CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — After a punchless three-and-out to begin Saturday’s Big Ten opener at Illinois, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti received his first chance to hit somebody wearing blue and orange.
The result provided a quick, powerful response to two months of lingering anger.
Punter Alex Butterworth lofted a ball into the clear sky, giving Mauti ample time to race toward Tommy Davis. Mauti lowered his shoulders, cracked Davis and jarred the ball loose.
Michael Fuhrman recovered the fumble, and Mauti had the first of many opportunities to pump his chiseled arms in jubilation.
Mauti followed some strong summer words directed toward the NCAA and coaches trying to poach Penn State players, including Illinois’ Tim Beckman, with an impressive performance in a 35-7 victory over the Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium.
“The great players have a focus for the game,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “They can make big plays at any moment and he made big plays for us.”
The forced fumble, which the Nittany Lions parlayed into a touchdown less than five minutes into the game, started a string of big plays from Mauti, who has passionately defended Penn State since last summer’s announcement of NCAA sanctions against the program.
With 19 seconds left in the third quarter and Beckman opting to go for a touchdown on a fourth-and-goal from Penn State’s 4-yard line, Mauti stepped between quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and top target Ryan Lankford and intercepted a pass at the goal line.
He then cut left and sprinted toward the sideline. Timely blocks from defensive backs Adrian Amos and Stephon Morris cleared a path to the end zone. Receiver Miles Osei caught Mauti inside the 5. Mauti lunged toward the end zone, but his knee hit the turf at the 1.
The 18-second play allowed Sam Ficken to attempt an 18-yard field goal. The kick was blocked yet Penn State held a 21-0 halftime lead.
“Yeah, 99 yards without a touchdown, that one’s going to hurt,” Mauti said. “That’s going to haunt my dreams, especially because we didn’t get any points out of it.”
Mauti played peacemaker on the way to the locker room. The home and visiting sidelines and locker rooms are on opposite ends of Memorial Stadium, meaning teams must maneuver around each other to get their required respite. On their way off the field, crossing players from both teams exchanged words. Mauti, along with multiple Penn State assistant coaches, prevented tensions from escalating.
The break did nothing to slow Mauti. He had another interception in the second half and combined with defensive end Deion Barnes to sack Scheelhaase for a 7-yard loss.
Offensive lineman John Urschel said Mauti doesn’t lose his edge as games such as Saturday’s progress.
“The game covers about three hours,” Urschel said. “He’s like that the whole game. That’s hard to do. He’s the same at the beginning, the end and all the way through. It’s unreal how much energy he has and how he doesn’t get tired.”
The energy permeated to teammates. “We were all amped up,” Morris said. “He definitely gave us an extra edge in the locker room with the things that he said and the things that he was doing.”
As he did when the first first half ended, Mauti played diplomat after the game. He strayed from repeating the powerful statements he uttered at this past summer’s Big Ten media days in Chicago.
“They are on our campus, outside our apartments, outside our classrooms,” Mauti said the week the NCAA announced its decision. “To me, it doesn’t seem right. Even some coaches from this conference. I’m a competitor. I don’t care what school you are from. If you are from any school any conference, I have a problem with that.”
Mauti initially called the NCAA’s transfer waiver for Penn State players, which sparked the summer recruiting, an “absolute joke.” Only his play Saturday generated headlines.
“It means a lot,” he said of the victory. “Obviously, having to play against these guys, it was sweet. We haven’t forgotten what happened this summer. To be honest with you, we had that in the back of our mind and that kept us going.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy