The Penn State program that this legacy loves so much was back on the right track after Mauti and his Nittany Lions teammates walloped an Illinois program that had come creeping into State College during the summer, trying to pry away some of the players Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien had worked hard to develop in the spring.
The final score was 35-7 in front of 46,734. It was a beat-down. Penn State, which ran for 173 yards and scored four rushing touchdowns, is now 3-2 overall and 1-0 in the Big Ten after a gut-wrenching 0-2 start, a start capped by that special teams’ collapse at Virginia three weeks ago.
Mauti eventually emerged from the PSU locker room looking drained. His long hair was a sweaty mop covering his face. He sat in a dark, cool corner, waiting to go on a national radio program. His head was bowed. It looked like Mauti was trying to regain some strength.
It was easy to understand why.
In a dominating physical and emotional display that will likely be remembered as the fifth-year senior’s defining moment in blue and white, Mauti all but destroyed Illinois (2-3, 0-1) by himself.
Mauti was a tornado on special teams, routinely the first man down on punt coverage. He flew at Illinois return man Tommy Davis in the game’s first minutes, and maybe Davis was so rattled by the giant blur in white coming at him that he fumbled at his 27, a turnover the Lions would convert into a touchdown.
Mauti seemed to be in two places at once on defense, often disguising his eventual alignment. It had to be a distraction for the Illinois offense.
It was a command performance by Mauti, one that had been in the making for about two months, dating back to the time Illinois head coach Tim Beckman and other college coaches — with the blessing of the NCAA — came after PSU’s best players.
If the sanctions (four-year postseason ban, massive scholarship reduction) relating to the Jerry Sandusky scandal weren’t daunting enough, here came the college football world, harassing the Lions.
Mauti was furious back in July, sounding off the NCAA transfer rule — he called it “a joke” — and condemning certain college programs for their recruiting tactics.
And he played a furious brand of football on Saturday.
Penn State’s leader talked the talk.
Then he walked the walk.
“Anytime you have things to say, it’s very important to go out there back it up,” O’Brien said when asked about Mauti.
“That’s kind of what life is all about in a way. He’s a guy that doesn’t have a lot of problems backing things up.”
Mauti attempted to downplay his emotions in post-game interviews. But when you talked to Mauti’s teammates, you learned his on-field performance against Illinois was only half of the show.
The Illinois game was absolutely personal to him after what happened during the summer. And there would be no forgiveness, no mercy shown from No. 42.
“You didn’t see [Mauti] before the game,” PSU senior cornerback Stephon Morris said. “That was as crazy as I’ve ever seen him, he was amped. … He was just, like, banging his head on the locker and all this other type of stuff.
“He had the defense going for the whole game. On the sideline. Before the game. After the game. He was on.”
“You never know what Mauti’s going to do, Mauti’s a character when it comes to pre-game,” added PSU sophomore corner Adrian Amos.
Another one of PSU’s leaders, senior outside linebacker Gerald Hodges, also was angry at the Illini at the beginning of the week. He, too, was a relentless force Saturday, finishing with nine tackles.
Hodges knew it would be the Lions’ day from the first moments he saw Mauti in the locker room before the game.
“I’ve seen Mauti in different types [of moods] but he was in rare form today,” Hodges said.
“He was just, he really took this game personal and he showed it when he stepped on the field today. … I feed off of Michael, every time.”
Many of Mauti’s teammates tried to suggest the Illinois game was not personal, just business, the fifth game on the Penn State schedule.
But with their every movement Saturday afternoon, the Lions’ play indicated otherwise. It was also no accident that O’Brien and Beckman did not shake hands prior to the game.
After? O’Brien barely broke his stride during his quick midfield shake with Beckman. Yet another Penn State statement.
“I mean, every game is personal. … Football is personal,” said Mauti, the son of Rich Mauti, a PSU wideout in the 1970s.
“You’re not supposed to say it like that but if you don’t play with that kind of, you know, feeling, it’s tough.
“That’s the way our team feels. Every game, given our circumstances, that’s just the way everyone wants to play.”
But someone has to lead. And this year with PSU, it has usually been Mauti during this bizarre season. His teammates are happy to follow.
Mauti’s only hiccup on his near-flawless Saturday? Getting caught from behind by Illinois’ Miles Osei at the end of his 99-yard interception return.
“We busted [Mauti] up a little bit about it, it was all in joking,” Hodges said.
“But I’m glad he made the play.”
Mauti made most of them against Illinois on this most personal of Saturday afternoons.
“I wouldn’t say it was emotional but deep down inside, it definitely was a little personal because of the fact of everything that was going on and how they approached us [during the summer],” Hodges said.
“We definitely had some personal feelings and I’m pretty sure I think we showed it.”