UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mike Hull sprinted toward the Penn State sideline with his arms outstretched as the Beaver Stadium crowd jumped to their feet Saturday night.
Hull, a senior linebacker, had intercepted Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett early in the fourth quarter of Penn State’s 31-24 double-overtime loss. Like Hull has done all season, he made the play look easy.
He stepped into the starting middle linebacker position this spring and, easy to forget that at 6-feet, 232 pounds, he continues wracking up tackles and holding the defense together.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’ve coached in a lot of different leagues, even the NFL. The guy is playing at a really, really high level week in and week out,” coach James Franklin said Saturday night. “He makes plays from sideline to sideline in the run game and in the pass game. You guys have heard me say this before, but I have a man crush on that guy. I love him. He’s a big-time football player.”
Hull posted a career-high 19 tackles against Ohio State and his second career interception. He has 10-plus tackles in five games this season, including 46 tackles in the past three. He has led the Nittany Lions defense in tackles every game this season as teammates and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop continue to praise him for cleaning up others’ mistakes. Hull’s 11 tackles per game are tops in the Big Ten and sixth in the FBS.
Even redshirt sophomore receiver Geno Lewis said he remembers the first time he was hit by Hull in practice as a freshman. Hull was intense, all over the field and it didn’t matter who was coming his way. Lewis said it helped give him a taste of what it felt like to get hit by a college linebacker.
“Mike Hull is the best player I’ve ever played around,” defensive tackle Anthony Zettel said. “He’s the hardest worker every day in practice, every single play he’s giving it 100 percent. He’s like a little speed demon. … Playing with him, people make mistakes and he always covers for us because that’s just the type of player he is.”
Hull did more than cover for the defense Saturday as he gave the offense a chance to put points on the board despite the unit’s continued struggles to move the ball. Without injured senior safety Ryan Keiser, the veteran players continued picking up the communication void, following Hull’s lead and putting the offense’s frustrations to the side to focus on shutting down a high-powered Buckeyes offense.
But don’t try to sell Hull on the statistics. Penn State hasn’t won since a 48-7 victory against Massachusetts Sept. 20. More than the success of the defense and the motivation from his watch-list snubs, it’s the three consecutive losses that keep motivating him.
“There are no moral victories,” Hull said. “But I think that we are heading into the right direction. If we keep playing like this every week, with that same type of effort, we will be hard to beat.”