Lion Veterans Know Clock is Ticking

As their careers wind down, Penn State senior defenders Hill and Mauti appreciate this week's "huge" home game against unbeaten Ohio State. Jordan Hill video is included.

See Jordan Hill addressing the media at Beaver Stadium Tuesday.

Tuesday happened to be Bill O'Brien's 43rd birthday, but Penn State's coach said he's “not a big birthday guy.”

Nor is he big on weddings, theme parks or the beach.

No word on how he feels about quiet nights by the fire, but big games? He likes those. He likes those a lot. And the Nittany Lions, 5-2 and winners of five straight, have their biggest of the season Saturday at 5:30 p.m., when 8-0 Ohio State visits Beaver Stadium.

“We're playing probably the best team in the Big Ten this week,” O'Brien said during his weekly news conference.

That being the case, he pointed out that one of the other things he likes is big crowds -- big, early arriving crowds, to be specific. He said the atmosphere in Beaver Stadium is “without a doubt the best college football environment in the country,” and praised PSU fans for not only being loud but respectful.

“Our team just wants (the fans) to show up early -- be in there for warm-ups,” he said. “It really gets our guys jazzed up when they're in there for warm-ups. Our guys, they love that. So if we can get them out of the tailgate maybe a little bit early and get them into the stadium early -- maybe get 108,000 in there for warm-ups -- boy, that would be pretty neat.”

O'Brien has already might it quite clear how he feels about his team, his seniors in particular. He has seen them toss aside their 0-2 start like a gnawed-through mouthpiece, with their latest success a 38-14 road rout of Iowa.

The NCAA sanctions haven't been so much a stumbling block as a starting block, propelling the Lions through the season. Each game has been a crusade unto itself, but this week's encounter is something else again.

Linebacker Michael Mauti called it “a huge game.” Defensive tackle Jordan Hill called it “a huge, huge game.”

Enormous -- “the biggest game of my senior year right now,” Hill said.

As a result, he expects Saturday's white-out to be “one of the craziest experiences at Beaver Stadium ever,” and already the students have packed The Tent City Formerly Known as Paternoville, outside Gate A.

The players can only hope to ride that emotional crest, because the challenge the Buckeyes present is considerable. It centers on quarterback Braxton Miller, who has thrown for 1,384 yards and 11 touchdowns, and run for 959 yards (6.8 per carry) and 10 TDs. And while Miller suffered a neck injury in last Saturday's victory over Purdue, he practiced Monday and is expected to be ready to go.

“He's a special player,” Hill said. “There's no way around that. He's a running quarterback, and we've got to do what we do -- keep him contained and keep him inside that pocket.”

O'Brien said Miller is “the best” of the running quarterbacks the Lions have faced.

“The thing about him is, he throws the ball well, too,” O'Brien said. “… One of the keys to the game is to do the best we can to contain him, and tackle him. At the end of the day, he's going to make plays. … We've got to make sure we know, look, the guy's going to make some plays, let's make sure we limit that and not dwell on the big play he just made and try to play the next play.”

Freshman wide receiver Eugene Lewis is playing the part of Miller on Penn State's scout team this week, against a defense that seems to be hitting its stride.

Hill, for his part, was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after recording nine tackles, two of them for losses, and a sack against the Hawkeyes. The Lions limited Iowa to season lows in rushing yards (20), total yards (209) and first downs (14).

“I feel like the clock's ticking more and more,” the senior said Tuesday. “The season's coming to an end. What have we got, five more games? There's more of a sense of urgency. … You just want to do as much as possible before it's over. You can't try to do too much, which I was doing at the start of the season. You focus on the game and do what you know how to do.”

“All the seniors,” Mauti said, “know the clock is ticking every day. Every day we know we have one less day to put on a Penn State uniform. That's kept our sense of urgency going as a team.”

And it allowed them to keep the faith after that 0-2 start, with the second of those defeats by a 17-16 score to a subpar Virginia team.

“We didn't lose any confidence from that,” Mauti said. “We knew the kind of players we had.”

“We were really in disbelief,” Hill said, “because that was the first time in our career we started 0-2. We knew we could put something together.”

O'Brien helped, telling his players that once they won a single game, things would fall into place. And now they have. O'Brien is routinely mentioned as a candidate for Coach of the Year honors. Mauti, while excluded from Lombardi Award consideration (something he professes not to care about), is a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, as is fellow outside 'backer Gerald Hodges.

And the train keeps on rolling along.

“Everyone's working toward the same goal, and really on the same page,” Mauti said. “It's fun to see a lot of guys working as hard as they are, and making things happen.”

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