(Video of Michael Mauti's highlights vs. Illinois courtesy of @Jmpasq. Interception at 4:00 mark)
The raw numbers and rankings are there to support it. Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti was second on his team with 95 tackles, tied for the second-most in the Big Ten with three interceptions and three forced fumbles, and had 2.5 sacks, all while enduring endless attention throughout Penn State's unprecedented season. But it's not the numbers that make him CBSSports.com Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Mauti was the face of the Penn State program, addressing the media after the sanctions dropped, setting an example by giving the underclassmen a reason to stay at Penn State, barreling down the field on special teams, leveling ball-carriers on game-changing tackles, intercepting passes at crucial moments, and coaching from the sidelines during Senior Day after he suffered a season-ending leg injury on Nov. 17.
Mauti's contributions all season are what prompted the team to adorn their helmets with “42” as a tribute to their most influential teammate in what should've been his final home game on Nov. 24.
Coach Bill O'Brien credited Mauti for his words off the field, which galvanized a depleted team, and his play on it, that contributed to Penn State's 21st-ranked scoring defense. Both Penn State's defense and offense played far better than expected and helped the team win eight of its last 10 games to finish second in the Leaders Division. Mauti and fellow LB Gerald Hodges (109 tackles) were the backbone of a defense that had a .75 turnover margin, the third-best in the Big Ten. Mauti's season-highlight came against Illinois on Sept. 29 -- which famously came to Penn State's campus to recruit current Nittany Lions players this preseason.
Down 21-0 and facing fourth-and-goal from the 7-yard line, Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase flicked a pass towards the end zone, but Mauti hopped in front of it and took off down the left sidelines for 99 yards before he ran out of gas at the 1-yard line. He intercepted another pass late in the third quarter, which set up Penn State's final touchdown of the game.
Mauti and O'Brien have each declined to talk about the nature of his latest knee injury, which he suffered against Indiana on Nov. 17 and it's unclear whether he'd want to apply to the NCAA for a sixth-year of eligibility. He's already been through two ACL surgeries but regardless of next season, Mauti's significance to the Penn State team -- which won more games than any analyst predicted -- earned him our Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
For more Big Ten coverage, follow Mike Singer and Dave Carey @CBSSportsBigTen.