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Another Penn State Super Bowl run: How these former Lions led Tampa Bay to title game

Frank Bodani
York Daily Record

It's been a tough ride for the three former Penn State players driving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into Super Bowl LV.

Injuries and inconsistency have plagued them all through the unlikely COVID-19 season and this catch-fire playoff run for Bruce Arians' team.

And yet the head coach who grew up in York County will still rely on former Nittany Lions Chris Godwin and Donovan Smith more than ever in the quest to win the team's second Super Bowl Feb. 7, this one on its home field.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Chris Godwin (14) catches a pass against Green Bay Packers' Darnell Savage (26) during the first half of the NFC championship NFL football game in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Arians also owes a lot to one of his favorite players who cannot suit up, offensive lineman A.Q. Shipley.

None of them are headliners like quarterback Tom Brady. But Godwin and Smith have suddenly been providing some of their best work at just the right time.

Though a remarkably consistent receiver during his first four seasons, Godwin has been plagued with injuries. This season they've been nagging but no less easy to overcome.

More:How Bruce Arians' Super Bowl run is rooted in family: 'He'll be the underdog forever.'

Arians praised him this week for rising up through obstacles ranging from a cast and surgical pins in his fingers to a concussion and then most recent hip and thigh injuries.

That certainly figured to play a part in his dropping a stunning four passes in the playoff-opening victory over Washington — the most drops in a playoff game since 2007, according to ESPN.

That came after he dropped only four passes in his entire career, to that point.

Godwin still managed five receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown against Washington and continued to recover in wins over New Orleans and Green Bay. That included an acrobatic, 52-yard catch early against the Packers.

He finished with five catches for 110 yards and even sealed the game by earning a first down on a late hand-off, enabling the Bucs to run out the clock.

"He's made huge plays in all the playoff games," Arians said. "He played hurt the whole (time). ... He's had issues. But he's tougher than nails, and that permeates throughout whole offense. His toughness, the way he blocks ...

"His confidence has really grown since the Pro Bowl last year."

Smith has been with the Buccaneers even longer. He's started every game he's played since being drafted by the team in the second round in 2015.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady celebrates with Donovan Smith after winning the NFC championship NFL football game in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. The Buccaneers defeated the Packers 31-26 to advance to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The $41 million left tackle was inconsistent in blocking and protecting Brady earlier this year before finding another gear around Week 12, Arians said. He particularly praised Smith for his work in the playoffs.

He started by shutting down Washington's dynamic rookie pass rusher Chase Young, then kept things rolling.

More:Egan grad Keith Armstrong coaching Bucs special teams in Super Bowl

"Just playing really, really solid ... trusting his techniques, very consistent now," Arians said.

Tampa Bay's offensive line also had included former Lion A.Q. Shipley. The long-traveled vet suffered a season-ending neck injury in November after being a late addition to the Bucs' starting lineup.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers center A.Q. Shipley (62) blocks during the second half of an NFL Football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Kevin Sabitus)

This was Shipley's third stop under Arians. He worked briefly with him after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009, then rejoined him three years later in Indianapolis.

He eventually became a key member of the Arizona Cardinals' offense after Arians took over the following year.

Penn State players now will have appeared in all but five of the 55 Super Bowls, including the last 11.

Former Nittany Lions Stefen Wisniewski will be playing for his third Super Bowl title in four years, now an offensive lineman with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at fbodani@ydr.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.