The identity of the opponent is not supposed to matter. Coaches teach their players to play hard on every snap, to study the tendencies of every opponent on the schedule, to take care of their responsibility on the play and not to worry about the fans, the referees, the coach on the opposite sideline, or anything else they can't control.
Michael Mauti stayed mostly mum on Illinois but saved some big plays for the Illini. (Photo courtesy of Penn State athletics)
But football is a game played by people against other people. And just as some people mean a little more to each of us than others, certain opponents and certain games mean just a little more to the people who play the games.
They did an impressive job during the week of not saying so publicly, but Bill O'Brien, Michael Mauti and the rest of the Penn State Nittany Lions wanted very badly to beat Illinois on Saturday. They wanted to beat them for the vanilla reasons they gave -- first game against a Big Ten opponent, every game on the schedule is important -- but for other reasons, too -- namely, the fact that not every team on the schedule had sent the majority of its coaching staff to campus on a team plane to recruit Penn State's players once the NCAA sanctions hit.
"We hadn't forgotten about what happened this summer," Mauti said. "To be honest with you, we had that in the back of our minds."
That was as close as Mauti came to revealing his feelings about Tim Beckman and the rest of the Fighting Illini. O'Brien said even less about the subject after the game.
Both men, and the rest of the Nittany Lions, decided to let their actions do the talking.
OK, so Mauti did a little talking in the locker room before the game, too.
"When Mauti gets revved up, it gets the whole team revved up," defensive back Adrian Amos said. "You can see it's not all talk. He shows it on the field."
By the end of the afternoon, reporters knew Mauti had been firing up his teammates before the game, but they didn't know exactly what was said or even how the message was delivered. He wasn't telling, either.
"It wasn't anything abnormal," Mauti said.
What about reports that Mauti had been banging his head against the wall in the locker room?
He shook his head.
"I bang my head enough against other people on the field," he said.
When the game started, Mauti wasted little time doing just that. As he has so often done this season, he busted down the field on the punt coverage team, causing the Illini's Tommy Davis to put a punt on the ground, which led to Penn State's first score of the game. He brought down Davis with a big hit on another return later in the game. And that was before he picked off Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase on two occasions.
"I was saying 'Defensive Player of the Week' halfway through the game," Amos said.
Mauti has been, based on statistics, key plays at key moments and sheer penchant for destruction, the best player on a Penn State defense that gets better each week, a unit that's allowed just nine first-half points all season and has cleaned up a lot of -- though not all of -- the issues that have gotten it in trouble in the second halves of games.
That's no coincidence, say the guys who watch Mauti come to work every day.
"A guy that practices hard, works at the game off the field, and plays it for the right reasons," Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "He plays it the way it's supposed to be played."
"Mike Mauti brings it every play," quarterback Matt McGloin said. "He brings it every game. He brings it to practice every day. He's a rare player. You don't come across a player like him too often."
And because Mauti plays the game that way, because he produces the way he does, because he plays unselfish football, he's well-positioned -- perfectly positioned -- to be the team's emotional leader as well. Illinois came after his team this summer, threatening to break it apart during some of its most trying times. Mauti took that personally, vowing to go after Illinois when he got the chance.
He got that chance Saturday, and his teammates fed off his passion and went after the Illini with just as much fury.
"Any time you have things to say, it's very important you can go out and back them up," O'Brien said.
O'Brien and Mauti didn't have much to back up Saturday, because they hadn't said much. But this was not just another game for anyone in the Penn State locker room, and its lopsided outcome should be one the Nittany Lions will take more than a small amount of satisfaction from.