UNIVERSITY PARK — They lost teammates because of stinging NCAA sanctions. They then lost their first two games because of missed opportunities.
Along the way, they lost some key players to injuries, including a passionate long-haired linebacker who was carted off the field in their most recent game.
They are young in spots. They are experienced in other areas.
Yet after defeating Indiana 45-22 on Sunday, the players on Penn State’s 2012 football team will be remembered as winners.
By beating the Hoosiers for the 16th time in 16 tries, the Nittany Lions captured their seventh win of the season. So, regardless of what happens in next week’s finale against Wisconsin, a team juggling dozens of extraordinary circumstances will finish either 7-5 or 8-4.
“It’s huge for us,” defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. “With everything we have been through and continuing to go through, it’s big for us and our future.”
Continuing is the optimal word in this case. Two weeks after Hill hobbled off the field at Purdue, another one of the Penn State’s unbreakable seniors, linebacker Michael Mauti, left Beaver Stadium on a cart after injuring his left knee in Saturday’s first quarter.
Coach Bill O’Brien didn’t reveal the extent of Mauti’s injury. Using crutches to meander the sideline, Mauti emerged from the locker room in the second half. Tears dripped from his eyes as he sang the alma mater with teammates following the game. Mauti has battled back from two ACL injuries to become one of the nation’s top linebackers.
“You can’t replace a guy like him,” quarterback Matt McGloin said.
As Mauti coped with another injury, Indiana dinged Penn State for 454 passing yards. But the Nittany Lions (7-5, 5-2 Big Ten) allowed just 24 rushing yards. More importantly, they didn’t surrender a point after Mitch Ewald’s 46-yard field goal trimmed the lead to 28-22 with 8:34 left in the third quarter.
Ohio University, Virginia and Nebraska, used big third quarters to rally past Penn State, and tensions escalated among the late-arriving crowd of 90,358 when Indiana (4-7, 2-5) scored the quarter’s first nine points.
An extended glimpse at Indiana’s defense proved heart rates accelerated for no reason. Penn State scored twice before the quarter ended, expanding the lead to 42-22.
One week after publicly questioning a goal-line fumble goal at Nebraska, quarterback Matt McGloin completed 22 of 32 passes for a career-high 395 yards and four touchdowns. His receivers made some spectacular catches, beginning with Allen Robinson’s leaping 26-yard touchdown grab on a fourth-down play in the first quarter.
Robinson, who set Penn State’s single-season receptions record with his first catch Saturday, caught 10 passes for 194 yards. Both totals are career highs for the dynamic sophomore.
When Penn State entered the mini-crisis in third quarter, Brandon Moseby-Felder wedged around Antonio Marshall for an 11-yard reception. The catch came at an ideal time. It was fourth-and-9 when McGloin released the ball.
Three plays later, Moseby-Felder caught a 14-yard pass over-the-middle. Zach Zwinak, who rushed for 135 yards on 29 carries, ended the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run, increasing Penn State’s lead to 35-22.
“That sprang a touchdown for us,” Moseby-Felder said of his fourth-down catch. “My teammates called on me to make a play and I made a play. I’m all about the team. My catches are for the team.”
The catches helped McGloin set multiple records. His four touchdown passes increased his career total to 45, a school record. His 22 completions increased his 2012 total to 251, a single-season school record. His 395 yards increased his 2012 total to 3,071, a single-season school record.
The defense didn’t set any records against the Hoosiers. But they controlled a frantic offense despite missing Mauti for most of the game and free safety Malcolm Willis, a junior who didn’t play because of a knee injury suffered last week at Nebraska.
Trailing 52-34 last month against undefeated Ohio State, Indiana scored 15 points in the final two minutes, cutting the lead to 52-49. Indiana lost the game by three points.
The Hoosiers’ shot a similar rally against Penn State ended when sophomore defensive end Deion Barnes executed a stunt and tossed quarterback Cameron Coffman for an 11-yard loss early in the fourth quarter.
The play epitomized the game and the Nittany Lions’ season. They are proficient at tossing aside obstacles.
“I’m very pleased,” O’Brien said. “These kid are a really fun bunch to coach. They work extremely hard. They’re smart. Just seeing the improvement all year. ... It’s just a very, very special group of guys to coach.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.