STATE COLLEGE – The large digital timer with the bright red numbers counted down the final minutes of one of the final practices of Penn State’s season. Linebacker Michael Mauti hobbled around nearby in sweats and a letterman jacket while his teammates stretched in front of him.
Mauti may not be able to play Saturday because of a left knee injury, but the star senior is still assuming an important role this week as the Nittany Lions get ready for an emotional season finale against Wisconsin.
“For guys that live and breathe the game like that, it’s very difficult thing to deal with,” first-year coach Bill O’Brien said before practice Tuesday.
Mauti doesn’t want his injury to be front-and-center this week, not with the team playing its 12th and final “bowl game” of the year against the Badgers. Penn State would have been a lock for the postseason if not for the NCAA’s four-year ban as part of the penalties for the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal.
Every game is precious then for O’Brien’s Lions. Not surprisingly, Mauti will be helping his replacement, promising sophomore Mike Hull, get ready for Wisconsin’s tough running game and star tailback Montee Ball.
“The thing about Mike (Mauti) is he’s a winner in his heart. He’s always going to be a winner,” center and fellow senior Matt Stankiewitch said. “Even if he can’t play, he’s still going to lead.”
Two previous seasons for Mauti have been cut short because of injuries – one to each knee – though the linebacker’s college career may not necessarily be over.
Mauti hurt his right knee in the 2009 preseason; two years later he hurt his left knee four games into the season.
O’Brien was asked if a potential sixth year for Mauti, a redshirt senior, was under discussion.
“Yeah, fair question,” O’Brien said, “but just way too early for that right now.”
Staying true to form, O’Brien isn’t focusing on anything past Saturday.
The Nittany Lions may have four losses, but the team has displayed grit and determination through nearly every second of this challenging season. Few prognosticators though Penn State could even finish this year with a winning record.
A senior class including Mauti and Stankiewitch helped O’Brien keep most of the team together after the sanctions were announced in July.
After keeping mostly an even-keel attitude this year, the emotions are more evident this week for the seniors.
“I just walked out that tunnel right just now,” senior cornerback Stephon Morris said before speaking reporters inside Beaver Stadium. “I was just thinking to myself that I have one more time walking out of that tunnel with my team, in front of the great student section, the crowd the alumni.”
Morris, one of the most improved players this season, is out of eligibility after Saturday, so the native of the Washington, D.C., suburb of Greenbelt, Md., will miss Big Ten’s newcomer Maryland’s conference debut in a couple years.
“The Maryland program, if you go to the state of Maryland, you don’t know it’s there,” Morris said. “They pretty much needed a change, as far as I can say. The needed that ... that’s good for the Terrapins.”
O’Brien, who was an assistant at Maryland, also welcomed the additions of Maryland and Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights officially made the jump Tuesday.
Penn State heavily recruits in New Jersey and the Washington-Baltimore corridor.
“It’s going to be competitive, but that’s what college football is about, and I think you have to talk about your own program and the way you see that individual fitting into your program,” O’Brien said. “Hopefully it’s the right fit and to me that’s what recruiting is all about.”
But O’Brien can start devoting more attention to recruiting and future opponents in a week. For the next few days, it’s all about sending Mauti and the rest of the seniors off with a win against Wisconsin.
NOTES: Starting safety Malcolm Willis (knee) and backup DT James Terry (foot) were not in uniform and watched from the sideline during a 25-minute portion of practice open to media Tuesday. Both players also sat out last week’s 45-22 win over Indiana ... Sophomore Allen Robinson is 106 yards shy of tying Bobby Engram’s school record for most yards receiving in a season set in 1995 (1,084). Robinson is also two touchdowns short of tying Engram’s single-season touchdown reception record of 13 set in 1993.