touchdowns.
ASU’s Carter Brown, a true freshman and Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week, had four field goals and four extra points against NAU. In order to keep up with the explosiveness of the Cowboys offense, the Sun Devils will need to be more efficient on the offensive side of the ball.
Saturday will mark the fourth straight season that ASU’s first road game of the year is against a ranked opponent. Under the Edwards era, ASU has three road wins against ranked opponents, including a 42-23 win over No. 20 UCLA last season.
“We really have to lock in and be focused,” said starting left guard and team captain LaDarius Henderson. “It’s going to be loud, of course, but this is what you play for, why you play the game. You don’t play the game to have empty stadiums, so this is something that I’ve been telling them to be excited about, not nervous.”
Henderson is one of the only remaining players from ASU’s last non-conference Power 5 matchup of this status, an impressive Sun Devils victory in East Lansing, Michigan, three years ago over No. 18 Michigan State. Henderson, who received his first career start in that game and was crucial in protecting former ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels on the game-winning drive, has been prepping his teammates for the crowd they will face Saturday.
“The biggest thing I learned is you get on them early, you start making plays and they will quiet down,” Henderson said. “No matter how many people they have, they could have a 100,000, you start doing your thing, those 100,000 get real quiet real soon. That’s one thing we have been echoing to the guys this week.”
Case Hatch, fellow captain and member of that 2019 ASU team, believes his experience at Spartan Stadium will only help him stay collected against the Cowboys.
“I would say from that game, the biggest thing to take away is you have to focus up and really dial in,” Hatch said. “You’re not going to be able to hear the snap count well and there are going to be a lot of things chirping into your mind so you just have to focus on what your assignment is.
“But man, when we went out to Michigan State, it was just so much fun to be there. Yeah their fans are going crazy, but the environment, man that is just football. That is the environment you want to play in and I’m excited to get out there.”
Edwards and his staff have been prepping the team on how to stay focused under adverse conditions, Brown said.
“I think it’s going to be a great game,” Brown said. “I’m hearing it should be packed and we actually watched videos in the team meeting on how the atmosphere is and I think it’s going to be great. I think we are ready to perform.”
It will be no easy task for the Sun Devils to win in an environment like Boone Pickens, against a team that comes into Saturday’s game looking to tie its consecutive home victory record at 10.
Still, Arizona State hopes to make a statement that would cause chaos throughout college football.
“For us as a team, the biggest thing is to prove who we are. It’s a very big opponent but we are ready,” Hatch said. “They aren’t better than us, we know that, and we are gonna come with a lot of energy. We are going to prove to the NCAA and the football world who we are, that we are here to stay as Sun Devils.”
Despite the uncertainties surrounding the ASU program ahead of Saturday’s festivities, one thing remains certain: Boone Pickens Stadium will be packed with at least 50,000 raucous fans. The sound of 200 paddles and a sea of orange, black and white striped shirts will be Jones’s first road test as an ASU player.
“I think it’s a great venue,” Edwards said. “You’re going to be on television. You’re going to be in that stadium. So our guys are excited.”
Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. MST, with the game to air on ESPN2.