Surrounded by microphones and recorders, Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof stared into the distance as if in a daze. Tears welled up in Roof's eyes when the subject turned to injured senior Michael Mauti.
The fiery Mauti is so much more than a linebacker to the Nittany Lions.
"He means so much to me, personally," Roof said in a soft voice. "From Day 1 ... our relationship has gotten nothing but stronger, stronger and stronger. I totally trust him."
Coach Bill O'Brien didn't have more details on the injury after Mauti was carted off the field late in the first quarter of Saturday's 45-22 win over Indiana. Mauti was being blocked by an offensive lineman when it appeared that Hoosiers running back D'Angelo Roberts went low and hit Mauti's left knee.
Beaver Stadium grew silent. O'Brien, Roof and another standout outside linebacker, Gerald Hodges, were among the Nittany Lions to come to Mauti's side. The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Mauti was slowly and carefully loaded on to a cart that quickly came on to the field to pick up the fallen leader.
"Michael Mauti! Michael Mauti!" the student section yelled in unison after Mauti returned to the sideline in the fourth quarter walking with crutches while the team gathered to sing the alma mater.
Serious injuries cut off two seasons earlier in his career — one to each knee. O' Brien got testy at one point after being asked if Mauti has played his last down in a blue-and-white uniform.
There's just one game left this year for Mauti , running back Michael Zordich and the other seniors who helped keep most of the team together after the NCAA's landmark sanctions in the offseason. Wisconsin visits next weekend.
"All I can say is, in your career, I've been fortunate to be around some special players," O'Brien said. "There's a bunch of special players in that (senior) class. He embodies, in my opinion, what Penn State's all about: he's tough, grind it out, smart."
By the tears flowing down the eyes of Mauti's mother during the singing of the alma mater, to the heartfelt messages of support from teammates on Twitter — it's clear those close to Mauti fear he may not return for what's already expected to be an emotional season finale against the Badgers.
"I'm praying for my boy Mike Mauti, and y'all do the same," redshirt freshman defensive end Deion Barnes posted on Twitter after the game. "One of the best players (I have) ever seen play the game."
Hodges, who finished with 12 tackles and an interception, combines with Mauti to form one of the best outside linebacker tandems in the country. Hodges' No. 6 jersey and Mauti's No. 42 jersey are popular sellers at downtown State College stores.
"If I could give my knee to my brother(hash)42 he (would have) had it by the end of the game," Hodges wrote on Twitter.
In some respects, the bittersweet victory over the Hoosiers was representative of the challenging year.
The win clinched a winning record for Penn State, an accomplishment that few college football observers thought could happen in the wake of sanctions.
Quarterback Matt McGloin and receiver Allen Robinson combined to torch overwhelmed, poor-tackling Indiana defense in a record-setting day. Robinson had 10 catches for 197 yards and three entertaining scores that showcased his uncanny knack to make mid-aid adjustments and twist away from tacklers from big plays.
The emergence this season of Robinson and two other sophomores this season, bruising 6-foot-1 tailback Zach Zwinak (five 100-yard games in last seven contests) and linebacker Mike Hull are two bright spots for a future that's still cloudy overall given the sanctions. Among the NCAA penalties are a four-year bowl ban and steep scholarship cuts, and players will once again be eligible to leave the program without penalty after this season ends. The exception expires at the start of the 2013 preseason next August.
Hull, who has shown promising glimpses all season as a top reserve, took over on the weak side after Mauti went down and finished with 12 tackles and a sack. He gave some thought to leaving this past offseason after the sanctions were announced. Mauti helped convince him to stay.
"His impact was huge," Hull said. "He talked to me every day and was constantly telling me how important I was to the team and what my role would be."
Now it could be Hull that takes over early as the starter earlier than expected, in the finale against Wisconsin if the worst feared about Mauti's injury comes true.
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP