As the annual Big Ten Media Days symbolically kicked off the 2021 Big Ten football cycle, four Penn State representatives took center stage at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
James Franklin and players Tariq Castro-Fields, Jahan Dotson and PJ Mustipher expectedly shared a number of similar messages throughout the day — and even the same color palette in each of their suits.
Perhaps the most consistent message from the bunch, though, was leaving the past behind and returning the entire program to the same ground they stood on Thursday.
“That’s the goal, right? That’s the goal for all of us to get back here and play in a way and a style that’s going to give us the best opportunity to win a Big Ten Championship, and then have an opportunity to represent the Big Ten and Penn State in the playoffs,” Franklin said.
While acknowledging he holds significant bias, Franklin said the Nittany Lions were fortunate enough to have won what he called one of the better Big Ten Championship Games.
It’s hard to forget the 2016 come-from-behind win for Penn State over Wisconsin in 2016, but the 2021 Penn State roster no longer features any players from that season.
It’s officially a new page for the blue and white, and with such comes new challenges — especially after the 4-5 season it put together in 2020.
“At the end of the day, it's ‘What have we done this year? What have we created this year? What have we developed this season and this game?’ And I think our approach is going
to be very, very critical to that,” Franklin said.
“We can’t lean on those experiences. We’ve played in a bunch of big-time games — I think we have been in three New Year Six bowl games in the last five years and have done some great things — but at the end of the day it's about championships, it's about getting to Indianapolis, and it's about being able to compete for a national championship.”
Dotson, the senior receiver who decided to return to the Nittany Lions after a career year in 2020, first came to Happy Valley two years after the 2016 Big Ten title.
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However, he said he’s tired of hearing the same old script and is ready to write a new one.
“Honestly, we’re tired of seeing the 2016 Big Ten Championship. We want to have one to ourselves,” Dotson said. “We’ve seen it ever since we got here, and we’re just ready to be here ourselves. To be in this building and win a Big Ten Championship ourselves. We’re working every single day to do that.”
Almost as synchronous as their suits and Penn State pins, Franklin and Dotson both echoed that the journey back to Indianapolis begins with a Week 1 victory and a “1-0 mentality.”
However, Week 1 this year carries a bit more weight than it has in the past.
Penn State matches up with Wisconsin on the road for the first game of the 2021 season. Traveling to face a conference foe — and the same team Penn State took down in the 2016 Big Ten title game — is a big step up from the typical nonconference action afforded to Franklin and company.
While the mantra is still to go 1-0 each week no matter who the team is, it’s hard to deny the setting the Nittany Lions are headed for in the season opener.
“We have had a countdown clock going on in our facility like we do every single year — but I must admit — having Wisconsin's logo up there has really raised the standard for our guys, and they understand we better be ready to go come the first kick of the first game of the season against a tremendous opponent,” Franklin said.
Across the board for the Nittany Lion representatives was a common theme of staying “hungry” for improvement in the 2021 season.
In order to reach the end goal of competing for a championship at Lucas Oil Stadium, learning from the shortcomings of the 2020 season is a top priority.
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For the senior defensive tackle Mustipher, the 4-5 finish leaves him all the motivation he needs.
“It doesn’t sit well with me at all. We’ve had so much time to really just sit on that 4-5, and it wasn’t fun. It’s not fun at all,” Mustipher said. “We’ve still got that taste in our mouth, and it won’t be out until we play Wisconsin Week 1. We’re more hungry than ever since I’ve been here. We just gotta keep this momentum.”
And to Castro-Fields, that taste may be even worse than it is for others.
The fifth-year senior corner only made three starts in 2021 due to injury. Despite the short amount of playing time, he still garnered an All-Big Ten honorable mention.
Now, the Upper Marlboro, Maryland, native is back with the Nittany Lions thanks to utilizing his extra year of eligibility. However, he said he’s keeping the same consistent approach to leadership that he’s had since sophomore year.
“I think my mentality is the same, just being as consistent as I can be every day,” Castro-Fields said. “[I] just try to be the example in practice every day. Practices can get hard, practices can get long, but I feel like as long as I’m setting the example and going hard each practice — they have no choice but to follow.”
Castro-Fields said Dotson and Mustipher are some of his closest counterparts on the team, considering the Maryland connection with Mustipher and the fact that he’s at Dotson’s house nearly every day.
Stepping onto the hallowed ground that is Lucas Oil Stadium sparked conversations between the trio that Castro-Fields said he’ll bring back to Happy Valley.
“As we were walking in [Lucas Oil Stadium], we were like ‘We gotta get back here somehow,’” Castro-Fields said. “I’m just gonna tell the guys about my experience here. It’s a blessing to be in this stadium. It’s a blessing just to be here, so I’m super motivated for sure.”
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