Penn State football players cherish Senior Day at Beaver Stadium — empty stands and all

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State offensive lineman Michal Menet (62)  is seen here in a file photo.

Minutes after the final seconds had ticked off the clock in Penn State's 39-24 win over Michigan State on Saturday, eight Nittany Lions seniors walked a lap around an empty Beaver Stadium.

Senior safety Jaquan Brisker, senior safety Lamont Wade, redshirt senior offensive lineman Michal Menet, redshirt senior offensive lineman Will Fries, redshirt senior defensive tackle Antonio Shelton, redshirt senior defensive end Shane Simmons, redshirt senior defensive end Shaka Toney and redshirt senior receiver Isaac Lutz shared the moment on Senior Day.

They should've been greeted by high-fiving fans, hugging parents and other loved ones. Instead, they circled the cavernous stadium with banners — many with messages of gratitude for the seniors — draped around them as music blasted from the PA system. Still, they reflected, they shared emotion, and they danced in celebration.

"It was just kinda like the final lap, I guess you could say," Menet said. "... We were all just really talking about how fast it goes. And how it just felt like yesterday we were on the seventh floor of Beaver Hall, all coming in as freshmen. We all have shared an incredible journey while we've been here, and it's been tons of fun. And I've made a lot of bonds — especially with my class, obviously — that are gonna last for a lifetime."

Not an easy win: But the win didn't come as easily as the final score might suggest.

Penn State trailed Michigan State by 11 points at halftime. It seemed like the Nittany Lions had reverted to their early- and mid-season form, when they trailed at the half in all of their first five games and lost each one in that stretch.

Not on Saturday, though. In what could've been their last time playing on the field at Beaver Stadium (the location of the Big Ten's Week 9 crossover game is still unknown), the seniors had an extra sense of motivation to find a way to win — and their teammates did, too.

"You don't just let nobody come in your house and take over," Toney said. " ... You don't let nobody come in your house, sit on your couch and eat a sandwich and think it's gonna be sweet. It ain't none of that."

Strong second half: After scoring on their first drive of the third quarter, the Nittany Lions never looked back. The Spartans only managed a field goal for the rest of the contest — Penn State outscored Michigan State 29-3 in the second half.

It was another example of the resiliency the group has shown since opening its 2020 campaign 0-5 for the worst start to a season in program history. The shift in mindset and reinforcement of the program's culture was led by the seniors on the team.

"They always say it's easy to lead when everything is going well," Wade said. "But when things aren't going well, those are (times) when a true leader shows up. So, I felt like this year taught me how to handle my losses."

Overcoming adversity: The adversity the Nittany Lions have faced this season — the losses, the injuries, the COVID-19 protocols — made it that much more important to grab a victory for the seniors on Saturday.

Junior receiver Jahan Dotson said "it was a huge emphasis" for him and his teammates heading into the contest against the Spartans to make sure the seniors ended their careers at home on a high note.

"They've spent countless hours shaping this program, showing us the ropes when we were young guys," Dotson said. "So that was huge. Those are our brothers, and you never want to let them down."

Special moment: So, even without the fans or their parents or their friends surrounding them in that final walk around Beaver Stadium, the moment was special for Penn State's seniors.

After all they had been through — the highest of highs in years past and the lowest of lows this season — they wanted to take it all in together one last time.

"I'm incredibly grateful for every single one of those guys," Menet said. "And that's what we were talking about as we were walking around, how grateful we are for our journey. We'll love each other until the day we die."