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PSU wrapup: Looking back on 2012

December 2, 2012
By Cory Giger ( , The Altoona Mirror

It might have been the best 8-4 season ever in college football, and it will go down as one of the most memorable seasons in the long, storied history of Penn State. Here's a look at the best and worst moments and memories:

Best moment: The celebration on the field at Beaver Stadium at the end of the finale against Wisconsin felt like the Nittany Lions had just won a championship. The emotions that poured out of the players, coaches and fans after the Badgers' Kyle French missed a field goal in overtime provided an exciting, fitting reward for everyone after a very trying year.

Worst team moment: Losing the opener at home to Ohio was deflating for the players after coming into the game with so many emotions following a rough offseason.

Worst individual moment: Sam Ficken had a chance to go from goat to hero with a last-second field goal at Virginia, but his fifth miss of the day (one was a PAT) made for one of the most brutal games an athlete can endure.

Best learning experience: The Lions should have beaten Ohio and Virginia, and if they played again at the end of the season, they probably would have pounded both. But in a strange way, those two losses helped shape the team and the season as much as anything else. They served as motivation for the team, giving it even more of an us-against-the-world attitude, plus it had a major impact on the way Bill O'Brien coached the rest of the season. Would we have ever seen all the gambling on fourth downs -- which produced numerous key plays -- had Ficken not missed those kicks at Virginia? O'Brien learned a lot about his team and how to coach it, especially on that day in Charlottesville.

Team MVP: A no-brainer. Linebacker Michael Mauti, as colleague Neil Rudel pointed out, was the greatest leader in Penn State history. Google Mauti's name and click on images. The first picture you'll see, taken by Mark Brennan of, is a stare that epitomizes determination. He's a terrific football player, but his unrivaled passion and love for Penn State during the school's darkest days will be his lasting legacy.

Best offensive player: Statistically, Matt McGloin had the best passing season in PSU history, setting numerous school records, including: yards (3,266), completions (270), attempts (446), single-game completions (35), tying for season TDs (24) and setting mark for career TDs (46). McGloin, who threw only five interceptions, benefited greatly from O'Brien's offense, but let's also be clear: O'Brien benefited from having a smart quarterback like McGloin who understood the offense and could make the throws necessary to make it successful.

Best defensive player: Mauti gets the nod over fellow standout linebacker Gerald Hodges and outstanding defensive tackle Jordan Hill.

Best pro prospect, among seniors: The choice here is Hodges, a complete package at linebacker who should continue PSU's great run of NFL standouts.

Best pro prospect overall: NFL teams could be salivating in a few years over redshirt freshman left tackle Donovan Smith (6-foot-5, 316), who was hampered by nagging injuries this season. A close second might be redshirt freshman defensive end Deion Barnes (6-4, 246), named Big Ten Freshman of the Year after leading PSU with six sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

Out of nowhere: Zach Zwinak rushed for 1,000 yards, not to mention 179 against Wisconsin. No way anyone could have predicted that at the beginning of the season, when Zwinak was fourth string behind Bill Belton, Derek Day and Curtis Dukes.

Out of nowhere, part 2: How many people had even heard of tight end Kyle Carter back in the spring? The recruiting zealots, sure, but Carter was as unheralded as it gets. Yet he earned a starting job, benefited greatly from O'Brien's tight-end heavy offense, and in only nine games caught 36 passes, five short of the school record for a tight end.

Out of nowhere, part 3: Allen Robinson had a better season than Zwinak and Carter, but he's part 3 because at least people had good expectations for him entering the season. Still, there's a difference between good expectations and going from three catches to a school-record 77 and becoming just the second PSU receiver to top 1,000 yards. That's a great season.

Most underrated player: Center Matt Stankiewitch was a strong force on the line the past two years, an anchor as a leader on and off the field. He should get NFL opportunities.

Best senior: Mauti

Best junior: Guard John Urschel, an all-conference performer and quite possibly the smartest player in college football. The math major recently had a paper called "Instabilities in the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem" published in the journal Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy. He could have an NFL future, but if not, he'll still be wildly successful.

Best sophomore: Robinson

Best freshman: A tie between Carter and Barnes

Lots of assistance: It's tough picking the top assistant coach, especially when D-line guru Larry Johnson and linebacker coach extraordinaire Ron Vanderlinden are on the staff. But the choice is Charlie Fisher, whose work with Matt McGloin was fantastic, and largely overlooked because O'Brien gets so much credit for the quarterback's development. Enough can't be said, too, of strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald and his influence on the team.

Well-deserved: O'Brien absolutely deserved Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, even if Urban Meyer did go 12-0 at Ohio State. What O'Brien accomplished under the difficult circumstances was nothing short of amazing.

Final word: My season prediction was 6-6, and even that looked like a stretch after the 0-2 start. There was too much talent left on the team after the transfers to think it would be a three- or four-win season, like many across the nation believed, but to finish 8-4 in spite of the poor start and all the adversity was nothing short of remarkable.

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