LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Win or lose at the Rose Bowl, senior Derrick Williams has accomplished what he set out to do when he arrived at Penn State. The Nittany Lions are winners again. Forty victories over his four seasons in Happy Valley. Four bowl games, including two BCS appearances - capped by the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions' matchup Thursday with No. 5 Southern California in Pasadena. Those four losing seasons in five years to start this decade? Now just a distant memory.
"My thing was trying to help the team turn around," Williams said this week. "We're among the top in every category that you look at. That's not just because of me. That's because of a lot of other guys who believed in the same thing I believed in."
It sounded a little far-fetched back in December 2004, when the losing stretch brought the blues to the Penn State faithful. Some critics said Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno should go.
Amid all that controversy arrived Williams, intending to be a difference-maker. His status as one of the nation's top high school players gave Penn State some recruiting cachet again.
Paterno's pitch to Williams was the Nittany Lions were just one or two playmakers away from getting back into title contention.
"I think Derrick bought into that also, that he could make a difference there," his father, Dwight Williams, said while watching a recent Penn State practice in Carson, Calif. "It looks like everything turned out that way."
There have been some bumps along the way, though.
His tantalizing freshman season was cut short by an arm injury during a crushing last-second loss at Michigan, the Nittany Lions' only defeat in 2005. Williams missed the Orange Bowl that year.
He followed that up with solid seasons in 2006 and 2007, but didn't quite have the run of game-changing plays that were the hallmark of his freshman year.
Williams at times appeared to have trouble shaking defenders and getting into open space, where he could speed away from opponents. Used in the backfield as well, defenders became more aware of his presence on the field.
A captain in 2008, Williams was determined to get Penn State back to the top of the Big Ten after a string of off-field problems overshadowed the program.
A revamped offense put the focus on Williams once again, with the receiver lining up all over the field.
"We move him around, try to get him one-on-one, try to get him an opportunity to make some big plays," Paterno said Wednesday. "But he's a heck of a football player, a heck of a competitor, and we've got to get him involved in the football game. He can't be a decoy."
The offensive stats, at first glance, don't really stand out: Williams has 40 catches this year for 451 yards and three touchdowns, and 39 rushes for 226 yards and three scores.
Even more telling, though, might be the attention he gets from opposing coaches when they game plan. USC coach Pete Carroll compared Penn State's use of Williams to how the Trojans used Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush all over the field earlier this decade.
"He's the problem for us," Carroll said of Williams. "One guy does the job of two, three guys, then it causes problems and you have to call defenses that can capture all of that and it restricts you some."
Williams might even line up at quarterback in isolated situations, a scheme Penn State has used on several occasions for running plays.
He's practiced some at QB for the Rose Bowl, though he's taken a ribbing at times for his throws.
"He looks like a guy who hasn't played quarterback all year," fellow wideout Deon Butler teased. "He's not crisp or anything like that. No knock on him, but if you haven't practiced at quarterback all year, you're not going to come out slinging all over the field."
Williams takes the barbs in stride. While he can be fiery and emotional on the field, he's humble and even-keeled off of it.
He's never kept the awards or trophies he's received since his younger days playing football, always choosing to pass them along to other teammates, Dwight Williams said.
There is one exception: Williams' parents snagged the team MVP trophy that their son won this season.
"This year, we told him, that's ours," Derrick's mother, Brinda Williams, said with a smile. "His senior year was it. We get to keep something."