Lions Overcome Loss of Senior Leader

The team gathered as Mauti left the field.

Penn State regroups after Mauti injury to dispatch Indiana and improve to 7-4 on the season.

All year senior linebacker Michael Mauti has been a live wire for Penn State, powering the Nittany Lions through unfathomable lows, toward unexpected heights.

We found out Saturday that the power doesn’t go out without him.

Granted, Indiana was the opponent, meaning the Lions were bound to get cranking against the Big Ten’s most forgiving defense -- which they did. But there was undoubtedly some regrouping to be done before any of that could take place, and before PSU’s defense could get a handle on the Hoosiers’ no-huddle attack.

All of which occurred, to the tune of a 45-22 Penn State victory. But not before Indiana claimed a second-quarter lead. And not before the Hoosiers crept within six, at 28-22, in the third period.

Quarterback Matt McGloin was brilliant, throwing for 395 yards (four short of a school record) and four touchdowns. Wide receiver Allen Robinson caught three of the TD passes, and had 10 grabs for 197 yards in all. Zach Zwinak ran for 135 yards. The defense allowed 478 (454 through the air), but produced five sacks and three turnovers.

The Lions, as a result, improved to 7-4 with one game left -- next Saturday at home, against Wisconsin. And yet, the mood in the interview room after the game was subdued, in the wake of the knee injury suffered by Mauti -- an injury that appeared to be significant, though no one was saying for sure.

Bill O’Brien’s voice caught as the head coach talked about Mauti, “one of the most special players” he’s ever been around. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof grew misty-eyed and said, “I love that kid. … There’s 100 percent buy-in from him.” Everybody else looked as though they had lost a trusted friend, which in a sense they had.

“He’s a helluva football player, and he’s a great senior leader,” guard John Urschel said. “He’s done a phenomenal job for us, the way he’s kept this team together -- through (NCAA) sanctions, through all that. Honestly, I think he’s done more than any football player can ever be asked, as a leader.”

Mauti was hurt during a four-yard run by Indiana’s Isaiah Roundtree with 8:19 left in the first quarter. The linebacker was engaging guard Collin Rahrig when running back D’Angelo Roberts chop-blocked him, in the left knee.

It was a play that should have drawn a flag, but did not. Mauti crumpled to the turf and remained there, as medical personnel rushed to him. O’Brien hovered. So too did some of Mauti’s teammates. Linebacker Gerald Hodges knelt and said “a quick prayer,” then offered Mauti a few comforting words.

“I just told him I love him,” Hodges said. “I love him like a brother.”

After several minutes Mauti was carted off, as fans chanted his name and his roommate, fullback Michael Zordich, jogged over to give some encouragement.

It is the third major knee injury Mauti has suffered at Penn State. He missed the entire 2009 season with a torn right ACL, and much of last season with an identical injury to the other knee.

“It’s tough to see it happen to anybody,” McGloin said, “but when it’s a guy that’s been through it so many times before, to see him go down again with an injury, it’s a bad feeling.”

O’Brien gathered the entire team around him on the field immediately after Mauti departed and appeared to give a pep talk. He didn’t reveal exactly what he said, but it seems clear that the gist of it was this: Win this one for Mike.

“It’s easy to say,” Urschel said. “It’s hard to do.”

“It’s breathtaking,” cornerback Stephon Morris said. “Mauti, he’s been through a lot in his career here. He’s a tough cat. … But if you dwell on (his injury), that’s when you’re going to give up plays. We just had to keep it going, and play for him, basically.”

Penn State didn’t go ahead for good until McGloin, who set numerous single-season and career passing records in the course of the game, combined with Robinson on a 53-yard scoring play midway through the second quarter -- a bubble screen to the right flat that saw Robinson elude one defender and spin away from another before turning on the jets.

And the Lions didn’t really take command until they assembled back-to-back TD drives in the third quarter, expanding a 28-22 lead to 42-22.

On the first, a nine-play, 75-yarder, McGloin, en route to a 22-for-32 day, converted a fourth-and-nine and a third-and-four with passes to Brandon Moseby-Felder -- the first covering 11 yards, the second 14. Zwinak bulled into the end zone from the 1 immediately after the latter catch.

On the second march, an eight-play, 52-yarder, Robinson squirted ahead for 20 yards on second-and-17, after gathering in another bubble screen. Zwinak later had a 14-yard run, and Zordich went four yards to score.

Hodges finished with 12 tackles and a brilliant interception, on which he tipped a pass and dove to collect the deflection. Mike Hull, who filled in for Mauti, had 11 stops and a sack.

But there was less to celebrate than it might have appeared. The team, like Mauti, had taken something of a body blow.

“Of course his spirits are down now,” Hodges said, “but we’re going to continue to rally around him. He’s a team leader. We’re going to continue to lift him up, no matter what the outcome is.”

“That,” Zordich said, “has pretty much been this team the entire year. We have taken shots and gotten back up every time. This is the reason why we love playing on this team. That is the kind of team you want to be.”

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