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Penn State uses the bad taste of a poor 2020 to stay motivated and hungry for the new season

The Nittany Lions' 0-5 start was their worst ever, and their 4-5 record was their first losing season since 2004. "We're more hungry than ever," tackle PJ Mustipher said about preparing for 2021

Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher (97) pressures Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral (0) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Piscataway, N.J.  (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher (97) pressures Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral (0) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Piscataway, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)Read moreAdam Hunger / AP

INDIANAPOLIS – A new college football season approaches. Optimism fills every locker room and championship dreams occupy the minds of every player.

Penn State has all that, but those nice thoughts are almost overshadowed by a grim determination and focus not to – or never again to – repeat one of the worst seasons in program history, a first-ever 0-5 start that led to a 4-5 mark, the Nittany Lions’ first losing season since 2004.

Despite a 4-0 finish that gave the Lions momentum entering the offseason, the horrible memories remain.

“It doesn’t sit well with me at all,” PJ Mustipher, the team’s 6-foot-4, 323-pound senior defensive tackle, said Thursday at Big Ten Football Media Days. “I’ve had a lot of time to reflect, not only myself. Everybody on the part of Penn State football has had a time to reflect on what that season was like, where we went wrong, things we did well but could have done better.

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“I think we’ve had so much time to really just sit on that 4-5 and it wasn’t fun, not fun at all. We’ve still got that bad taste in our mouth and we’ll have that until we play Wisconsin in Week 1 (Sept. 4). So we’re hungry. We’re more hungry than ever since I’ve been here.”

The Penn State defense allowed an average of 36 points in the season’s first five games, and the team was a dismal minus-9 in turnover margin, coughing the ball up 13 times. The last four games saw the offense average just over 36 points with just four turnovers.

For senior wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who finds himself on several preseason award watch lists, the encouraging part of 2020 was that he and his teammates didn’t give up after five straight losses.

“We literally never stopped fighting,” Dotson said. “We have a lot of fighters on our team. That’s what we did. We finished off the season pretty well and there’s no better way going into a season when you’re coming off a couple of wins from the previous season. We’ve been working tremendously hard during this offseason to be a great football team.”

After one of the best seasons by a wide receiver in the Big Ten, 52 catches for 884 yards and eight touchdowns, plus a gaudy 24.6-yard average on punt returns, Dotson passed on entering the NFL draft and elected to return for another season.

“I just want to be a better version of myself,” he said, “being a better football player than I was last year just building on every aspect of my game, building my skillset, just learning the ins and outs of defenses and coverage recognition, different things like that, basically being a better football player.”

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James Franklin, who experienced his first losing season in his 10 seasons as a head coach, the last seven with the Nittany Lions, said his program would own last season, learn from it, and grow.

“We’re going to stay extremely humble,” he said. “I think there’s a chip on your shoulder because of it.

“But I would also say this: I don’t want for us to be successful this year to prove all the naysayers wrong. I want to be successful because of the men in our locker room and the people in our organization and the people we represent in State College and at Penn State. That’s what I’m concerned about.

“I know we have a model and a method that works and we need to get back to that model and method that has been so successful while also learning some of the lessons from last year, where we can improve.”

The Nittany Lions enter training camp next month with an experienced quarterback in Sean Clifford, talent and depth at running back and tight end and in the secondary, and potential at linebacker and along the offensive line. The Lions have to come up with three new starters on the defensive line and hope some of their young wide receivers can provide depth.

Mustipher is the only returning starter on the defensive line but says no one has a free pass, that he must earn the No. 1 job like everyone else.

“We’ve worked all offseason,” he said. “We’ve done it consistently day in and day out. So this camp, we’re just continuing what we started when we came back from last season. We’re going to go about it like we’ve gone about everything this offseason, going hard, flying around, having fun, and playing at a high level.”

And if all goes well, the three Nittany Lions – Dotson, Mustipher, and cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields – who came to Lucas Oil Stadium for the media gathering can return for the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 4.

“It’s a great sight to see being here,” Dotson said. “As soon as I walked in, I said to PJ and Tariq, ‘We’ve got to be back here in December.’ It’s just beautiful. I just can’t wait to see the blue and white around the stadium. We’ve got to get back for the conference championship. I haven’t been here yet so no better stage to do it than my senior year.”