NCF Nation: Michael Zordich

Bill O'BrienRandy Litzinger/Icon SMIBill O'Brien is excited about his team as he heads into his second season at Penn State.
The last time we saw Penn State, the Lions were celebrating a surprisingly strong finish to the 2012 season and saying farewell to a special senior class. Penn State since has turned the page and will begin spring practice Monday with a mix of familiarity and uncertainty. Bill O'Brien is not the "new coach" in Happy Valley anymore, and players have acclimated to O'Brien and his staff. But the Lions are looking for a starting quarterback for the second consecutive spring. They also must replace several outstanding defenders and fill holes on both lines. But the depth crisis many of us envisioned for the Lions when the NCAA sanctions came down last summer simply isn't there in State College. caught up with O'Brien late last week to discuss spring ball.

What are some of the main objectives you're looking for when you get on the field again?

Bill O'Brien: The No. 1 objective offensively is to make sure we come out of this spring practice with improvement from the quarterback position. We won't name a starter coming out of the spring, but at least at the end of 15 practices we'll have a good idea of how well these guys are grasping the system, Tyler Ferguson and Steven Bench. So that's a big deal for us offensively.

And defensively, some new guys will be in there, and seeing how those guys do, whether it's Nyeem Wartman at linebacker or Jordan Lucas at corner or some other guys who are going to be playing a little bit more next year, how much they improve. And then we'll work our special teams every single day, so hopefully we'll find some core special-teams players this spring.

What's your message to Steven and Tyler going into the spring? You're not naming the starter, but what do you want to see out of them?

BO'B: [Thursday] I was talking to them, and I said, 'Look, I just want you guys to put your head down and go to work. Don't worry about what everybody else on the outside of the program thinks about your performance, whether it's in scrimmages or the Blue-White Game or whatever it is. Just try to get better every single day.' These are two really, really good kids. They're smart, they work hard at it, they're grasping it pretty well to this point. We're pretty excited about getting started with them. I don't want them to think about anything other than trying to improve and be as good a leader as they can be.

Will you have to change the offense for one or the other? Do they fit in with what you did last year?

BO'B: We'll definitely be different. We'll be different in many ways. Matt [McGloin] had certain strengths we tried to play to, no question about it. Our system is expansive enough that you can have different parts in there to take advantage of the talents of the quarterbacks who are playing. So we'll be a different offense than we were last year.

Anything specific on what might change with these two quarterbacks or areas you can draw out more?

BO'B: I'd rather not get into all of that, but I can tell you these are two guys who are big, they're strong, they're fast, they look to be accurate passers. We're just looking forward to working with them.

(Read full post)

Senior class leaves unique mark at PSU

November, 21, 2012
They did not win a Big Ten championship or play in a Rose Bowl. Their 34 wins in four years don't rank among the best records in school history, and most of those are unofficial victories, anyway.

Yet when Penn State honors its 30 outgoing seniors on Saturday before the Wisconsin game, it will be a highly emotional sendoff that's unlike any other senior day in the country. This group has created a unique legacy, one built not on wins and losses as much as loyalty, resilience and strength.

"They will always be remembered here for the leadership they showed," head coach Bill O'Brien said.

This class endured the strain of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the death of beloved coach Joe Paterno. The defining moment for this group came this summer, when the NCAA handed down some of the harshest sanctions ever leveled against a football program. With no bowl possibilities and a free pass for transfers, the team could have easily crumbled.

But while some players did transfer, most of the seniors stayed. Led by Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich, they fiercely and now famously pledged their loyalty to the school with a public show of support. In doing so, they gave a fractured Nittany Lions fan base something to rally around.

"They were instrumental in keeping this football team together in the summer when the sanctions came out," O'Brien said. "They really helped the community move forward.

"They grew up a lot. That's a hard thing to deal with when you're in your early 20s. But these guys are a special group of guys."

While many predicted doom and gloom for this season after the sanctions and departures, the Nittany Lions will be looking to finish 8-4 with a win over the Badgers. Several seniors have played major roles in that, including Mauti, Zordich, quarterback Matt McGloin, linebacker Gerald Hodges, defensive tackle Jordan Hill, offensive linemen Mike Farrell and Matt Stankiewitch, cornerback Stephon Morris, defensive end Sean Stanley and others.

"The way we've approached it is just to play each and every game like it's our last," McGloin said. "We're just trying to leave our mark and mark sure we've left this place on a high note."

The one sour note about this week is that Mauti won't be able to play. The star linebacker became the face of this team in the summer with his outspoken comments about the sanctions and loyalty, and then he went out and put together a season worthy of All-America recognition.

But Mauti injured his left knee, the same one that kept him out of most of last season, last week versus Indiana. While the school hasn't released full details of the injury, it has said that Mauti's season is over.

"We've been going up to Mike and giving him comfort and letting him know he's not alone through this," Stankiewitch said. "He said, 'Let's finish this season out strong. Let's finish out with eight wins and not settle for anything less than a win.'"

An 8-4 season would be an excellent accomplishment for this team, but the achievement of these seniors goes deeper than that. They've shown there's still much to play for at Penn State despite the lack of a postseason reward. They've helped set the tone for the future of the program while preventing it from unraveling.

They've got one last game to play, and they deserve a rousing sendoff.

"We want to be remembered as a high-character team, a high-character class," Stankiewitch said. "We want to be remembered as staying together and performing every Saturday with an extreme amount of effort. We look at this game as an opportunity to show the nation even more how together we are as a team."
Has there been a more pleasant surprise in the Big Ten this season than the vast improvement in Penn State's passing game?

Once a liability, the Nittany Lions now have one of the best aerial attacks in the league under first-year coach Bill O'Brien. It was on full display in a 45-22 win against Indiana on Saturday.

No one has benefited more from O'Brien's arrival than senior quarterback Matt McGloin and sophomore receiver Allen Robinson, who had monster games against the Hoosiers. McGloin threw for a career-best 397 yards and tied his career high with four touchdown passes -- all in the first half. Robinson was not surprisingly McGloin's favorite target, finishing with 10 catches for 197 yards and three of those scores.

McGloin eclipsed 3,000 passing yards on the season and became Penn State's career leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. Robinson needed just one catch to become Penn State's single-season receptions leader, and he did a whole lot more than that.

The Nittany Lions led 28-13 at halftime, but Indiana did make a little run. The Hoosiers scored on their opening drive of the second half and kicked a field goal a few minutes later after a Penn State fumble to make it 28-22. Third quarters haven't been to kind to Penn State this season.

But the Lions responded by scoring two more touchdowns before the third quarter ended. An Adrian Amos interception deep in his own red zone closed out another Hoosiers scoring chance. Michael Zordich and Zach Zwinak (133 rushing yards) helped drain the clock.

But it wasn't all good news for Penn State, which assured itself a winning season with its seventh win. Early in the game, star linebacker Michael Mauti was carted off with a left knee injury. It sure looks like his injury-ravaged career is now over, and that's just a horrible stroke of bad luck for a guy who has meant so much to this program. No doubt, the Nittany Lions will be dedicating next week's finale at least in part to Mauti. We just hope he can recover enough to have a deserved career at the next level.

As for Indiana, at least the Hoosiers played better than they did last week against Wisconsin. Cameron Coffman threw for 454 yards and a pair of scores, though he did have two interceptions. But the IU defense still can't compete against the best teams in the conference, and Kevin Wilson's team will not be going to a bowl this season. They'll have to beat Purdue next week to finish 5-7.

One final note: Penn State conspiracy theorists would have a hard time explaining a call near the end of the first half, as Zwinak bobbled and fumbled the ball right at the goal line after catching a pass. Officials ruled it a touchdown on the field -- a key difference from last week's Matt Lehman fumble at the goal line -- and the play was upheld after an official review.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Northwestern has waited half a century to start a season with a 6-0 record.

The Nittany Lions made sure it will have to wait at least one more season.

Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin composed himself and led the Lions to a 39-28 victory after trailing by 11 points in the second half. McGloin dove in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Penn State's defense answered by forcing a Northwestern three-and-out, and Michael Zordich added another touchdown. Penn State improves to 4-2 with the win, and Northwestern falls to 5-1.

It was over when: Mike Hull deflected Northwestern's last chance at a comeback. On 4th-and-7 from the Wildcats' own 28, Trevor Siemian attempted a pass over the middle, but Hull got his hand on it right in front of the receiver. The sideline erupted after the stop.

Game ball goes to: McGloin. Trailing 28-17, McGloin put the team on his shoulders and didn't make a mistake. He led Penn State to two scoring drives and rumbled for a 5-yard TD run to put his team up 32-28. He finished 35-of-51 for 282 yards and two touchdown passes.

Stat of the game: 161. Rushing yards by Penn State. Northwestern came in with the nation's 13th-ranked run defense, and PSU entered with the No. 86 rushing offense. Still, somehow, PSU was able to have one of its best rushing games of the season.

Unsung hero: Zach Zwinak. Against a tough run defense, the Penn State fullback-turned-tailback finished with 121 yards on 28 carries. He entered this season as the team's last option at tailback, but he has shown in the past three games that he might just be the best running back on the team.

What it means: Penn State is a legitimate contender for the title in the Leaders Division. The Nittany Lions showed they can make a comeback, and it showed this offense is for real. For Northwestern, it showed it still has some defensive issues to fix -- but the offense is certainly dynamic.

Penn State's Mauti: Man on a mission

October, 4, 2012
On July 25, Penn State seniors Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich gave a now-famous, impassioned speech about staying loyal to the program in the wake of harsh NCAA sanctions. Only later did it sink in for them what they'd done.

"A couple of days after that, I said to Zordich, 'Listen, we'd better win some games and back this up,'" Mauti told "'Or else we're going to look like idiots.'"

That's no longer a concern. Not only has Penn State (3-2) won three straight games heading into this week's showdown against No. 24 Northwestern, but Mauti is looking like one of the best defensive players in America.

[+] EnlargeMichael Mauti
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireLinebacker Michael Mauti has sparked Penn State during its four-game win streak.
The fifth-year senior linebacker ranks fourth in the Big Ten in tackles (48), is tied for second in interceptions (2) and shares the league lead with two fumbles forced. He has already been named Big Ten defensive player of the week twice.

"If you were naming the Big Ten linebacker of the year right now, it would be Michael, no doubt," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Mauti had perhaps his finest game last week at Illinois. His hustle on punt coverage helped force a turnover, and he later intercepted two passes, including one at the Illini goal line on the first half's final play that he ran back 99 yards, falling just short of a touchdown. He was named the Walter Camp Football Foundation national defensive player of the week for those efforts.

Mauti said his teammates have given him grief about not scoring on that interception return, but they all recognize what he has meant to the Nittany Lions this season. Unwittingly or not, Mauti became the face of the program this summer with his outspoken comments, and he has lived up to that by becoming the team's best player and emotional leader.

"He's one of the most energetic players I've ever seen," Penn State offensive lineman John Urschel said. "He's running around making plays. He's jumping around everywhere for four quarters. Guys get pumped up at the start of the game. He's like that every single play for the entire game."

Mauti might have reached his emotional peak in last week's 35-7 win at Illinois. He had made no secret of his disdain for Illini coach Tim Beckman's Penn State poaching efforts this summer, and couldn't wait to exact some revenge. Cornerback Stephon Morris described Mauti as a "crazy person" who was banging his head against lockers before last week's game began.

"No, I never banged my head against a locker," Mauti said. "I bang my head against enough people on the field. My head doesn't need any more trauma. But we were fired up before the game."

Mauti squirms when people talk about his leadership. He's a guy who'd rather just play football and not talk much about it. Circumstances have dictated otherwise.

He appears to have been destined to play for Penn State, like his father, Rich, did in the 1970s and his older brother, Patrick, did from 2005-08. But though Mauti begged to play football as a kid, his parents did not let him take up the sport until he went out for his eighth-grade team. The immediate results were not auspicious.

"He hated it," said Rich Mauti, who now is a real estate executive in Louisiana. "He came home, threw his backpack on the floor and said, 'I hate football. I want to quit.'"

But early on in his first season of playing, Michael stuck an opposing return man on kickoff coverage. As soon as his son popped up from that hit, Rich recognized a familiar sight: Michael had just fallen in love with football. He began playing it with the same passion and emotion with which he had attacked every other sport growing up.

That love story would suffer some major setbacks at Penn State. Whenever he was on the field, Mauti played like one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten. But a torn ACL in his right knee in August 2009 wiped out that season. Last season, just as he was starting to produce at a high level, he tore the ACL in his left knee in the Lions' fifth game.

Those injuries were excruciating for someone who enjoyed playing the game so much, whose desire to excel was exemplified when he peppered Bill O'Brien with questions about the team's strength program after the new coach's first meeting with the players in January. And then came this summer's sanctions, when the NCAA tried to tear down Penn State and told Lions players they could transfer without penalty. Mauti couldn't just stand by and watch it happen, which is why he stepped out of character to speak out.

"We were exceptionally proud of him, because we know that's the last place he wanted to be," Rich Mauti said. "He's not one of those guys who wants to be out in the media and shoot his mouth off. He was thrown into that position, and we're so proud of the way he's handled it, knowing it was so uncomfortable for him."

Mauti has been described as playing like a man on a mission this season. He agrees with that assessment. He's acutely aware that he only has seven games left in his college career, and his injury history has taught him that nothing is guaranteed beyond this moment.

"You only have a set number of days, and I feel like I know that better than most people," he said. "Just being able to play and being healthy, I'm having so much fun with everything I'm doing. Given everything we've been through as a team, it's been one hell of an experience, in a good way."

Mauti feels like he's playing for something bigger than just himself or this season. He and his teammates are playing for the entire Penn State community, to show the world that the Nittany Lions are about a whole lot more than just the Sandusky scandal.

That's quite a burden to take on. But so far, Mauti looks pretty smart for trying.

Big Ten stock report: Week 6

October, 3, 2012
The NASDAQ and the Nikkei got nothing on this market.

Stock up

Penn State's Killer Zs: Zach Zwinak was no better than the fifth-string tailback for the Nittany Lions this summer. But in the last two games, the 230-pound sophomore has rushed for 94 yards against Temple and an even 100 versus Illinois. "He's got good speed, but he's not a scat back," head coach Bill O'Brien said. "He's a physical, downhill guy that likes to press the line of scrimmage." Penn State's second-leading rusher is Michael Zordich, a senior whose 30 carries this year are just five shy of his previous career total. Don't sleep on these Zs.

Jordan Cotton: The Iowa receiver came to campus as a well-regarded in-state recruit but spent two years doing not much of anything after a redshirt season. Cotton is finally emerging, with four catches in the Hawkeyes' last two games, including a 47-yard touchdown grab on a flea flicker last week against Minnesota. Cotton is averaging 20.2 yards per catch this season.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Zach Zwinak
Bradley Leeb/US PRESSWIREZach Zwinak has rushed for a combined 194 yards in Penn State's past two games.
Ohio State's offensive line: A maligned group most of the offseason and even early in the year, the Buckeyes' offensive front exerted its will last week at Michigan State. Ohio State ran for more than 200 yards against a Spartans defense that was leading the Big Ten and was among the best in the nation against the run. What's more, they closed out the 17-16 win by churning out yards and first downs in the final minutes when Michigan State knew the run was coming. Urban Meyer named his five starters the offensive MVP after the game. "Those five guys are locked and loaded," he said. "That's the group right now that I'm most pleased with."

Nate Sudfeld: The Indiana quarterback didn't arrive on campus until this summer but looks like he should be starting going into Week 6. Sudfeld replaced an injured Cameron Coffman against Ball State and led a rally that nearly won the game for the Hoosiers. Last week, after IU fell behind Northwestern 20-0 in the first half, Sudfeld came on right before halftime and gave the offense a spark, leading a comeback that ultimately came up short. Sudfeld is still competing in practice with Coffman for the starting job, but his needle is definitely pointing up.

Blackshirts' seniors: When Nebraska needed to make a defensive stand after falling 17 points down to Wisconsin last week, its seniors stepped up. Defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler and linebackers Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher combined for eight tackles for loss and two sacks to stymie the Badgers and lead the comeback effort. Compton in particular had a terrific game. The Huskers veterans haven't always performed at an elite level, and they'll need to carry that Wisconsin effort over to this weekend and beyond in order to win the Big Ten.

Stock down

Minnesota's safeties: Jerry Kill said one big reason his team couldn't stop the Iowa running game last week is that his safeties missed too many tackles in run support. Even Derrick Wells, who's had a fantastic season, turned in a poor performance, Kill said. The Gophers will spend much of the bye week working on improving that with their safeties, and getting Brock Vereen back fully healthy should help.

Michigan's road production: As Kyle Meinke writes, the Wolverines are averaging 20.9 points per game on the road the past two seasons, compared with more than 40 at home. This year, Michigan has scored just 20 total points in its two games away from Ann Arbor (albeit against outstanding defenses in Alabama and Notre Dame). Denard Robinson's numbers are much worse away from the Big House as well. It's an issue the team must resolve before going to Purdue this week

Ex-Iowa running backs: The grass isn't always greener, even if it's FieldTurf. As Mike Hlas points out, former Hawkeyes running backs Marcus Coker and Mika'il McCall aren't exactly flourishing after leaving Iowa City. Coker is the second-leading rusher on his team at FCS Stony Brook and ranks 66th in the division in rushing yards. McCall has 8 fewer yards than Coker at Southern Illinois. Neither of them have come close to walk-on Mark Weisman's 507 yards, which he's accomplished in a mere three games. So maybe it's not the player, but the system.

Peace, love and understanding between Spartans, Buckeyes: Mark Dantonio wasn't the biggest fan of Urban Meyer during recruiting season last winter. Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins said before last week's game that he would try to rip Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell's head off. Hankins nearly had his eyes gouged out by the Spartans in a scrum. And defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi complained that the Buckeyes didn't send over the proper game film. Can't we all just get along?

Illinois' offense: Weren't the Illini supposed to be more explosive with Tim Beckman's spread attack? The team ranks 97th in the country in scoring at just 22.6 points per game and 96th in total offense. And those totals include a stat-padding 44-0 win over a truly awful FCS opponent (Charleston Southern). Not much has gone right for Illinois this year, but if the program wants to start building interest among its fans, scoring some points would be a nice way to start.

Instant analysis: Penn State 34, Navy 7

September, 15, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State rebounded from an 0-2 start behind a strong offensive effort and opportunistic defense Saturday.

The Nittany Lions (1-2) forced three turnovers and finished with 341 total yards in a 34-7 victory over Navy. The Midshipmen's secondary couldn't adjust to Matt McGloin, who found eight different receivers and threw for 231 yards.

The win comes at a critical time for Penn State, which hasn't started 0-3 since 2001. Navy drops to 0-2 with the loss.

It was over when: McGloin connected with Allen Robinson on a 45-yard touchdown strike in the first quarter. McGloin threw the pass about 20 yards, but Robinson faked a defender, cut inside and sprinted another 25 yards for the score. That put Penn State ahead 14-0 and set the tone with PSU's passing game. Navy never recovered.

The game ball goes to: Robinson. He made three big plays, all three of which occurred on touchdown drives, and helped PSU threaten with the deep ball -- something it hadn't yet done entering this game. He finished with five catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns.

Stat of the game: Two, the number of turnovers that Penn State turned into touchdowns. The Nittany Lions couldn't capitalize last week off four turnovers but did better with three turnovers against Navy -- including a 74-yard fumble return by linebacker Mike Hull.

Unsung heroes: Curtis Dukes and Michael Zordich. They weren't flashy, they didn't have a lot of stats, but they made the most out of each of their 22 combined carries. The bruising duo helped fill the void of Penn State's top two tailbacks, Bill Belton and Derek Day, who were both out with injuries. Dukes ran for 47 yards and averaged 4.3 yards per carry, and Zordich had 11 carries for 50 yards.

What it means: Finishing around .500 remains a possibility. A loss here would have shut the door on Penn State finishing 6-6. It drove downfield against Virginia but couldn't find the end zone. Here, it finally put everything together and looked good against an overmatched Navy squad. Penn State showed it can impress offensively; the only question left is whether it can do that consistently.
Penn State players know next Saturday's season opener against Ohio won't resemble a normal football game.

After an offseason filled with change, NCAA sanctions, scandal residue and constant tension around State College, the emotion at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 1 will be like nothing we've seen before. Some think Penn State shouldn't be playing football at all, after everything that has transpired at the school. They think the notion that football can heal the school and the community is not only disrespectful, but reinforcing the culture that led to the heinous crimes committed by former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky.

The players, not surprisingly, think otherwise, and they embrace their roles in Penn State's quest to move forward.

"In a lot of ways, people turn to football," quarterback Matt McGloin said Thursday. "This is a football town. You don't get 110,000 fans showing up to games everywhere in the country. With everything that's happened, people want to see how we respond. ... Myself and the rest of this senior class has an opportunity to try to rebuild this program. All we want to do is go out there and play football.

"If that can make a difference, if that can bring this community closer together and change anything that happened, that's all we want to do -- play our part, keep this program together and make it better."

The NCAA sanctions are just beginning for Penn State, which is ineligible for postseason play until 2016 and will deal with significant scholarship losses through the 2017 season. But this season, at least in the eyes of senior fullback Michael Zordich, has "everything" riding on it.

Zordich doesn't minimize the significance of next week's game to the Penn State community.

"We know what we're going through is tough," Zordich said. "But we also know the power football has to bring people together. It lifts spirits. People turn to it. You look at New Orleans back [after Hurricane Katrina] when they were down and out, and the Saints won the Super Bowl and that city's been improving ever since. We know it can't heal everything but we know it can help."

A natural disaster and an institutional disaster aren't remotely the same and shouldn't be compared, but Zordich is right about one thing: as was the case in New Orleans, football will be a welcome sight in State College.

"We definitely have a chance to make history at Penn State," McGloin said. "We have an opportunity to bring this great university back from the bottom. We have an opportunity to bring this community together."
CHICAGO -- Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti had just come off the field from 7-on-7 work around 8 a.m. Thursday morning when he got a call from head coach Bill O'Brien.

"Hey, Mike," O'Brien said. "You've got to be on a plane at 9:30."

Mauti was a last-minute addition to Penn State's player contingent for Big Ten media days, a contingent that very nearly didn't come to Chicago at all. But Mauti ended up being arguably the best interview subject here, offering an impassioned defense of his team and railing against the NCAA transfer rules.

The senior -- who led a players' statement of loyalty on Wednesday in State College along with teammate Michael Zordich -- drew a lot of notice for what he said. Mauti returned to his hotel room on Thursday evening and spent three hours going over emails sent to him. The correspondence came from fans, alumni, heads of Penn State departments and professors -- some who had taught Mauti and some who had not.

Mauti said he got one email from a couple of fans who told them they'd sworn never to go another Penn State football game after the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke. But they told him that after watching him talk, they promised never to miss another game.

"That's why I know we're doing the right thing here," he told reporters Friday. "I told coach [Thursday morning], I'm going to let it fly, man. We've got to let the public and the world know we're sticking together. We wanted this platform, of course we did."

All of the Nittany Lions here in attendance -- defensive tackle Jordan Hill and offensive lineman John Urschel were the other players -- handled themselves admirably through the media crush. Hill said he also received scores of supportive emails.

"When Mauti and Zordich were there with the team behind them, there was a tremendous amount of groundswell coming off of that video," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "It's the players that are really continuing to put a stake in the ground for this program."

Mauti could become the face of the team this year -- if he can stay healthy. He missed the 2009 season with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament and played only four games before blowing out his left ACL last year. When he's on the field, he's one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten.

Mauti says he feels great now and credits the work he's done with new strength coach Craig Fitzgerald and trainer Tim Bream.

"I've never been stronger in what I've been doing as far as weightlifting, and I haven't put a [knee] brace on all summer," he said. "The last time I was doing this rehab, I never took the brace off, so mentally I'm a whole lot more confident in my legs.

"I feel as good going into the season as I ever have, and it's a testament to those two guys."

No one would blame any Penn State players who wanted to bolt from the program after the NCAA gave them a get-out-of-jail-free card.

But a large group of players pledged their loyalty to the Nittany Lions Wednesday in an impressive show of solidarity. More than two dozen players, led by senior running back Michael Zordich and senior linebacker Michael Mauti, gathered to give a statement about their commitment to the team this morning outside the Lasch building.

You can watch the even here.

“This program was not built by one man and this program is sure as hell not going to get torn down by one man,” Mauti said. "... No sanction, no politician can ever take away what we've got here. None of that is ever going to tear us apart. ... This is what Penn State's all about -- fighting though adversity. And we're going to show up every Saturday and we're going to raise hell."

"This is the greatest opportunity a Penn Stater can ever be given," Zordich said. "We have an obligation to Penn State, and we have the ability to fight for not just a team, not just a program, but an entire university."

The players did not take questions after the gathering. They also released the following statement as a group:
"This team is sticking together. We aren't going anywhere. And we could not be more proud to be Penn Staters now. We look at this as a great opportunity to have the ability to bring back not only a team but an entire university.

"This team has taken on more adversity than any team has faced in history which is a testament to our commitment to our team's character, our fans, and our university. One man didn't build this program and one man sure as hell cannot tear it down. This program was built on the backs of the thousands of great men who put on the Penn State uniform. Today it is no different.

"No sanction or politician can tear this team apart. No one can take away what this university means to us. We will stick together and create our own legacy. Our loyalty lies only with our teammates, coaches, fans and families. No one else.

"It's not going to be easy but we know that we have acquired the strength that we have overcome and we will embrace our anger and burn it as fuel this season.

"We can't wait for September 1 and to be back in Beaver Stadium and playing for Penn State in front of the best fans in the nation. We ask everyone to come out, show the support, wear your colors proudly and show that adversity makes the Penn State nation tougher and stronger."

Some of the other players present, according to reports, included quarterback Matt McGloin, offensive linemen John Urschel and Matt Stankiewitch and defensive backs Adrian Amos and Stephon Morris. Notable in his absence was star running back Silas Redd, who is reportedly being recruited by USC. Redd is still scheduled to appear at Big Ten media days in Chicago on Thursday.

Penn State supporters had to love the loyalty and passion the players showed this morning. The team will need that kind of togetherness to overcome the many obstacles in its way.

3Q update: Penn State still up 20-14

November, 19, 2011
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Now that's more like it, a scoreless quarter between Penn State and Ohio State. Here are some notes and observations after 45 minutes of play, as No. 21 Penn State still leads Ohio State 20-14.
  • Both teams are in love with the Wildcat formation and have had some success, Penn State more than Ohio State. The Buckeyes went to the well one too many times deep in their own territory as running backs Jordan Hall and Dan Herron couldn't complete a handoff, leading to a fumble. Fortunately for Ohio State, its defense turned in an impressive goal-line stand to keep Penn State from taking a two-score lead.
  • I loved Penn State's decision to go for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but the play calls before were highly questionable. Running backs Stephfon Green, Silas Redd and Brandon Beachum have been terrific, and yet Penn State went with two Michael Zordich runs and a Matthew McGloin sneak. You've got to give the ball to the running backs before fourth down.
  • Ohio State seemed to have its offense cooking late in the quarter before a Carlos Hyde fumble. The turnovers are killers, but the Buckeyes must continue to pound away at the Penn State defense with Herron, Braxton Miller and others. Ohio State has had good success running to the outside.
  • Penn State kicker/punter Anthony Fera might be the team's MVP so far today. He has kicked field goals of 43 and 46 yards, both career longs. He also pinned Ohio State at its own 3-yard line late in the quarter.
It's blowout city around the Big Ten in the first four games.

Let's check out what's happening:

Michigan 21, San Diego State 0: Denard Robinson will get the attention, and rightfully so as he continues to dazzles with his feet. "Shoelace" already has tied a single-game career-high with three rushing touchdowns and has 139 rush yards. Some team will force Robinson to pass the ball, but San Diego State isn't it. But the bigger story in my opinion is Michigan's defense has kept San Diego State off of the scoreboard despite allowing 163 yards and being on the field for 16:33. The Wolverines forced a Ronnie Hillman fumble and seem to be flustering Aztecs quarterback Ryan Lindley, who completed just 7 of 14 passes in the half. Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison have to be encouraged with the defense so far.

Michigan State 31, Central Michigan 0: The statistic that stood out for me after Michigan State's loss to Notre Dame last week was yards allowed. Yes, the Spartans got thumped 31-13, but they only allowed 275 yards to the Irish. It showed me the MSU defense could still be very good, and we've seen the unit sparkle today against Central Michigan. The Spartans recorded three first-half takeaways, including a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown by safety Isaiah Lewis. The defense is stifling Central Michigan, holding the Chippewas to 47 first-half yards. Spartans sophomore Le'Veon Bell, meanwhile, is making a strong case to be the team's top running back with three first-half rushing touchdowns. Bell and the offensive line look very good so far.

Penn State 17, Eastern Michigan 0: The Nittany Lions have a big lead, but more importantly they might -- just might -- have gained some quarterback clarity. Rob Bolden didn't play poorly, but the offense took off once Matt McGloin came in during the second quarter. McGloin was 9-for-10 for 143 yards, including the first two Penn State touchdown passes of the season -- to Joe Suhey and Derek Moye. McGloin would have had another one, but Michael Zordich fumbled at the goal line for a touchback. The defense has been stout, and Penn State came up with three turnovers -- a fumble recovery, interception and a blocked punt. The two things to watch in the second half are whether McGloin continues to play this well, and this much, and what we can find out about linebacker Michael Mauti's injury.

Iowa 28, Louisiana Monroe 3: Are we witnessing the blossoming of the Iowa offense? OK, it's only Louisiana Monroe, but this is three straight quarters now that the Hawkeyes have been humming, especially in the passing game. James Vandenberg has thrown for 200 yards and two touchdowns, both of them to Marvin McNutt. Vandenberg is one yard shy of 600 passing yards his past four quarters and is playing with a ton of confidence. Meanwhile, Marcus Coker looks like he's on his way to a 100-yard day. The defense has looked strong as well since the Warhawks drove for a field goal on their first possession. There should be no need for late-game drama in Iowa City today.
Penn State doesn't know its starting quarterback, whether it can rely on a kicker or when its 84-year-old head coach will return to the sideline.

But here's what the Nittany Lions do know: they boast an excellent defense.

Michael Mauti and the rest of Penn State's defenders repeatedly kept the team alive throughout a 14-10 victory against Temple. And after forcing three turnovers and covering up numerous errors by the offense and the special teams units, Penn State's defense was rewarded with a hard-fought victory.

The Lions avoided their first loss to Temple since 1941.

As one of my Twitter followers remarked, "Is Penn State a team with a National Championship D and a Division 3 O?"

The offense clearly needs work, but you had to like what you saw on the game-winning drive. After missing two field goals and having another blocked, Penn State wisely rolled the dice on two fourth-down attempts and moved the chains both times. An offensive line that still is looking for greater consistency imposed its will against the smaller Owls in the red zone.

It set up, what else, a fullback dive for the touchdown by Michael Zordich. JoePa had to love that one.

Quarterback Rob Bolden led the decisive drive and made some big throws, including an 11-yard completion to Derek Moye (7 catches, 112 yards) on fourth-and-2. But it was Matthew McGloin who looked more polished under center, completing 13 of 19 passes with no touchdowns or interceptions. The receivers seem to step up when McGloin's in the game, although there were several nice plays in the clutch with Bolden calling the signals.

Mauti's interception set up the decisive drive, and numerous other Penn State defenders stepped up.

The Lions defense showed it can carry this team at times, but there's still a lot to get sorted out in the other two phases.

At least Penn State can begin the work ahead after a much-needed win.

Beginning today, we're going to start ranking each position group in the Big Ten. These rankings will reflect the overall strength at each position, so depth matters as well as individual star power. Following each group ranking, we'll also give out our list of the top individual players at that position.

Let's start out with a look at the running back groups across the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball and James White
AP Photo/Morry GashMontee Ball and James White did a lot of celebrating last season, as the duo combined for 32 TDs.
1. Wisconsin: No surprise at the top. Even with John Clay gone and Zach Brown transferring, the Badgers are loaded at tailback. They've still got junior Montee Ball, who finished four yards shy of 1,000 last season with 18 touchdowns, along with reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White, who ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. Throw in senior fullback Bradie Ewing and redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis, and the Badgers should be powerful on the ground yet again in 2011.

2. Michigan State: Other than Wisconsin, the Spartans have the best collection of experience and talent in the backfield. First-team All-Big Ten performer Edwin Baker ran for 1,201 yards and 13 scores last year. Le'Veon Bell, a 237-pound bruiser, complemented him as a true freshman with 605 yards and eight scores. Larry Caper is a capable veteran, and fifth-year senior Todd Anderson starts at fullback. The Spartans are deep and versatile in their rushing attack.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes might have earned a higher ranking if Dan Herron were eligible to play a full season. But with Herron (1,155 yards and 16 scores in '10) suspended for the first five games, Ohio State will need some youngsters to fill his shoes. The good news is that there are plenty of talented candidates. Jaamal Berry is the leading returning rusher outside of Herron, and he averaged 8.3 yards per carry in a limited role last season. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde will also battle for more playing time, while redshirt freshman Rod Smith could emerge as the No. 1 tailback after an impressive offseason. Zach Boren is back at fullback. Things may be in flux in Columbus, but you can almost always count on a good running game from the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Rex Burkhead
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJunior Rex Burkhead averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and scored seven TDs.
4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers led the Big 12 in rushing last season with 247.6 yards per game on the ground, good for ninth in the FBS. Leading rusher Roy Helu Jr. is gone, but junior Rex Burkhead returns after a 951-yard campaign. He will occasionally line up at receiver or take snaps in the Wildcat. The Cornhuskers lack experience behind him but are expecting big contributions from incoming freshmen Aaron Green and Amer Abdullah. ESPN Recruiting ranked Green as the No. 11 player overall in the Class of 2011.

5. Penn State: Yes, the school's all-time leading rusher has moved on, as Evan Royster graduated. But the Nittany Lions still feel confident about their running game, which should be led by sophomore Silas Redd. He ran for 461 yards and 5.7 yards per carry as a true freshman, showing a physical style. Senior Stephfon Green will be asked to take on a larger role, and Brandon Beachum is back after missing last season with a knee injury. Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich are productive players at the fullback spot.

6. Purdue: The Boilermakers' stock in this chart could go up if Ralph Bolden successfully returns from injury. So far, so good for Bolden, who was a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2009. Rob Henry led the team in rushing last year with 547 yards, but fullback Dan Dierking graduated. Junior college transfer Akeem Shavers got a lot of carries this spring and should contribute, and Reggie Pegram also is in the mix.

7. Iowa: Running back depth is a serious issue for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. Adam Robinson, who would have been the leading returning running back in the Big Ten in terms of yards per game, was dismissed from the team following a December arrest. Marcus Coker could emerge as a superstar, however, after starting four of Iowa's final five games as a true freshman. He was the offensive MVP of the Insight Bowl with 219 rushing yards on 33 carries and has drawn comparisons to former Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. There's virtually no proven experience behind him, though, and three-year starting fullback Brett Morse is no longer around.

8. Michigan: If only we could count Denard Robinson as a running back. Brady Hoke plans to cut down on Shoelace's carries, which means the Wolverines' tailbacks will get more of a chance to shine. The question is who will step up. Senior Michael Shaw and junior Vincent Smith split time as starters last season, while Stephen Hopkins and Michael Cox are in the mix for more carries. Can celebrated recruit Justice Hayes contribute right away?

9. Illinois: Mikel Leshoure's dash to the NFL left the Illini with uncertainty at running back. Senior Jason Ford, the most likely successor, sat out much of spring ball with a hurt knee, while Troy Pollard's promising spring was cut short by a concussion. Incoming freshman Donovonn Young will get a look this fall.

10. Northwestern: Like Nebraska and Michigan, Northwestern relied on its quarterback -- in this case Dan Persa-- for a heavy chunk of the rushing yards. Mike Trumpy came on late in the year as a freshman and solidified his starting spot with a strong spring. Sophomore Adonis Smith, senior Jacob Schmidt and junior Tyris Jones will fight for carries behind him.

11. Minnesota: There was healthy competition at tailback this spring with a mixture of veterans and fresh faces. DeLeon Eskridge led the team last year with 698 rushing yards, while Duane Bennett added 529. They're being pushed by redshirt freshmen Donnell Kirkwood and Lamonte Edwards. New coach Jerry Kill will look to improve on the Gophers' paltry 3.6 yards per carry average last season. This is a group that could make a major move up the rankings.

12. Indiana: New Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a challenge in figuring out this group. Three of the top candidates for the starting tailback job, Darius Willis, Antonio Banks and Xavier Whitaker, all suffered season-ending knee injuries in 2010 and missed spring practice. IU's leading rusher last season finished with just 352 yards. Nick Turner and Matt Perez got the bulk of the reps in the spring. Perhaps Wilson's high-tempo offense will improve the stats for Indiana ball carriers.
The focus will be on the 12-play, 96-yard drive that finally put Penn State into the end zone and put away a feisty Temple Owls team today.

It was very impressive, don't get me wrong. Rob Bolden made clutch throws, Evan Royster had a big 17-yard run and the offensive line finally imposed its will against Temple's defensive front, creating room for linebacker/fullback Michael Zordich to churn out some tough yards.

But make no mistake: Penn State's defense deserves all the credit for a 22-13 win against Temple. After a sluggish start, the Lions completely shut down Temple in the second half and didn't allow a point in the final three quarters. Linebacker Nate Stupar and safety Nick Sukay combined for three interceptions, and the front seven really punished Temple with physical play. That's a good sign going into the Iowa game, as Penn State will need its defense to play at an elite level.

I'm still concerned about the Penn State offense and its red zone woes. Royster broke out of his slump with 179 rush yards on 24 carries, but Penn State's inability to get the ball in the end zone will cost it games in the Big Ten if not corrected.

Penn State has to feel good about the way it finished today, but things get much, much tougher next week in Iowa City.