Penn State LB backs up words with deeds
Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson (8) escapes Illinois defensive back Jack Ramsey in the first half Saturday against Illinois.
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Michael Mauti made it to the 1. He sprinted and followed blockers well enough to forge a 99-yard run reminiscent of a return you may have thought only the Steelers' James Harrison could offer.
Mauti made peace. At the end of the first half, players from both sides taunted each other, and he said he entered the fray to put an end to it.
Mauti made sense. After doing everything imaginable in Penn State's 35-7 victory against Illinois Saturday, he provided the obvious context. Nobody wanted to admit on the record that this game mattered more than any of the other 11 on the schedule. The Big Ten opener always counts, they said. Whatever.
"I'll give you a little something," Mauti said. "Having to play against these guys, it was sweet. That's really what it was. We haven't forgotten what happened in the summer."
Judging by the stories hatched by his teammates, one could assume Mauti spent this past week willingly displaced in some type of Soviet-style bunker, plotting and stewing for revenge because of the Illini's summer recruiting trip. Cornerback Stephon Morris couldn't believe his teammate's intensity.
He heard noises emanating from the locker room before kickoff, noises he could describe only as lockers pounding. Mauti was banging his helmeted-head.
"He was a crazy man," Morris said.
Mauti denied that such a thing happened, though, as per the usual, the linebacker underplayed much of his contributions -- two interceptions and a forced fumble.
For the season, Mauti leads Penn State (3-2, 1-0) in turnovers, having totaled two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Morris credited the ability to force turnovers to Mauti's football intelligence.
He paused for a moment, considering other reasons for Mauti's skill in this category before saying, "He's also Michael Mauti."
For offensive lineman John Urschel, Mauti is the guy who appears to float when everyone else stays grounded.
"You look at him, he's running around making plays, jumping around just everywhere for four quarters," Urschel said.
"It's one thing for a guy to get pumped up at the start of a game and jump around. He's like that for the entire game, a game that covers three hours. That's hard to do."
For most of the three hours spent playing football Saturday, Illinois dragged. It couldn't score after a 52-yard run to the 11 in the first quarter nor when it had a first-and-goal in the second.
With an opportunity to score a garbage-time touchdown against Penn State's reserves, the Illlini couldn't get the final yard then, either.
The end may have looked like destruction, but Penn State wanted more points against an Illinois team that has allowed 139 against four Division I-A opponents.
Like it did against Temple, Penn State failed to complete drives that began with favorable field position.
Kicker Sam Ficken missed two field goals, and coach Bill O'Brien questioned why he didn't go for a touchdown from the 1 after Mauti's 99-yard interception return at the end of the first half.
Two months ago at the Big Ten Media Days, Mauti did not hesitate to complain about teams recruiting Penn State players.
Specifically, he did not hesitate to complain about the actions of Illinois. His comments didn't backfire, but, in the wildly paranoid minds of college football players and coaches, such outspoken behavior can elicit a negative consequence.
"Any time you have things to say, it's very important to go out there and back it up," O'Brien said.
"That's kind of what life is all about in a way. He's a guy who doesn't have a lot of problems backing things up."
After Saturday, few would disagree, not even players from Illinois.
They had become fans.
While Mauti was answering questions from ESPN a few feet away on the postgame field, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase shook Penn State defensive end Sean Stanley's hand. He walked away, reminding Stanley to share his message.
"Tell Mauti," Scheelhaase said, "I say, 'good game.' "
First Published September 30, 2012 12:00 am