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Mental approach critical for Clark, Penn State

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

By this point in the season, every college football player is banged up in one way or another.

But sore knees, stiff shoulders and balky backs aren't bothering the Penn State Nittany Lions. All of their problems are between the ears.

Penn State's mental state is in the spotlight heading into Saturday's home showdown against No. 15 Michigan State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). If the eighth-ranked Lions win the game on the field, they'll clinch a share of the Big Ten title and their first trip to the Rose Bowl since Jan. 1, 1995.

But Penn State players first must win the game in their minds. And lately, that's been a tough thing to do.

"Guys just need to relax and calm down and we need to get back to our old ways when we played with a lot more confidence, a lot more swagger," senior wide receiver Deon Butler said. "Now it's like, 'I hope we get the first down.'"

There has been mounting concern about junior quarterback Daryll Clark, an admitted perfectionist who is often too hard on himself. And several offensive players acknowledged that there has been some questioning of play calls.

Senior center A.Q. Shipley can't pinpoint exactly what caused the mood change.

It could have been the weight of expectations, the talk of the BCS and a national title and how head coach Joe Paterno might not get another shot to reach the top. It could have been facing stronger defenses like Ohio State and Iowa after steamrolling everyone during the first seven weeks. It could have been the colder temperatures, which seemed to elicit a more conservative strategy.

Whatever it was, Shipley is determined to fix it.

"No matter how much is at stake, it's a game and the reason I play this game is not to get uptight," Shipley said Wednesday morning. "The reason I play it is to be smiling, to just have as much fun as I can have on Saturdays. That's the approach I try and send across. The Rose Bowl's at stake. An 11-1 season's at stake. There's a lot at stake. But again, at the end of the day, when it comes down to it, you can't go out there and have fun when you're playing uptight.

"You've got to keep that loose approach, go out there and just have fun.' That's how you're going to play your best."

Shipley's message hits home for Clark, who has heard similar things from his parents during a time of "soul searching."

Clark was one of the league's most dominant players during the first two months, but he struggled to get going against Ohio State before sustaining a concussion late in the third quarter. The last two weeks, Clark has committed five turnovers, and each one feels like a punch to the gut.

The introspective junior blamed himself for Penn State's 24-23 loss to Iowa, which stirred up a preposterous debate about whether the team should switch quarterbacks. And despite leading Penn State past Indiana last Saturday, Clark remained ticked about his three turnovers, a sentiment his mother, Sheryl, immediately noticed.

"My mother told me the last couple of weeks she hasn't seen that shine in my eye," Clark said. "She wants me to get that back because I look a lot better, I play a lot better. ... She told me you've got to let stuff go, it's over with."

Paterno has told Clark to relax and not blame himself for every mistake. But it's easier said than done.

"I was worse when I first got here because I had the mind-set if you want to play here, you have to be as flawless as possible," Clark said. "When I would make a mistake at practice, I would be really hard on myself. So I've actually gotten better."

Shipley often reminds Clark to forget mistakes and points to the playmakers around him, the running backs and wide receivers that helped Penn State become the league's most potent offense this year. Clark's desire to be great and contribute drives his uncompromising standards for performance, but Shipley isn't concerned that the quarterback is overly analytical.

Clark, who acknowledged the concussion might have affected his struggles, thinks he turned a corner this week.

"The swagger is on its way back," he said. "It's not like I'm playing so bad to the point where we're losing some football games. We're 10-1. No one expected us to be here. I'm feeling a lot better in practice. I'm laughing and joking with the guys. Everything feels like it's back to normal."

Clark and his teammates also must address the second-guessing of play-calling. They noticed it increase in recent weeks, especially as Penn State struggled to generate the big plays that spurred the offense earlier this season.

"We were running the ball a lot, and then these last two games, we've kind of gotten away from it a little bit," Shipley said. "We started to question that a little bit. We're all guilty of it."

Shipley and Butler met before Monday's practice to discuss the issue. Clark also is aware of the situation.

"It's been a slight problem," Clark said. "We have to get away from it. Regardless of what the call is, it's not like it's new. ... If Jay [Paterno] calls it, if Galen [Hall] calls it, go out and make it happen. That's that."

A fast start Saturday would go a long way toward easing anxiety.

Penn State has scored only 13 first-quarter points in its last six games, while Michigan State is 6-0 this season when leading after the first quarter and 8-0 when scoring first. Shipley thinks there'll be an early indication Saturday of whether or not Penn State is locked in.

"If we can come out in the first quarter, get started and get going early, that's when you know," he said.

The Lions feel if their mental approach is sound, they can't be beat.

"The swagger's there, the confidence is there, and in big games like this, you have to mentally ready," Clark said. "Everyone knows how important this game is, especially our seniors. So us being prepared mentally, that won't be a problem. I guarantee it."