What a wild journey the 2012 season has been for the Penn State Nittany Lion football team.
In a season with some lowest of lows mixed with the highest of highs, and just about everything in-between, the Nittany Lions (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten) ended with yet another high in their 24-21 win over the Wisconsin Badgers (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium.
Following a trying summer that included unprecedented NCAA sanctions placed on the program, the Nittany Lions started the 2012 campaign with a chip on their shoulder. The emotions of the situation effected play on the field and saw the team start out of the gate at 0-2 and searching for answers. In their third game, the Lions pounded Navy, 34-7 and started a five-game winning streak. The Lions then lost two of their next three games to Ohio State and Nebraska before handling Indiana to give the team seven wins heading into their season-ending contest with Wisconsin.
With the Badgers already scheduled for the Big Ten title game already, the Lions had their sights set on an eight-win season and a perfect ending to Senior Day. The team found some extra inspiration prior to kickoff, when the team filed into the locker room to find injured teammate and senior Michael Mauti’s number 42 on the left side of their famed white helmets. Coach Bill O’Brien said that he was approached by a group of seniors about the idea mid-week and decided the tribute seemed fitting.
It marks the first time since the late 1970s that the Nittany Lions have worn a helmet numeral of any kind. In many ways, it was the perfect tribute for a player who seems to be all over the field whenever he plays. On this day he was.
With emotion billowing from every player for their fallen teammate, the Lions stormed the field eager to send their seniors home with a win. The visiting Badgers had other ideas, though, and jumped out to an early 7-0 lead behind a 57-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Curt Phillips. Penn State had an answer in the form of bruising tailback Zach Zwinak’s three-yard touchdown run to even the score at 7-7. Before the end of the quarter, Badgers tailback Montee Ball broke the NCAA FBS record with his 79th career touchdown on a 17-yard run to put Wisconsin up 14-7.
The second quarter produced no points for either team as the Badgers took the 14-7 lead into the second-half. Penn State added two Sam Ficken field goals to pull within one at 14-13 at the end of the third quarter. The fourth quarter saw early and late fireworks, starting with a 41-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt McGloin to tight end Jesse James on fourth down at the 13:32 mark to give the Lions the lead and ending with a Wisconsin touchdown to nod the score at 21-21 with just 18 seconds left in the game.
In overtime, the Lions got the ball first and picked up just six yards before Ficken squeezed a 37-yard field goal through the left upright for a 24-21 lead. Following a sack, the Badgers lined up a 44-yard field goal from Kyle French to try and send the game into double overtime, but the kick slipped wide left and gave the Lions the victory. The Badgers will play in the Big Ten title game next weekend despite the loss by virtue of the postseason ineligibility of both Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten’s Leaders Division.
As French’s kick sailed left and no good, the Nittany Lions celebrated on the sideline, letting their emotions run wild as they stormed the field. Among them was Mauti, the heart and soul of yet another magical Penn State defense, with hands held high in the air and a big smile on his face. It wasn’t the storybook ending that he had in mind, but it’ll have to do for now.
Mauti and his fellow seniors were insturmental in holding the team together this summer following the NCAA’s sanctions against the program. Most preseason prognosticators had Penn State pegged for just four or five wins to being with, and even less after the teams’ slow 0-2 start. Instead, the Lions rallied to win eight of 10 games to close Bill O’Brien’s first season in Happy Valley and create momentum for year two and the continuing new era of Penn State football. O’Brien’s 8 wins are the most ever by a first-year Penn State head coach.
Senior Matt McGloin, a former walk-on, ended his college career with a 200-yard, one touchdown performance. He finishes the season with 24 touchdown passes against just five interceptions and a new record for passing yards in a season. Senior linebacker Gerald Hodges wore Mauti’s number 42 and defensive tackle Jordan Hill led the team with 12 tackles, including three for a loss.
The senior class leaves Happy Valley with a 38-14 record, though the wins prior to this season were vacated as part of the schools NCAA sanctions handed down in July.
Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State. What is there more to say about a player like Mauti that hasn’t been said already. He’s a fantastic player on the field and a tremendous leader as well. Sitting out with an injury on Senior Day, Mauti still found a way to impact his teammates by grabbing a headset and helping out with defensive signals and calls all day. Given the emotion of his injury and not being able to play, it took a lot for Mauti to be that involved in the game, and for that we salute him.