The Mike & Mike Show

Michael Zordich

Seniors Zordich and Mauti stepped up during the most difficult time in Penn State football history. They continue to be at the forefront of things as the 2012 season unfolds.

Penn State seniors Michael Zordich and Michael Mauti -- a fullback and outside linebacker, respectively -- showed it when they served as the frontmen for the team's show of solidarity in July, after the NCAA announced its sanctions against the program. They were the spokesmen. They were the ones who became the face of the team in a tumultuous time.

They also showed it last Saturday, when Zordich took on the unaccustomed role of feature back (rushing 11 times for 50 yards, both career highs) and Mauti took on the familiar role of defensive leader (registering 12 tackles) as the Nittany Lions beat Navy 34-7, their first victory under new coach Bill O'Brien.

There are other ways to lead, too. It can be done by uncomplainingly serving as a special-teams grunt, as Zordich has. Or by diligently rehabbing from injury, as Mauti has. Twice.

Obviously there's a verbal element to it as well. The two roommates, both of whom followed their fathers to the PSU program, were among those who addressed the team after the season-opening loss to Ohio, just to keep everyone from getting too down in the mouth.

Somebody wondered Tuesday if the reverse might be true now -- if the two of them might also have to make sure nobody is too giddy, seeing as the Lions, 1-2 and set to host Temple (1-1) Saturday, have gotten off the schneid. But Zordich fairly scoffed at that notion during a conference call with reporters.

“If you're feeling good, you're feeling good; there's nothing wrong with that,” he said. “We just have to stay focused. We're not going to tell anybody they're worse than they are, or anything like that. We won the game, we feel good about the win, let's go on to the next week. That's all it is. It's not anything about our attitude. We just have to stay focused.”

And in some ways that's easier to do, he said, since the Lions are in the first of four years of the NCAA-imposed bowl ban.

“Each week is just as important as the next,” Zordich said, “because really, that's all we have. We're really looking to do something. We want a winning record -- not just for us and what we've done, but the future of the program. We want to win games to get people to want to come here. That's how we look at it. We're trying to help Coach out as much as possible.”

Zordich, who had never rushed for more than 40 yards, total, in any of his three previous collegiate seasons, chipped in with his effort on the ground last week. His previous career high was 15 yards on five carries, last year against Indiana State, and before Saturday his career total was 91 yards on 38 attempts. But with Penn State's top two tailbacks -- Bill Belton (ankle) and Derek Day (shoulder) -- battling injuries, Zordich reminded O'Brien during practice last week that he had been a threat back at Cardinal Mooney High in Youngstown, Ohio.

And he kept reminding him.

“It's like being Ferris Bueller's teacher; it's over and over,” O'Brien said with a laugh after the game.

“I'm pretty much the same style (as high school),” Zordich said. “I'm just a downhill, one-cut kind of runner. I haven't done it in a while, so I had to knock a little bit of rust off and get used to it.

He did so while continuing in his role of special-teams demon, a “true-grit” part of the game, he said, and “something (he's) always loved to do.” As a result, he is a little sorer than usual this week.

“But,” he said, “it's a good sore.”

So he will “absolutely” lobby for carries again this week.

“You want to have a role in the offense,” he said. “I just told him it was something I could do, something I've done before. I kept bothering him, kept bothering him. I think I'm going to continue to do that, if I need to. But I think we're on the same page right now. We're just looking to win some games.”

(And lest anyone forget, Zordich scored the winning touchdown in a 14-10 victory over the Owls last year, on a one-yard plunge with 2:42 left. That it came in Lincoln Financial Field, the same stadium where his dad, Michael Sr., works as a Philadelphia Eagles assistant, added to its significance.)

Mauti set up the Lions' game-winning drive in that game with a diving interception. One week later, his season ended when he tore the ACL in his left knee, his second major knee injury in three years. (He also tore his right ACL in the 2009 preseason.) Saturday's game comes two days shy of the one-year anniversary of his latest injury.

During the practice week, he said, “It's hard not to think about” the injury. That's because he's getting “prehab” from the trainers on a daily basis, and because he's doing what he can in the weight room to strengthen the muscles around the knee.

His mindset is different each Saturday, though.

“When I'm on the field I don't think about it at all,” he said. “I just go out and try to make plays.”

For that and many other reasons, O'Brien “can't say enough about Mike Mauti,” as the new coach said during his weekly news conference Tuesday.

And then O'Brien just about proved it, saying Mauti is “a fantastic guy” and “a guy that I'll keep in touch with the rest of my life.” He's great on the locker room, the coach said, and just as great on the field.

“Just watching him play, boy, you wish you could have played that way,” O'Brien said. “He just plays every play like it's his last play and plays within the scheme of the defense and just does an excellent job out there. He's a guy that means a lot to me and means a lot to our football program.”

“I'm happy to be out there with the defense,” Mauti said, “and doing my part to help the team win. I'm really having a lot of fun out there.”

It is a defense, he added, that has shown real improvement over the season's first three weeks. Guys are now starting to play “like their hair's on fire,” in his estimation. Particularly notable is the Lions' ability to force turnovers; they have eight takeaways over the last two games, while not turning it over themselves.

That's not by accident. In addition to the usual emphasis ball-hawking gets in practice, the Lion defenders have a contraption attached to a wall of their meeting room that gets them thinking about stripping opposing ball-carriers.

“It's like on a spring,” Mauti said, “so we're constantly ripping at it, every time we walk in and out of meetings. … That's just one of the many things we do to kind of put that in our minds.”

He believes the Lions can do better on third down and in pass coverage, two things reflected on the stat sheet. Opponents are converting 51 percent of their third downs, and have clicked on 67 percent of their passes. And a pivotal passing play contributed to each of the Lions' defeats -- a would-be interception that went for a touchdown against Ohio, and a 44-yard bomb on third-and-16 late in the Virginia game.

Mauti also believes that Temple will again offer a challenge. They run what he called “the Tebow Offense” featuring quarterback Chris Coyer -- not because Coyer is comparable to Tim Tebow, but because it was the sort of attack Owls head coach Steve Addazio favored when he was the offensive coordinator at Florida, where Tebow played collegiately.

The Owls have scored 68 points in two games to date, a victory over Villanova and a loss to Maryland. The 6-3, 230-pound Coyer has rushed 30 times for 133 yards and a touchdown, while completing 12 of his 29 passes for 239 yards and three TDs.

“Any time you have to play against a quarterback who's kind of a dual threat, that kind of gives the offense one extra player,” Mauti said, “so that's really difficult to defend.”

Scatback Matt Brown -- all 5-5 and 165 pounds of him -- is the Owls' other major threat, having run for 176 yards on 29 carries -- 6.1 a pop.

“We're going to have read our keys, flow to the ball and make some plays,” Mauti said.

Figure that Mauti will be leading the way. As with his roommate, that's usually the case.

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