ARLINGTON, Texas — When it was over, the Penn State defensive leader held court in a swirling locker room, flying through his words.
Shaka Toney couldn’t stop talking about next year.
After just winning for the 11th time this season, winning another New Year’s Six bowl game, winning one more time without his Nittany Lions providing a complete effort on all sides.
Toney wouldn’t say, once and for all, whether he was even returning for his senior year in 2020. He’s one of the Lions still mulling over his decision of whether to leave early for the NFL.
But listening to him you couldn’t help but know where his heart is. What he believes this team has accomplished and, more importantly, where it is headed.
That was the more important message following a wild 53-39 Cotton Bowl victory over the Memphis Tigers.
“We really invested,” Toney said. “This is probably the closest team we’ve had since I’ve been here. There’s no more cliques. There’s no more guys who go out on their own. People roll out four and five deep …”
Toney’s personal production at defensive end was inconsistent, with so many near-misses on sacks. But his leadership and impact off the field is unquestioned.
He couldn’t stop talking Saturday afternoon about the ongoing foundation building.
“We weathered the storm … tough losses, sometimes coming out flat, sometimes not doing what we needed to do. You lived and you learned. Probably didn’t close Rutgers out the way we should have. But we came out here and responded the way we were supposed to. I know people ain’t happy with the score, you want to see an iron-curtain Penn State defense. But I’m happy …
“We’re in a better place right now.”
If anything, this Penn State team seemed to continue searching for an identity. It played, perhaps, only one complete game against a Power Five team all season, and that was three months ago against Maryland.
The running back rotation seemed awkward. The receiver group proved shallow and often ineffective. The defense struggled against the pass, then struggled to tackle in the open field.
And they still won most every game.
With all their flaws they still knocked on the door of the playoffs, again.
Which brings us to the Cotton Bowl and how they went about subduing a highly motivated Memphis team full of undervalued but dangerous offensive weaponry.
They certainly answered in a way that bodes well for 2020.
Those questionable offensive linemen and running backs-by-committee truly proved a strength. When former sprint champion Journey Brown wasn’t running through and past Memphis defenders, a healthy Noah Cain blasted them into submission.
Tight end Pat Freiermuth will be even more of a punisher with another year to grow.
An important physicality has developed on offense over the second-half of 2019. Maybe even that missing identity needed to break into the next and last level.
“Just being able to mash people and impose our will,” said C.J. Thorpe, the most physical of the offensive linemen returning next year.
“We’re not just speed backs, finesse backs,” said Ricky Slade, the fourth runner who added 58 yards on just five carries. “We’ll run through your face if we have to. That’s what we proved today.”
Actually, they’ve been gradually proving these types of things.
It took Cain half of his true freshman season to show the value of his rugged running — only to get injured and miss the final month. That allowed Brown to develop into the team’s most improved player and arguably its offensive MVP by season’s end.
That same type of mentality grew on defense, mostly along the line and with the linebackers. Those areas appear only deeper and more talented next season. The final step must come from the youngest, developing cornerbacks and safeties.
It’s all taken time, more than most followers wanted to allow.
Even when Penn State featured ultra-talented game-changers the past few years, it lacked the necessary depth and talent and maybe even mentality along its lines.
They lacked a physicality and dominance around scrimmage that playoff teams usually require.
It’s not like that suddenly appeared in the Cotton Bowl.
But you saw another step.
More from leaders of next year’s team like Brown and Thorpe and Slade. From defenders such as Micah Parsons, Jaquan Brisker and Marquis Wilson.
Maybe it will be enough to convince someone like Toney to return, for all that’s possible.