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Rudel: Nittany Lions’ leadership and resiliency shining in past three weeks

Commentary

There are many reasons for the Nittany Lions three-game win streak that they’re riding into Big Ten “Championship Week.”

But the biggest is internal leadership.

While most watching from the outside of Penn State?s program believe the players have sacrificed enough and are fine with looking ahead to the holidays and eventually the 2021 season, the players remain invested.

Even without fans –and absurdly, even without their parents in the stands due to state government overreach (especially given that Army-Navy had a large crowd) the Lions showed in Saturday’s 39-24 comeback win over Michigan State that they’ll enjoy staying together as long as they can.

It was announced Sunday afternoon that Penn State will host Illinois in a “championship week” matchup at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

And that may not be the finale, either.

Some teams, Pitt among them, have announced they will bypass a bowl invitation this year, but Penn State’s players favor playing in one if given the chance.

Standout receiver Jahan Dotson had two words on the possibility: “Definitely” and “absolutely.”

This is a month when upperclassmen typically have their eyes on postseason all-star games and NFL draft preparation, and no one could blame any of them if their focus on the 2020 season would be waning during this pandemic.

Dotson, whose 108 yards receiving and electrifying 81-yard punt return iced the win over the Spartans, may be Penn State?s highest available draft pick. And yet, he’s still all in for whatever other games are scheduled.

“I wouldn’t want any other thing than to play with my brothers,” he said. “At the end of the day, you only get so many opportunities to suit up in the blue and white.”

Center Michal Menet feels the same way. He took a final lap after the players had sung the alma mater and dispersed to the locker room Saturday just in case he doesn’t play on the Beaver Stadium turf again.

“I’ve seen guys do it in the past,” he said.

It made him reflective.

“It just seems like yesterday,’ he said. “We were all (freshmen) on the seventh floor at Beaver Hall.”

The offensive leadership of Dotson and Menet, through quarterback uncertainty and switches, has kept the team afloat.

Dotson has enjoyed a great season as one of the Big Ten?s top receivers, and Menet stabilized a line that has found itself in the last three weeks.

The unit allowed no sacks Saturday and has a three-game total of just three after surrendering 24 per game in the 0-5 start.

There’s no question the stretch run of Michigan, Rutgers and Michigan State has been more negotiable than the early season of Indiana, Ohio State and Iowa.

At the same time, the Lions lost to teams early (Maryland and Nebraska) that are no better than the ones they’ve beaten lately.

“The last three games we got back to our process,” Menet said. “That’s been the biggest difference. Guys have bought in and are giving everything they can for six seconds at a time.”

After a brutal first half, the Penn State defense clamped down. The key stop came when, down 21-18, the Lions held the Spartans to a field goal–their only points of the second half — after Sparty was first-and-goal at the 4 midway through the third quarter.

A TD there, James Franklin admitted, “and I think the game could have been different.”

But the fire lacking in October and early November is now burning.

“I set off some explosives in here,” Franklin told the Penn State Radio Network about his halftime speech. “I keep them in my locker for special–firecrackers and M-80s.”

He was kidding so he turned serious.

“The resiliency we’ve shown, I’m proud of them to find a way to show that type of heart,” he said. ‘I’m proud of the entire organization and how we’ve handled adversity.”

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