Bill O’Brien, week in and week out, talks about how special his senior class is.
From leadership to play on the field, the group has done everything the coach has asked, and it’s starting to pay off.
His Nittany Lions are 5-2 after reeling off five straight wins, the last three coming in conference play. The defense ranks second in the Big Ten in scoring and 13th nationally, while the offense has found a completely new and revitalized identity under the first-time head coach.
But still, Penn State players have been pegged as underdogs when it comes to end of the year awards.
Linebacker Michael Mauti has won two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards and Gerald Hodges captured another. For his six tackle, two interception performance against Illinois, Mauti earned himself the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week award, given to the best player nationally for that week.
These two seniors have done enough to earn themselves weekly awards, but not enough to crack the 25-man quarterfinal list for the Lombardi Award, handed out to the nation’s top linebacker or defensive lineman at season’s end. Michigan State’s William Gholston, Ohio State’s Johnathon Hankins, Purdue’s Kawann Short and Wisconsin’s Chris Borland were the only Big Ten players to make the cut. None have won the award twice like Mauti, who has 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions this year. While O’Brien said he doesn’t understand the process of yearly awards, he questioned why some of his standout defensive players were left off the list.
“These are a bunch of competitive guys that love being around their team,” O’Brien said. “They’re team players. I’m sure that they would tell you, ‘We just want to win.’ ”
Mauti, however, has never been about the individual. When he and senior fullback Mike Zordich stood outside and pledged allegiance to the program after the NCAA hammered it with sanctions in July, Mauti was trying to hold a team together. The lack of Penn State on this list embodies what this group has been about all along.
“Penn State’s taken a lot of punches the last six months,” O’Brien said at Big Ten Football Media Days in July. “It’s time to punch back.”
Through seven games, that is exactly what Penn State has done. With media members calling for a sub-.500 season after the departures of guys like Silas Redd, Justin Brown and Anthony Fera, the Nittany Lions have been throwing haymakers for the last six weeks — just ask Iowa or Illinois.
Because of everything that has happened, it’s no longer about awards or individual accolades.
It’s no longer about a bowl game that, realistically, means nothing down the road.
For Mauti and his teammates, it’s about representing the program in its most trying time. It’s about embracing, then overcoming, that underdog mentality.
When all is said and done, Mauti will be remembered for his leadership this season, not his statistics. And he likely doesn’t have a problem with that. “If we’re proving anything, it’s the fact that Penn State is not going anywhere,” Mauti said after Saturday’s 38-14 win over Iowa. “You can do what you want to us, you can take away things from us, you can try to split us apart... it’s not going to happen.
Guys are here that care about the program, care about the university and care about each other.”