A total of 17 players will be honored on Senior Day, coming out of the tunnel, greeted by family at midfield before Penn State faces Michigan State at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Twelve senior-eligible seniors make up the 2016 class, and this weekend will be the final time they suit up to play at Beaver Stadium. It’ll be an emotional day, one they’ve seen coming for a while now, even if it doesn’t feel like they’ve been at Penn State for four or five years.
The time has moved fast, and a lot has happened over that span.
But when each player moves on from Happy Valley and reflects on the past few years, they’ll always remember the question they were asked so often.
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Why on earth did you stay with Penn State?
And they’ll never forget their answer, either.
Derek Dowrey wasn’t on campus long. He arrived at Penn State in the summer of 2012 as a freshman defensive lineman; he already made some friends on the team and was excited about where his four — eventually five — years would take him.
Dowrey, one of four current Nittany Lions who committed to Joe Paterno and his staff, remained with Penn State despite Paterno’s firing on Nov. 9, 2011. He stayed loyal to the Nittany Lions because “that reason” he signed with them in the first place was still there.
“I wanted to be at a place with high character, high moral values, and play great football,” Dowrey said.
His decision to stick around, at least on the outside, became increasingly more difficult on July 23, 2012, when the NCAA levied “unprecedented” sanctions in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal; a four-year bowl ban, massive scholarship reductions, a $60 million fine and the vacating of 111 wins was thought to be crippling.
Players were able to transfer freely wherever they wanted without penalty. A free-for-all was surely on the horizon.
Dowrey, when asked about his reason for remaining at Penn State, didn’t bring up the day tears ran down Penn State players’ cheeks and anger encapsulated the Lasch Building.
No, Dowrey recalled being in Holuba Hall a day or two after sanctions punched the program in the mouth. He and his teammates were there as 200 lettermen showed up to offer support to the current players. Penn State notables like Todd Blackledge, Franco Harris and Adam Taliaferro spoke, imparting wisdom and advice, voicing how important the program was to them personally.
“I remember leaving that, and looking back like, ‘Wow, this is the best place in the country,’ ” Dowrey said. “That was enough for me.”
Dowrey’s journey from that point on wasn’t necessarily how he thought it’d play out. The defensive lineman switched to the offensive side of the ball when James Franklin arrived in 2014, a transition that was difficult at first.
After starting a handful of games last season, Dowrey opened this year as a starter only to be overtaken by freshman Connor McGovern after four games.
“A guy like Derek Dowrey has handled adversity this year,” Franklin said. “Goes from a guy that’s starting, playing a lot, to a guy that’s playing more of a backup role.”
But Dowrey accepted whatever role Franklin wanted him to play. When he was benched, the Virginia native provided veteran support to McGovern, and when the freshman was held out of last week’s game at Rutgers, Dowrey started and helped pave the way for 339 rushing yards against the Scarlet Knights.
“Tough times either tear people apart or bring them together,” the lineman said.
And Dowrey didn’t let his situation this season — or Penn State’s in 2012 — deter him from being a model teammate.
Brandon Bell grew up with a favorite number, and he intended on wearing it at Penn State.
There was one problem, though: the number he wanted, he had to earn. Bell, a leader at linebacker, wished to wear No. 11.
“When I came here, I tried to get it my freshman year,” Bell said.
Ron Vanderlinden, the Penn State linebackers coach at the time, gave Bell a hard “no” on that.
“I wasn’t sure of the history behind it,” Bell said. “I didn’t realize that for another year.”
He didn’t know that LaVar Arrington, the 1999 Dick Butkus Award and Chuck Bednarik Award winner, wore No. 11.
“That’s why he didn’t let me have it as a freshman just walking in here,” Bell acknowledged.
So, he wore No. 26. He would have to work for No. 11, which he did. As a true freshman, he tallied 24 tackles, and the New Jersey native bumped that total up to 47 the following season.
It was after Penn State’s 2014 Pinstripe Bowl win that Bell approached Franklin and the coaching staff about switching his jersey number. He was elated with their response.
“They finally let me do it,” Bell said with a grin.
The linebacker said since taking over No. 11, he’s built a relationship with Arrington — and Bell has exemplified the 1999 All-American’s leadership on the field, too.
Bell, who was hampered by injury this season, is finally healthy, dominating games and bringing along younger linebackers.
He remembers turning to players like Mike Hull and Glenn Carson for advice when he was a freshman, and for the past couple of seasons, the roles have reversed.
He’s stepped up, leaving a lasting mark on Penn State linebackers of the future.
“I think now I’d say Cam Brown, Manny Bowen ... I try to talk to a little bit,” Bell said. “Try to spread my wisdom the best I can.”
Evan Schwan wishes he played more early in his career.
“But now that I’m having some success, it’s my time,” the defensive end said. “I wouldn’t change anything if I could.”
Schwan, whose 5.5 sacks this season ranks second on the team, didn’t take down the quarterback once before his senior campaign. And with the Nittany Lions having to replace three NFL-caliber defensive linemen (Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson), Schwan was tasked with leading the unit this season, and he did so without batting an eye.
The Penn State defensive line has been successful guiding a Nittany Lion defense that averages 8.5 tackles for loss per game, fifth-best in the country.
The front four will soon lose its leader, though, as Schwan will be one of 17 players to run out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel for the last time.
Schwan said his parents will be teary-eyed at midfield for Saturday’s ceremony, especially his dad, who played at Purdue in the late ’70s and understands the hardships endured by collegiate football players.
But the defensive end believes the most emotional one at that time will be Franklin, the man who’s all too familiar with what exactly these seniors have gone through.
“I’m going to have a hard time on Saturday with these guys,” Franklin admitted. “I typically try to fight it as much as I possibly can. ... You don’t want to be out there blubbering in front of 100,000 people in the stadium. It’s not the right tone you want to set for your team that’s about to play a tough, physical Big Ten football game.”
Still, it’s going to be difficult for Franklin not to get choked up during the ceremony.
Whether it’s switching positions, earning a number and respect, or biding time until that final year to break out, the seniors have had their trials and tribulations, all the while sticking with Penn State in the program’s most tumultuous time.
“They’re special guys,” Franklin said. “I think they’re going to be remembered as the class that really kind of held this place together.”
If you ask Schwan, he’d tell you that when he was a freshman, back when a bowl game wasn’t in the cards, he could only dream that the Nittany Lions would be in the position they are now.
With a Big Ten title and spot in the College Football Playoff actually within reach, these seniors believe no matter what their role, it was worth staying with the program when it would have been easy not to.
“It didn’t matter the circumstances,” Bell said. “We wanted to be successful. We knew that wasn’t going to be easy.”
Dowrey couldn’t agree more.
“I came to Penn State because there was a certain kind of guy who went to Penn State,” the lineman said. “That blue-collar, high-character guy who competed harder than anyone on the field. He did everything right in the classroom, he cared about helping his community. He did all these things.
“If that’s the way we’re remembered, as a class that in times of struggle kept that tradition alive, I would be very pleased with that impact.”
Penn State vs. Michigan State
Game Day Breakdown
Who: No. 7 Penn State (9-2, 7-1) vs. Michigan State (3-8, 1-7)
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Beaver Stadium
Series: Michigan State leads 15-14-1
KEYS TO WIN
For Penn State: Make Sparty one-dimensional. The Nittany Lions should do what some teams have done against them — stack the box. LJ Scott is a beast in Michigan State's backfield, and the Spartans plan on playing two mediocre quarterbacks. Make one of them beat you.
For Michigan State: Pressure Trace McSorley. With or without Malik McDowell, this Michigan State defensive line can create havoc, and if the defensive linemen can get after McSorley early, it could throw him off and force an error or two.
Nittany Lion to watch: DeAndre Thompkins. The sophomore wideout returned to action with four catches at Rutgers. Thompkins has proved to be a vertical threat this season — and he seems due for a big play.
Spartan to watch: R.J. Shelton. The Spartans' leading receiver (48 catches, 715 yards, five touchdowns) is a game-changer; he has a pair of 86-yard touchdowns this season. Shelton was limited to one catch against Ohio State last week, though, so the Nittany Lions can succeed in keying in on him.