Loss has Penn State seniors on damage control
This year's senior class has not had to lead with such urgency; indeed, the team last month welcomed the NCAA's decision to restore some scholarships to the program. But that unit needed to step up this week after the Nittany Lions' unexpected 44-24 loss to Indiana that befuddled players and fans alike.
Fifth-year safety Malcolm Willis said he and other seniors on the team such as linebacker Glenn Carson, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, and guard John Urschel are strong leaders who have kept everyone positive all season.
"Our leadership this year is very similar to what it was last year," Willis said. "We have guys who perform on the field and also who are vocal when it comes to leadership off the field.
The Nittany Lions certainly need to play with more focus and precision Saturday night at Beaver Stadium against 18th-ranked Michigan in front of a sellout "whiteout" crowd.
The Lions regrouped on the plane back to State College and turned all their attention to the Wolverines. Coach Bill O'Brien made it crystal clear this week that no one, absolutely no one, has any recollection of the Indiana game.
The leaders must make sure O'Brien's orders are carried out on the practice field and in the meeting rooms.
"All of the leaders really step up and take charge of the team when we're down," Willis said. "Even when the team is on a high note, they do the same thing. The vocal leaders really encourage guys and let them know what they're doing wrong. They are a voice of reason - when a coach gets on them, they make sure they're not too down. They just help them understand what the coaches want and what we need from them on the team."
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Willis, the team's third-leading tackler, said he is "not the in-your-face, get-real-hyped kind of leader" but one who leads by example. He has worked with the Lions' young cornerbacks, Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams, helping to keep their spirits up after the team's two losses to opponents with strong passing games.
"Malcolm is a great guy in the locker room, a great leader for us," Penn State safeties coach Anthony Midget said. "He's a guy that's played a lot and just understands football. He does a great job with our younger players helping them develop and helping them on the field. That's the type of guy we want, and Malcolm's done a great job of helping us with the younger guys."
Willis takes those players to the side and instructs them quietly.
"When it comes to the young guys in my group," he said, "I just tell them that as a defensive back at any level - high school, college, or in the pros - you have to have a short memory. If you give up a big play, which everybody does, it's your job to forget about it, move on to the next play and play at the top of your game."
Michigan is capable of big plays with quarterback Devin Gardner, and the Nittany Lions must follow their assignments on defense. Willis said it's a matter of staying on an even keel.
"Football is a game of momentum," he said. "We don't want to get too high when we make big stops and we don't want to get too low when we don't. We always want to stay loose, stay calm throughout the game, and perform at a high level."