UNIVERSITY PARK — When PJ Mustipher arrived at Penn State, the Nittany Lions appeared to be pushing toward the College Football Playoffs. But after a 11-win campaign in 2019, the state of the program took a step back. Penn State fell flat in 2020 and fell apart in 2021 after being ranked as high as No. 4. The Nittany Lions were a combined 11-11 the last two years, leading to questions around when it would rediscover success.
That’s why Mustipher is looking forward to Senior Day. Of course, the recognition ahead of his final game at Beaver Stadium will be nice. But the most important thing to the All-Big Ten defensive tackle is beating Michigan State, getting to 10-2 and putting Penn State in position to be selected for a New Year’s Six bowl game.
“I tell the guys all the time, I’ve been here for five years now,” Mustipher said. “We won nine games in 2018. In 2019, we won 11. And since then, you know, we haven’t even won eight games. So to be here at 9-2 and to get a 10th win, it would mean the world. Because we’re getting this program trending in the right direction. The future’s bright.”
It’s hard to argue with that considering how many true freshmen have contributed.
Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen have combined for 1,611 rushing yards and 21 total touchdowns. Drew Allar has shown flashes of why he was a five-star quarterback. Abdul Carter is doing the No. 11 jersey justice at linebacker. Even less glamorous freshmen like Drew Shelton, Zane Durant and Dani Dennis-Sutton have made noticeable progress. Then, there are second-year players like Kalen King and Chop Robinson who have become foundational pieces to rely on.
This year has gone a long way in developing depth and confidence for 2023. But it’s also meant a lot to the outgoing seniors who will be celebrated on Saturday.
Take safety Ji’Ayir Brown, for example. After receiving zero FBS offers out of high school in New Jersey, Brown went to Lackawanna College and transferred to Penn State ahead of the 2020 season. He was sold on partnering with his former JUCO teammate, Jaquan Brisker. But he also saw Penn State reach three New Year’s Six bowl games in a four-year span. He wanted to be a part of that.
Instead, the COVID-affected 2020 campaign was a nightmare for the Nittany Lions, starting 0-5 and finishing 4-5. Last season, normalcy returned but Penn State was still met with disappointment. Mustipher and Sean Clifford going down at Iowa changed the course of the season, which finished with a 7-6 record and an Outback Bowl loss.
“We know we’re a 10-win team every year,” Brown said. “We know what happened in the past. We know why it happened. But we also know that wasn’t us. That wasn’t our team these past couple of years. Things happen in this game. Things happen that don’t go your way. But we knew who we were as a team coming in this year. We knew where we were as a team coming in last year. The chips didn’t fall the way we wanted them to fall. But we never forgot who we are.”
If Penn State takes care of business against Michigan State on Saturday, it’ll be a 10-win team. And if they make good on that, whether they end up in the Rose, Cotton, Orange or Citrus bowl, the likes of Brown, Mustipher and sixth-year linebacker Jonathan Sutherland will remember this season as a successful one.
“Every person in this program has sacrificed so much and put in the work,” Sutherland said. “Obviously, the game this weekend is really big for us. It gives us the opportunity to capitalize, get a 10-win season and hopefully set ourselves up for a New Year’s Six bowl game. Everyone’s earned it in this program.”
“The future’s bright. We just have to finish this year out strong,” Mustipher said. “That’s what means the most to me. Because when I came back, one of the biggest reasons was to win games. We’ve done that this year.”