- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Before this season, a win against Temple would be nowhere near the top of Penn State's goals board.
Temple has been barely a bump on the road to bigger and better things for Penn State. The Lions haven't lost to the Owls since 1941, and never at Beaver Stadium, where Saturday's game takes place. Temple has dropped 36 of its past 37 games to Penn State -- seven Lions wins were vacated between 2003-2011 because of NCAA sanctions -- including 29 straight defeats.
While the Temple program has made significant strides in recent years and has posed a much greater challenge for its big brother to the west, the Nittany Lions always have aimed higher -- for Big Ten titles, national titles and bowl wins.
There will be no Big Ten title for Penn State this season. No bowl win, either. Penn State can officially win the Leaders division, but NCAA sanctions have limited the Lions to 12 regular-season games.
So yes, the Temple game is bigger, perhaps more so than ever before.
"You have a lot to play for every single week," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "Especially this week, being at home again, you've got 100,000 people that are going to show up and want to watch you play well. We only get 12 opportunities, and we only have nine more, so we've got to go out and play well every single week."
O'Brien talked this week about how, "a healthy Penn State football program is good for college football." In many ways, the 2012 season is a three-month checkup for Penn State.
What's the health of the Nittany Lions program? No program is immune to the type of sanctions the NCAA leveled, and Penn State already has been weakened by roster departure. Still, it's O'Brien's job to keep Penn State in relatively stable condition. After two tough losses left the Lions reeling, they recovered nicely last week and smashed Navy by 27 points.
Saturday afternoon brings another very public trip to the doctor for Penn State. Even though Temple is no longer a doormat, if the Lions can't maintain the status quo against the Owls, they'll add more doubt about their future well-being.
"We'd like to go out and make a statement and show that we're back on track," sophomore linebacker Mike Hull said. "It is a big deal for the seniors, going out, not losing to Temple."
It's a very big deal to senior linebacker Michael Mauti, who wants to leave the Penn State program in the best shape possible before he departs. Mauti has played brilliantly through the first three games, leading the Lions in tackles with 33, including two for loss and a sack, to go along with a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.
Mauti had arguably his best game as a Nittany Lion last year at Temple, recording three tackles for loss and a diving interception in the fourth quarter that set up the game-winning touchdown drive as Penn State escaped Philly with a 14-10 win. The year before, Temple led Penn State 13-9 at halftime before falling 22-13 in State College.
"It's been close the last couple of years," Mauti said. "... We know they're going to come in here fired up. They're right in Philly, so they're right in our backyard. It'll be a close game, and we're going to have to make sure we play four quarters of good football to beat a team like that."
Temple comes in at 1-1 and has had two weeks to prepare. Mauti and his fellow Lions defenders are preparing for what he called the "Tim Tebow offense," a system orchestrated by Steve Addazio, the Owls head coach and a former Florida assistant, and led by a big, dual-threat quarterback in junior Chris Coyer.
Mauti stopped short of calling Temple a rival, and to be fair, most rivalries are more balanced than this one (Penn State leads the series 30-3-1, 7 wins vacated).
But in a season unlike any other at Penn State, the Temple game means more. If nothing else, to show that these Lions aren't on the verge of flat-lining.
"It's going to be a challenge," Mauti said. "I think our guys are always up for it."