STATE COLLEGE – The white banner fluttered in a stiff breeze before being removed from the east facade of Beaver Stadium to reveal “2012” in bold, blue numerals next to the years marking unbeaten or championship campaigns.
The 2012 season will be remembered in Happy Valley for a long time to come for reasons beyond wins and losses.
“It’s exciting to go down as one of the great teams in Penn State history,” senior quarterback Matt McGloin said after the rousing 24-21 win Saturday over Wisconsin. “To have that season stapled on the stadium forever is a great feeling.”
Coach Bill O’Brien said after Saturday’s win that acting athletic director Dave Joyner had called him earlier in the week about adding 2012 to the facade.
“When they put your 2012 team up there with those teams ... that means a lot,” O’Brien said. “I’m not sure there are many bowl games out there that are going to be played like that one. There’s a lot there and just a fantastic senior class.”
The seniors went out in style.
The tense, overtime thriller came down to a stellar defensive effort spearheaded by tackle Jordan Hill, a 37-yard field goal in the extra session by redeemed kicker Sam Ficken, and the 44-yard miss by Wisconsin’s Kyle French that finally brought the season to an end on a chilly, late November night.
And so a campaign that began with the dark cloud of NCAA sanctions hanging over the program because of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal ended with smiles and relief. The Nittany Lions (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten) would have been a lock for a New Year’s Day game had the penalties not included a four-year bowl ban.
Not that it mattered to star linebacker Michael Mauti.
“That’s better than any bowl trip I’ve ever been a part of,” said the senior, who wore his familiar No. 42 jersey over jeans after being sidelined with a left knee injury.
Fiery on the field, Mauti is known as much for a humble persona off it. He doesn’t like the spotlight and deflected media attention off his injury and on to the rest of the team in the week leading up to the game.
All the while, his teammates wore “42” on the side of their white helmets in honor of Mauti, a suggestion made to O’Brien by Hill and fellow team captain Michael Zordich. Penn State’s other outstanding outside linebacker, Gerald Hodges, switched from his No. 6 jersey to 42 in another grand gesture for Mauti in his last game in blue and white.
There’s plenty of time left to wonder about Mauti’s future. After the game, Mauti continued to brush aside questions about the severity of his injury, choosing to reflect on the remarkable end to an unparalleled season.
Back in July, two days after the NCAA levied the penalties, about two dozen teammates surrounded Mauti and Zordich as they made impassioned public statements that they were sticking with Penn State.
Other seniors like McGloin, Hill, Hodges, cornerback Stephon Morris and center Matt Stankiewitch also helped keep the team together through tough times, like the 0-2 start and the 35-23 loss last month to No. 4 Ohio State.
While Mauti was expected to be a star this year, McGloin’s emergence as the best passer was a surprise – and a testament to the coaching job by O’Brien in his first season. The former Patriots offensive coordinator and position coach to star quarterback Tom Brady had McGloin running the Nittany Lions’ new up-tempo offense to near-perfection by year’s end.
McGloin averaged a league-best 272.6 yards passing and completed more than 60 percent of his 446 pass attempts with just five interceptions. He displayed his trademark confidence – which some people equate to a cocky swagger – but was held in check if he went too far by O’Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher.
A former walk-on, McGloin finished with 24 touchdown passes to tie Daryll Clark (2009) for the school’s single-season record. Under O’Brien’s tutelage, McGloin also set school records this year for single-season passing yardage (3,266) and career touchdown passes (46).
Mauti was asked how the senior class would be remembered.
“I don’t know if I can even really put that in words right now,” he said. “Maybe in a couple of years from now I’ll be able to look back and answer. I am just proud to be a part of it. It’s been the most fun I’ve ever had playing with the people I’ve never been closer to.”