COLUMBUS, Ohio –– The traffic signs on Woody Hayes Drive—about a half-mile from Ohio Stadium—flashed “LET’S TACKLE COVID-19.” Then: “NO TAILGATING.”
And there wasn’t any. Around the stadium, the campus was effectively empty. The only thing that felt usual about this two hours before the game was the plain, primered sky that seems to be a fixture of every road Nebraska game I’ve covered in the Big Ten. It might just be a matte painting that gets wheeled around the league, part of a television production.
Big-time college football games have felt more like made-for-TV events in the best of times. In the current times, it’s almost impossible to think of them otherwise. Official attendance at Ohio Stadium for Nebraska-Ohio State was announced at 1,344. That included players’ parents on both sides, all of the media assembled in the press box (approximately 40 people), all of the players and coaches and all of the athletic-department staff needed to pull off the game. Outside of the teams, Fox may have had the biggest share of that total. It’s Big Noon Saturday pregame show was live from Columbus and such a production, well, it takes a village.
But better televised football than no football. I watched a lot of the former after worrying all summer about the latter in the weeks leading up to the Big Ten’s return. At home, the empty stadiums are pretty easy to miss. You’re focused on the action and these production crews—facing their own challenges—are good at what they do.
On site, it’s impossible not to be constantly reminded of the difference. When Ohio State answered Nebraska’s blistering opening touchdown drive with a touchdown of its own, I wondered “where’s the roar?” as Master Teague III crashed into the end zone from 1 yard out.
Then I remembered. Nobody’s here. Flat, cardboard fans outnumbered 3-D fans three-to-one.
Ohio State pumped in crowd noise at the strictly mandated levels, but I don’t think I noticed it once up in the press box. Even on the field, the sound of relative silence took some getting used to.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Nebraska linebacker Collin Miller said. “Just you’re out there playing but once that ball is hiked it’s just quiet. You just hear everybody running around and hitting and then somehow it comes out when the plays break and you’re waiting for the next call to come in that you can hear the fans and everything. When you’re running around, it kind of felt like a normal Saturday.”
Confine things to the actual workings of the game and it did kind of feel like a normal Saturday at times. But our current reality always seemed just around the corner.
On my way up to my seat two hours before kickoff, I got off on the wrong floor. The elevator spit me out on one of the upper concourses. Empty coolers lined the walls. If not for the dustbin and broom dropped right in the middle of the walkway, I would’ve thought I was the only person who’d been up there since March.
Then I remembered. Why would anyone have spent much time up here since everything changed? The action was all happening down on the base level, football at its most basic. Just a ball and a game.
A couple of birds bounced around the concourse, happy to have the run of the upper deck.
I went down two flights of stairs only to get back in the same elevator and go one level higher than I’d just been.
It kind of felt like normal.