Penn State Football: Ranking the 5 Biggest Surprises of the 2012 Season so Far

Colin TansitsContributor IOctober 4, 2012

Penn State Football: Ranking the 5 Biggest Surprises of the 2012 Season so Far

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    Penn State's first season under Bill O'Brien has been far from easy.

    After an opening loss to Ohio University and a Week 2 loss to Virginia, the season began looking bleak for the Nittany Lions.

    But somehow O'Brien's team turned it around.

    Penn State is on a three-game winning streak, most recently taking down Big Ten opponent Illinois in a 35-7 win.

    Many people said that, after everything that had happened leading up to this season, the Lions would struggle. Some even went as far as saying Penn State could win only one game.

    In the first month of season the Nittany Lions have surprised all of college football, and are only one field goal kick away from a 4-1 record.

    So, what are the biggest surprises that Penn State has delivered through the first month of the season?

5. Michael Mauti’s Dominance

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    We all knew Michael Mauti was Penn State's undisputed leader on and off the field, but the level at which he has played this season is unforeseen.

    At outside linebacker, Mauti always has been solid, even after two season-ending knee injuries. Coming into this season,though,  Gerald Hodges was touted as Penn State's best NFL prospect with all of his athleticism.

    But Mauti can straight-up ball.

    In only five games, the Louisiana native has racked up 48 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks. He has nine more tackles than Hodges, the team's second-leading tackler.

    Mauti is tied for 30th in the nation in tackling, averaging 9.6 tackles per game.

    To give you a little perspective, in his first four games last year, Mauti only had 21 total tackles.

4. Allen Robinson Shines

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    With Justin Brown and the speedy Devon Smith leaving Happy Valley and Derek Moye graduating, Penn State's top three receivers were gone.

    That left Shawney Kersey as the top receiver returning for the Nittany Lions.

    So, when Allen Robinson caught five passes for 136 yards and three touchdowns against Navy, it left people scratching their heads.

    Where did this guy come from, and who is he?

    Last year, Robinson caught three passes for 29 yards in 11 games. This year, he has 32 catches for 439 yards and five touchdowns.

    Coming into this season, it was known that Penn State needed a receiver to step up for quarterback Matt McGloin. Robinson has been a pleasant surprise and has fit in well with O'Brien's offense.

3. Penn State's Success Under Bill O’Brien

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    O'Brien came to Penn State with no prior collegiate or professional head coaching experience.

    It's true that he helped orchestrate the New England Patriots offense, coaching star Tom Brady for three years.

    When he was selected to coach in Happy Valley, though, the future of the Nittany Lions seemed very questionable.

    O'Brien came in and did a strong job before the season began with recruiting and facing the media. However, nobody saw what O'Brien has done with this team coming.

    Penn State has won three games and is a made field away from having a 4-1 record. The players have bought into what O'Brien is doing with this team and where it is headed.

    The Nittany Lions have looked strong over their past few games, and you have to give a lot of the credit to O'Brien. The success he has had in this first month was certainly unexpected. 

2. McGloin’s On-Field Growth

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    When Matt McGloin was named Penn State's starting quarterback this summer, the reaction was mixed, at best.

    McGloin, a former walk-on from West Scranton, Pa., split time with Rob Bolden the past two years, throwing for 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. What McGloin might be most known for, though, is his five-interception performance against Florida in the Outback Bowl two years ago.

    The quarterback has been known as a feisty competitor, but his decision-making has been questioned.

    However, so far this season, Penn State fans have seen a new and improved McGloin.

    McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing with 1,217 yards, averaging 243.4 yards per game. He has thrown 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions, and has the highest completion percentage of his career (and leads the team with four rushing touchdowns).

    Every week we have seen McGloin grow into O’Brien's offense and get more comfortable. He has been a huge surprise this month, and his on-the-field maturity and leadership are just what Penn State needs.

1. The Emergence of Zach Zwinak

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    O'Brien's philosophy of "next man in line" has been surprisingly successful.

    When running back Silas Redd left for USC, Bill Belton answered the call. Belton is quick, shifty, very athletic and he also had experience.

    When Belton went down with an injury, Derek Day emerged as a hard runner. When Day went down, fullback Michael Zordich stepped up to take carries.

    When Zordich was nursing a sore knee, in came Zach Zwinak.

    A 6'1", 232-pound back out of Frederick, Md., Zwinak has busted onto the scene in old-school fashion. He wears no gloves, no visor and no wristbands. He just brings hard-nosed football.

    This bruiser leads the team with 198 yards of unforgiving rushing; as a redshirt sophomore, Zwinak only had rushed for seven yards prior to this season.

    Although he is no home-run threat, you have to like the way this kid plays. With Belton getting healthy, Zwinak and Belton can create a devastating one-two punch of power and big-play ability.

    The emergence of Zwinak, Penn State's current leading rusher, is the biggest surprise of the season thus far.