Penn State fans and the Big Ten Championship
Adam Taliaferro, as of Wednesday night, was working on getting a weekend pass from his wife. They have an 18-month old son, so it might be tough, but he desperately wants to make it out to Indianapolis.
LaVar Arrington is also trying to pull some strings; if he can’t get the company hookup, he vowed to find a Penn State bar or tailgate in Los Angeles.
As for Michael Mauti, he’ll be watching from his couch in Louisiana.
All three Penn State lettermen — beloved Nittany Lions in their own right — have followed this season’s run closely.
The No. 7 Nittany Lions, set to face No. 6 Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, have rattled off eight straight wins, vaulted themselves into the College Football Playoff conversation, and reclaimed a seat at the table of college football’s elite.
This regular season for Penn State, capped at 10-2 with a Big Ten East division title, has captivated the Nittany Lion fans — and the same can be said for the program’s lettermen.
This group of former players, unabashed by its pride, has witnessed Penn State football at its zenith, and seen it at its nadir.
The highs have been hard to come by since 2011, while the lows, especially in regards to national perception, took over for quite some time.
But after scholarship losses decimated the program and winning seasons were improbable miracles, the Nittany Lions are back in focus — and those who wore the blue and white and are now watching from afar couldn’t be prouder.
If we can pull the resources together, and connect that with the recruits being brought into the school, who’s to say we can’t become that national powerhouse that Alabama is right now? I really believe that we could be a perennial power now that we’ve got through all the sanctions.
LaVar Arrington, former Penn State linebacker
Adam Taliaferro jokes with his friends before every season, saying that he thinks Penn State will go undefeated.
“That’s just how I go into it,” he said.
Taliaferro’s yearly prediction went up in flames early; Penn State started off the season 2-2 with a heartbreaking loss at Pittsburgh, followed a couple weeks later by a 49-10 drubbing to Michigan in The Big House.
The masses were suspect-at-best of the Nittany Lions, as six or seven wins looked likely and fans called for James Franklin’s job.
Of course, the Nittany Lions haven’t lost since that Sept. 24 dismantling by the Wolverines, leaving Taliaferro impressed with the way the Nittany Lions rebounded.
“There were a lot of people that were getting down on the team,” the letterman said. “But the thing that really made this team special with coach (James) Franklin’s leadership was that they never lost faith. They always believed in themselves.”
Taliaferro has gotten to know Franklin fairly well in the coach’s three years at the helm.
Taliaferro, who suffered a career-ending and paralyzing spinal cord injury in 2000 as a freshman in his fifth and final Penn State football game, was and remains an inspiration after re-learning how to walk less than a year after the crippling hit.
He speaks to the team frequently about his journey, goes to games whenever he can and is a vocal defender of the Nittany Lions on Twitter.
But even he was surprised when he received a text from Franklin on the day the coach was hired as the Nittany Lions’ new leader. Taliaferro had no idea how Franklin got his number.
“He makes you feel like he’s a part of your family,” Taliaferro said of the coach. “If the lettermen feel that way, imagine how the players feel about him. He’s the type of guy you want to run through a fence for.”
The former cornerback gives plenty of credit to the players’ role in Penn State’s turnaround, make no mistake about that.
However, he can’t help but admire the job Franklin has done in establishing a winning football team with a certain attitude to it.
“He just engenders passion,” Taliaferro said of the coach. “For me, I want to see him succeed beyond belief, and his players have bought in. ... It’s a process, and you’re seeing the process come to fruition now.
“He just has instilled that pride in those that came before you. It’s the same thing coach (Joe) Paterno taught us, having respect for the people that made the program what it was. It’s just cool to be a part of something bigger than all of us.”
This is really, ultimately, what our goal was, to have Penn State back competing for titles on a consistent basis. That’s where we are now, and that’s where we should be.
Michael Mauti, former Penn State linebacker
Even to this day, after being asked about it countless times and spending hours reflecting on the tumultuous period, it’s still hard for Michael Mauti to describe the emotions he and his teammates felt in 2012.
Sure, they felt wronged, irate and bitter when the NCAA handed down sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
But mostly, they wanted to ensure that a run like this year’s would one day be a possibility.
“It was a unique, unprecedented situation that no team has ever been put through,” Mauti said. “That made us closer and stronger, and we knew that moving forward with the lack of scholarships that it’d take a few years for the program to recover. But the fact that we didn’t have a losing season throughout that time, and here we are four years later competing for a Big Ten title, that kind of shows the character of the guys that they bring in and the staff that’s running the ship.”
Mauti, widely considered the senior leader who helped keep the program together in 2012, is now resting in New Orleans, where ulcerative colitis has forced him to miss the rest of the season with the Saints.
Still, he’s kept a positive attitude, and the Nittany Lions are giving him one more thing to be grateful for.
Mauti can recall his first meeting with Bill O’Brien, the plan to convince players to stay at Penn State, and, obviously, how everything shook out. The Nittany Lions were 8-4 in Mauti’s senior season after many predicted three wins would be pushing it. In O’Brien’s second and final year at Penn State, his team went 7-5, again viewed as a major overachievement.
“There was no better person for the job at that time than Bill O’Brien,” Mauti said. “He doesn’t get enough credit for what he did, keeping the program together.”
O’Brien, like Mauti, has kept an eye on the Nittany Lions and what they’ve been able to accomplish this season.
It’s safe to say O’Brien is proud.
“I could answer this question forever,” the Houston Texans coach said at his Monday press conference when asked about the Nittany Lions’ 10-2 season. “I will say this, in 2012 people gave up on that program, and you can go back and look it up.
“Numerous experts gave up on that program, and it’s a great testament to that school, that coaching staff — James Franklin’s staff that’s there now and especially those kids — to come back from that.”
Mauti agrees with his former coach. The Saints linebacker can remember conversations about the potential Penn State couldn’t field a team. With the sanctions imposed any player could transfer free of penalty.
But a core group stuck around, led by Mauti, with a goal in mind, and right now the 2016 Nittany Lions are meeting and exceeding it.
“It gives us as alumni, and me as an alumnus, kind of a sense of validation for sticking up for and doing what was right at the time,” Mauti said of Penn State’s surprising season. “This is really, ultimately, what our goal was, to have Penn State back competing for titles on a consistent basis. That’s where we are now, and that’s where we should be.”
LaVar Arrington can see it now.
With so many caught up in the current Nittany Lions season, the 1999 consensus first-team All-American is looking ahead to what Penn State football can become as a result of this year’s success.
“We have so many influential and powerful people in the Penn State community,” Arrington said. “If we can pull the resources together, and connect that with the recruits being brought into the school, who’s to say we can’t become that national powerhouse that Alabama is right now? I really believe that we could be a perennial power now that we’ve got through all the sanctions.”
Arrington, along with dozens more lettermen, was back in Beaver Stadium last weekend for the Nittany Lions’ regular-season finale 45-12 win over Michigan State.
Franklin actually called out the former Penn State linebacker, telling Arrington that he and his former teammates had to return to State College for that game.
If Ohio State beat Michigan and Penn State handled its business, the Nittany Lions would be Big Ten East champions; if the Buckeyes lost, Michigan would go to the Big Ten title game, but with a win the Nittany Lions would still end the regular season with a remarkable 10-2 record.
Either way, it was going to be a special night.
Arrington, who served as Penn State’s honorary captain, watched as the Nittany Lions throttled the Spartans on their way to punching their ticket to Indianapolis. He celebrated like crazy, and a few days later, took a moment to reflect on the evening and what it meant moving forward.
As lettermen like Arrington, Taliaferro and Mauti get ready to watch Penn State square off against Wisconsin, they can’t help but think back to their days at Penn State.
Through their own respective adversities and turmoil, they, like so many other lettermen, now feel a sense of overwhelming pride.
Franklin and his players have talked all week about where Penn State is, not where it was.
That message has trickled down to those who came before them.
“What they’ve accomplished and what they’ve done as a group and as a program, it extends beyond the borders of football,” Arrington said. “More than any win they had against Ohio State or Michigan State, the bigger win is what they’ve been able to overcome to get to this point.
“The success of winning certainly sets the stage for this program to make an amazing rebirth, resurgence and emergence.”
Penn State vs. Wisconsin
Game Day Breakdown
Who: No. 7 Penn State (10-2, 8-1) vs. No. 6 Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2)
When: 8:17 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
Series: Wisconsin leads 9-8
KEYS TO WIN
For Penn State: Don’t be shy. What’s got the Nittany Lions here has been their heave-it-deep, swashbuckling offensive attitude; if Penn State’s going to win, it’s going to be because it stayed true to itself, and attacking the Wisconsin defense should be priority No. 1.
For Wisconsin: Mount an early lead. Penn State is a second-half team, which has worked out in its favor so far. But if the Badgers score early and hold a firm halftime lead, it could be difficult for the Nittany Lions to overcome.
Nittany Lion to watch: Saeed Blacknall. Wisconsin’s secondary is dangerous, opportunistic and could key in on stopping Penn State’s leading receiver, Chris Godwin. But the Nittany Lions have several deep-threats, and Blacknall could be in for a big game.
Badger to watch: Bart Houston. Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook is the starting quarterback for Wisconsin, but Houston is excelling in the Badgers’ two-quarterback system. The senior has shown composure in recent weeks, completing 17 of 24 passes for 283 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions over the last four games.