Michael Mauti became one of the faces of Penn State football this summer with his outspoken defense of the program in the wake of heavy NCAA sanctions. The fifth-year-senior has also said a lot with his play so far this season for the 0-2 Nittany Lions. Recovered from yet another knee injury, Mauti ranks third in the Big Ten in tackles with 21, including a big game last week at Virginia. I caught up with the talented linebacker this week for our Friday Q&A segment.
First all, how are you guys holding up?
Michael Mauti: I'd say the team is holding up pretty well. Most guys have put their heads down and continued to work and want to get better as a team. We obviously wanted to win the first two games, but we've been getting better each week and we're going to continue to do that. That's been our focus.
How is the defense feeling after giving up some plays to Ohio in the opener but playing pretty well most of the way against Virginia?
MM: Coming off a game where we forced four turnovers, I know our defense is feeling pretty good right now as far as our ability to make things happen. We're just going to continue to get better. What we'll focus on and emphasize, especially this week with Navy, is the ability to stay tough throughout the whole game and to stay disciplined.
How tough is it to turn around and play against an option offense this week against Navy?
MM: This is a little bit different, and we've kind of had our eye on this game for a while. All summer, we put a big emphasis on countering cut blocks and really just staying disciplined, everybody just staying on their man in the option responsibility. That's really going to be the big key for us.
Seems like cut blocks would be no fun to go against. How much do you dislike seeing that?
MM: Yeah, well in all honesty, it's hard for the scout team to replicate the speed in which they play at and the intensity with which they throw their bodies at your legs. But those guys have really been doing a good job of trying to get that done. Cut blocks are a pain in the [expletive]. I mean, they really are a nuisance. But it will test our ability to get off blocks, to continue to fight through the play. If you get knocked down, get up and play off those kinds of blocks and make a play on the ball. So it's difficult, but I think our guys are up to the challenge.
As a guy who has had some major knee problems, do you worry at all about those kinds of low blocks coming at you?
MM: No, I've never had an issue with that. It's one thing if our own team is cutting in scrimmages or something. We try to stay off our own legs. But that's part of the game. You've got to keep your hands in front of you and play off blocks. It's never been an issue for me.
You had a big game last week against Virginia and look as good as you ever have. How healthy do you feel and how do you think you've played so far?
MM: I feel great being out there, first of all. Really just having a lot of fun. I like the way our defense is flying around out there. We're going to go through our struggles early on, but I think we're going to just continue to get better as the year goes on. And really, personally, I feel great.
Did you and the other team leaders say anything to or do anything for kicker Sam Ficken after his difficult day last week?
MM: We tried to give him a little pat on the head or pat on the back after the game and just say, "Hey, man, just hold it together, because we're going to need you throughout the year." He's got to bounce back, and I think he will. It's really a tough thing. There's a lot that goes on within that unit -- the snap, the hold, the protection -- so it's kind of a multi-part deal, not just the kicker. But we understand he's going through a tough time and we think he's going to bounce back.
Some people wrote some nasty things to Ficken on Twitter after the game. What's your reaction to seeing something like that?
MM: People are going to say what they're going to say and it's not for us to react to it. But Sam's a good teammate, and we're all going to stand behind him. That's the way a team works.
How important is it for you guys to beat Navy this week and finally get something positive going?
MM: We really feel like we could be 2-0 right now. We're just a few plays away. So that's kind of frustrating, but it also keeps you motivated and keeps you going. We definitely need to get a win going and start this train. I think we have a real strong senior class, so I think that has helped us keep the guys together and not get discouraged. We need to continue to work and get better because this is going to be a long year. We definitely need to get that "W" on the board this week, though, that's for sure.
A lot of Penn State fans showed up at Virginia. How has the fan support been for you guys so far this year?
MM: It's been awesome. When we were at Virginia, there was a ton of Penn State fans, more than I expected. And they were really loud, louder than I expected. Our fans have been there for us through everything, and it means a lot to us. Their support has meant a lot to us throughout the year. I have tremendous respect for our fans and hope they continue to support us way they have been.
You were very outspoken this summer. How much out of your comfort zone was that?
MM: I've never been a traditionally outspoken person. But I really felt like there was something inside me that could not let what was happening happen, and for me not say anything about it. Given my position on our team, I really felt like I had a platform and I really felt like I needed to speak on behalf of our team, and I was honored to have that platform. I felt like some things needed to be said, that some things were going on out there that I didn't feel were just. So I kind of let that be known. We understand our situation, but now we continue to just focus on football because all that talking is over with. Now there's nothing we can do about that but play football.
You said at Big Ten media days that you received a lot of positive feedback for what you said. Is that continuing?
MM: Absolutely. I get it every day. It's really been crazy. I still get e-mails every day from fans and different people supporting us. It doesn't matter if we're going to get lunch on campus or stepping into a business in town -- there are always people out there patting us on the back and telling us to keep our heads up, keep this thing rolling and continue to fight through the season. So we've had tremendous community support, and it means a lot to us.
What were some of the most unexpected responses you received?
MM: There were a couple that stick out. There were a couple of guys from Afghanistan e-mailing me, telling me to stick in there and for the football team to hang in there. So that really put things in perspective. There were heads of departments and colleges at the university, the department of education and department of science. It was really crazy. I got feedback from different people from all different walks of life. It definitely makes you feel like a huge part of something when you have that kind of support from people who may or not even be football fans but are just Penn State University fans.
You still need to get on the winning track, but it came out last week that you can actually still win the Leaders Division title. Can this team rebound and become a factor in that race?
MM: Absolutely. I think in our minds, we never paid attention to what anybody was saying all year. We couldn't, to be honest with you. If we listened to what everybody else was saying, I don't think we'd be playing football this season. We've had so many distractions and things that have nothing to do with football that we've had to deal with. We'll never use that as an excuse, but what I'm saying is our focus has been and will continue to be what we can control. And that's going to be just keeping our heads down and keeping our focus on what we've got to do to get better. Keep fighting and focus on football.