Big Plays Ignite PSU Defense

Turnovers are key as the Nittany Lions pull away from the Owls late in the game on the way to a win in Beaver Stadium.

Joe Paterno, seated before his media pals after Penn State's 22-13 victory over Temple, held his thumb and forefinger an inch or two apart to signify the difference between the teams on this day.

“Two or three plays,” he said, “wins that game.”

For a very long time Nate Stupar never could have pictured himself making one. For a very long time, the State College native couldn't have even pictured himself in Beaver Stadium.

Because he seldom was.

The son of two PSU graduates -- his dad, Steve, was a lineman under Paterno in the late '70s -- Stupar, now an outside linebacker for the Lions, more often than not chose the creature comforts of home over The Beave on game days when he was young. Always the right temperature there, he noted.

And, he added, “Bathroom right there. Food any time. Not the eight-dollar hot dogs, stuff like that.”

The comfort level in the stadium was an issue deep into Saturday's game as well. Wasn't until Stupar intercepted Chester Stewart in the third quarter to set up the go-ahead field goal by fellow State College native Collin Wagner that the 104,840 souls in attendance began to breathe easier.

The defense made that lead stand up until the offense, beset by red-zone problems most of the day, marched 96 yards for a touchdown late in the game. In all Temple managed just 71 of its 202 yards after halftime, and committed three of its four turnovers, including safety Nick Sukay's second interception of the day.

Linebacker Mike Mauti loomed large after intermission. So too did defensive end Pete Massaro; he was the one who pressured Stewart on Stupar's pick, plowing into the quarterback just as he threw.

“He threw a duck,” Massaro said.

Stupar, who had dropped into coverage and read the quarterback's eyes, plucked the ball out of the air and returned it 31 yards to the Temple 12. Wagner nailed a 21-yarder four plays later to put the Lions ahead for good at 15-13.

So, again, Stupar said, “I never would have imagined myself coming here and making a play like that. I never could fathom (that).”

He can now.

“It definitely makes your blood levels go up a little bit,” he said, recalling the bedlam in the stadium at that point. “Did 'Zombie Nation' go off?”

Blank looks from his inquisitors. Who knows? But certainly his big play had the desired effect on the crowd, and the team.

“All of a sudden our spark just turned into a flame,” Stupar said, “and we started to engulf them.”

To him, Mauti was the one who ignited everyone in the second half, with his play and his passion. Mauti was credited with seven tackles, five of them after the break, and seemed to show up at the most opportune moments, where the Lions were concerned. There was a third-down hurry of Stewart, who threw incomplete. Also a third down when Mauti and Massaro combined to stop running back Matt Brown for a loss of five.

Others followed suit. Stupar finished the day with seven stops and a sack, in addition to his pick. Massaro, a force off the edge the entire second half, closed out the game with a sack-and-strip of Stewart, then recovered the fumble in front of the PSU bench.

“I think I hit him pretty hard,” Massaro said. “Kinda rattled me when I hit him.”

Massaro made his second straight start in place of Eric Latimore. Mauti started for the third straight game at an outside 'backer spot, though he and Stupar have shared time there. And both play in the Lions' nickel defense.

Mauti is, like Stupar, the son of a Penn Stater; his dad Rich played wide receiver for the school in the '70s. Mike grew up in Louisiana, though, and remembers making a single trip to Beaver Stadium for a game, when he was no more than 10. Only remembers one thing about it.

“That,” he said, “was the coldest I've ever been in my life.”

So suffice it to say he never could have pictured himself turning up the heat the way he did in Saturday's second half, either.

“There's no comparison until you do it,” he said. “It's almost surreal.”

Especially given the path his career has taken. A special teamer as a freshman in 2008, he saw his '09 season wiped out by a knee injury. One of his rehab partners was Massaro, who had also blown out a knee.

“Me and him, we always kind of give each other that look,” Mauti said. “We went through hell, coming back from that rehab. It makes me real happy, seeing him out there, making plays. We always actually try to pump each other up.”

With great success, given what transpired Saturday.

“Any time one of us makes a play, it's more special,” Massaro said, “because we know what we've been through to get to that point.”

They had plenty to feel good about Saturday, while adding to the comfort level of everyone else in the stadium.

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