When Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti crumpled to the turf with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the first half of the Nittany Lions' game against Eastern Michigan on September 24, many feared the worst for the team's defense moving forward.
Mauti, after all, was the most celebrated member of Penn State's linebacking corps, and right up to the time of his injury, he'd been making big plays for the defense, most notably a key second half interception in Penn State's 14-10 win against Temple on Sept. 17.
Fellow senior Nathan Stupar has been equal to the task of taking over for Mauti from the get-go, however. The State College native stepped right in after Mauti's injury and racked up seven tackles with a sack against the Eagles before assuming the starting role against Indiana the following week.
"Obviously, you never want something like that to happen to a teammate where you have to step in and take someone's place like that," Stupar said of the situation at Penn State's weekly press conference on Tuesday. "He's a tremendous athlete. I can't wait until he gets back next year and does what he does on the field, making plays."
Despite his mixed emotions about replacing a fallen teammate, Stupar has become a force on the defense.
His two interceptions and seven tackles against Purdue were key in Lions' efforts to hold off the Boilermakers 23-18 on Oct. 15. He's also posted eight or more tackles in three of Penn State's last four games, adding a sack against Ohio State this past weekend.
Those contributions have helped the defense lower its points allowed per game from 14.7 in the three games before Mauti's injury to 12.4 in the eight games since.
Stupar has remained humble and grateful to a higher power despite the success.
"I can't thank enough my God for the great season he's given me," Stupar said."Not many people have the opportunity to go out and play at a D-I level program like Penn State. I thank him for every thing he's given me, every interception, every tackle, every sack."
Stupar is a member of one of the Penn State program's first families. His father, Stephen, was a defensive lineman for the Lions in the late 1970s and three of his uncles, including former Pro Bowler Jeff Hostetler, spent time in the program as well. His brother, Jonathan, has spent parts of four seasons in the NFL after playing his college ball at Virginia.
Nate has made a name for himself over his four seasons at Linebacker U, though. After redshirting the 2007 season, he stepped in and registered 10 tackles in the first two games of the 2008 season. He also made his presence known in the season opener against Akron in 2009, when he made 12 tackles against the Zips before making limited contributions the rest of that campaign.
The 2010 season was his breakout. He made seven starts at outside linebacker and finished the season third on the team with 73 tackles.
Now, as Penn State prepares to take on Wisconsin in the de facto Big Ten Leaders Division Championship game on Saturday, his teammates are just glad he's been able to step up in his final blue-and-white season and keep the defense moving forward without Mauti.
"Nate stepped in and he's done a great job," safety Drew Astorino said. "He goes above and beyond what he's been called to do. He's made big plays, he's good at communicating. We didn't lose much of a step with him in there."