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t took Northwestern 10 plays to gain 36 yards before booting the winning field goal against Penn State. A 23-yard completion on third-and-15 caused most of the damage. For a defense considered to be the team's strength, this constituted something close to a meltdown.

“I think we've done a good job in the past playing winning football in those situations,” middle linebacker Jason Cabinda said after the loss Nov. 7. “We just weren't able to finish.”

Nor were the Nittany Lions able to contain Justin Jackson, whose 186 rushing yards were the most by an opposing running back this season. It was an uncharacteristically shaky outing by a defense anchored by Cabinda, who also has assumed an unofficial role as a leading spokesman. He not only willingly shows up for frequent media duties, he usually has something to say — in two languages, if he wanted. Cabinda, whose family is from Cameroon, speaks fluent French.

“I've just always been a very social person, the kind of guy who can walk into a place where I don't know anybody, and within a half-hour or so, I have a good feel for everybody in the room,” he said.

“He's a sharp guy,” coach James Franklin said. “He's charismatic. He's intelligent. He's confident.”

Starting at outside linebacker after serving in a reserve role in 2014, the sophomore shifted to the middle early in the opener against Temple when Nyeem Wartman-White was lost for the season with a knee injury.

Wartman-White likewise had moved from the outside to replace All-Big Ten linebacker Mike Hull, now a member of the Miami Dolphins practice squad. Cabinda and Gary Wooten Jr. filled in for Wartman-White during the Temple game. Afterward, Cabinda staked his claim to the position.

“When Nyeem went down against Temple, on the bus ride back, Jason said, ‘Put me in there. I got this,' ” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “That's kind of his personality. To me, he brings some things to the table that I've seen very, very few guys have.

“As good of a player as Mike Hull was, Jason has some of the leadership qualities at that position — from the personality to the vocalness to the commanding his troops — that is very rare and special to us,” Shoop said. “He has emerged as a significant leader on the defensive side as a very young player.”

Penn State, which had a bye Saturday, was ranked 16th in total defense entering the weekend. Cabinda has a team-best 71 tackles and five passes broken up to go with 2 1/2 sacks and an interception. He said he “definitely likes” playing inside, “being the guy to set everybody up. I think it fits. ... There's a lot more to see, a lot more things you have to feel.”

A self-described “fat little kid as a (high school) freshman,” Cabinda muscled up to a listed 6-foot-1, 249 pounds. Hull was considered undersized at 6-foot, 232 pounds.

“You never know until a guy gets out there and actually does it, but he had enough of the things you're looking for in terms of traits or characteristics of that position,” Franklin said. “We've always kind of felt he was more like a middle linebacker, anyway.”

In his second season, Cabinda still is getting acclimated.

“When you're running the show, when you're the quarterback of the defense, you can't be locked in on one side of the formation or the other, as you could at” the outside positions, linebackers coach Brent Pry said. “He's got to see the whole picture all the time.”

But Pry said Cabinda has been a quick study.

“From Day 1, he's been a guy who's really, really been so coachable, who has worked at his craft from a physical standpoint and a mental standpoint,” he said. “He knows he's a little bit raw, and a little bit rough in his body mechanics. ... He really works at that.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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