CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - During Big Ten media days in Chicago two months ago, Michael Mauti reacted to the NCAA sanctions in general and Illinois' decision to recruit Penn State's players in particular with loud criticism.
Turns out that paled in comparison to the volume of the statement Mauti made at Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
From the very first play he hit the field - as the gunner in punt coverage who helped cause an immediate Illinois fumble - Mauti was the game's most dominant player and the will behind the Nittany Lions' convincing 35-7 rout.
He made six tackles - two with one-on-one tackles on special teams - and picked off two passes, including one he returned 99 yards in a play for the ages before he ran out of gas at the Illinois 1 just before halftime.
"Ninety-nine yards without a TD," he said, shaking his head and managing a smile in a now-empty stadium that cleared out steadily as the game went on. "That one's going to hurt."
Leading up to the game, the entire Penn State camp bit their tongues on their sentiment toward Illinois coach Tim Beckman - Bill O'Brien didn't acknowledge him before the game - but it was clear the opponent had touched a nerve.
And Mauti made sure his teammates drilled down on it.
"Having to play against these guys, it [35-7 win] was sweet," Mauti admitted afterward. "That's what it was. We never forget about what happened in the summer so, to be honest, yeah, that was in the back of our minds, and that kept us going."
"There's definitely some tension here," fellow linebacker Glenn Carson said. "We definitely had a personal vendetta and really wanted to get this one."
Cornerback Stephon Morris said he's never seen Mauti so "amped up" before a game and claimed the senior linebacker who has overcome ACL surgery on both knees was "banging his head against the locker."
Mauti noted Morris' exaggeration level but set the record straight.
"I wasn't banging my head," he said. "Pre-game is always intense, and with the Big Ten opener, we were all jacked up."
Though Mauti has played at an All-American level so far this season, O'Brien sensed a peaking intensity Saturday.
"Anytime you have things to say, it's important to back it up. That's kind of what life is about," O'Brien said, before adding: "He [Mauti] doesn't have a lot of problems backing things up."
But Mauti was also level-headed when it was needed - such as prior to halftime when the teams crossed paths en route to their locker rooms and, with emotions and frustrations running high and amid whoofing, had to be separated.
"I was playing peace maker," Mauti said. "I don't know what happened people got tangled up."
The Big Ten's second-leading tackler, Mauti added a second interception in the third quarter - he now has four this year - to go with two forced fumbles.
"If you're a senior, role-model leader, that's your role - to make plays," Mauti said, "so that's expected."
Then he quickly shifted the subject ahead and back to the team.
"Our defense hasn't scored yet," he said. "We still haven't scored."
While O'Brien repeatedly cites his strong senior class - Mauti and Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and Mike Zordich, Matt McGloin and Matt Stankiewitch - it's clear no one is playing better and leading better than Mauti.
He was, you'll recall, the player who this past January got up in front of a packed Jordan Center and, without notes, articulately and touchingly reflected on Joe Paterno's passing.
"He helps permeate your message to the rest of the team," Lion defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "The great players, they have an intense passion for the game in the moment, and they seem to make the big plays. That's what he did today."
At this stage, it's a bit premature to rank Mauti among Penn State's all-time great linebackers since the position is so steeped in superstars such as Jack Ham, LaVar Arrington, Shane Conlan, Paul Posluszny and Sean Lee (just to whet your appetite), but he is playing is way into the conversation.
He's certainly off to a superior start to 2012.
But as a leader, especially considering the trauma of the last year and the Nittany Lions' defense one half from being worthy of a 5-0 record, Michael Mauti is moving into a class by himself.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.