It was Nov. 17, 2012 the last time Penn State faced Indiana. The scoreboard read 45-22 at the end of the game, but despite the victory, the Nittany Lions had lost in a different way.
Linebacker Michael Mauti was solemnly carted off the field after a low hit driven into his left knee caused it to buckle underneath him. The emotional leader wouldn’t play another down in State College.
But he emerged as an even tougher competitor, one that served as a motivator during the team’s final game of the year. He pushed his teammates — while they donned his No. 42 on their helmets — to an electrifying overtime win over Wisconsin on Senior Day.
Fast-forward to Saturday. Penn State players sauntered off the field in Bloomington, Ind. after dropping their Big Ten opener to a team they’d never before lost to. After the game, sadness plastered their faces.
So the question is: Is Penn State’s emotional firepower gone?
Coach Bill O’Brien doesn’t think so.
“When you look at this football team, we have 61 kids on scholarship,” he said. “Forty walk-ons. Can’t go to a bowl. Can’t play for a championship. It’s not an excuse, but we have a lot of resilient kids here. They show up to practice every day and practice hard.
“I think that reserve is still there.”
Mauti and so many other senior leaders on last year’s squad had a lot to play for. He and fullback Michael Zordich vowed earlier that summer to keep a team together that had just been slapped with unrivaled sanctions.
That emotional fire burned in them. It was a part of who they were as the senior class. Mauti, Zordich, Jordan Hill, Matt McGloin. All were lost to graduation.
Despite that, the 2013 team does have emotional leaders. Senior linebacker Glenn Carson, guard John Urschel and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, to name a few, are quieter versions of the ones who came before them.
Last year’s mentality was Penn State-against-the-world. This year, it’s much simpler.
“We’re just a football team,” Carson said, “and that’s kind of how we want to be looked at. We’re not against the world. We’re just looking to continue to focus and get wins.”
Linebacker Mike Hull said every single player on the team — including those who weren’t around through the turmoil of the past two years — is resilient.
“We've been through too much to let a couple of bad games set us back,” he said.
The 2012 team’s emotional vigor pushes the younger athletes forward. It may not be a Penn State-against-the-world mentality anymore, but now it’s a, they-did-it-and-so-can-we one.
True freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg said he plans to rebound from Saturday’s loss to Indiana the same way the athletes before him rebounded from adversity.
“A lot of those guys are back,” he said. “And me coming in as a freshman, I’m just going to follow their lead and try to play my role in it.”
The players he’s following might not need to stand in front of a group of Penn State faithful and declare to the world that they plan to save an ailing program. But, O’Brien said that quietly, their attitude is still there.
“We lost to a team that played well and coached well. And our kids didn’t because of that,” he said. “But I think there’s a lot of resilient kids on our team and there’s still a hard-working attitude here at Penn State.”
Anna Orso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (8140 865-1828. Follow her on Twitter at @anna_orso.