STATE COLLEGE -- Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti gets so intense sometimes, it looks he could take on all 11 players on the other side of the ball at once.

The Nittany Lions' senior leader is playing the best football of his career, a role model on a team whose hallmark so far under new coach Bill O'Brien is passionate, every-second-counts intensity.

After an 0-2 start, these new Nittany Lions (3-2, 1-0 Big Ten) are on a three-game roll punctuated by their best all-around performance of the season with last week's 35-7 thrashing of Illinois.

Just in time for a visit Saturday from No. 24 Northwestern (5-0, 1-0), the first ranked foe of the season for Penn State.

"They play, you know, like their hair is on fire every play," O'Brien said Tuesday about his team's effort all season.

There wasn't much to complain about last week after Penn State dismantled the flailing Illini on the road. No Nittany Lion has been more representative of the team's work ethic than Mauti, who had two interceptions -- one for a school-record 99 yards -- to go with six tackles and half sack.

It was an emotional win that meant a lot to Mauti and other Penn State players for the way Illinois coaches aggressively courted Nittany Lions in the offseason after the NCAA levied landmark sanctions on the school for its handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

Mauti was so good he was named the Walter Camp Football Foundation National Defensive Player of the Week award, and also won similar honors from the Big Ten for the second time in three weeks.

Mauti vows there won't be a mental letdown this week for Northwestern, not with the season certain to end in November no matter how well Penn State does since the NCAA's penalties include a four-year bowl ban.

"We don't have any concerns about the team maintaining intensity. We only have a fixed number of games," Mauti said Tuesday. "I'm not worried about any kind of lull like that."

Penn State students are trying to do their part, calling for a student-section "whiteout" for the Wildcats game. The all-white tradition is usually reserved just for big games.

Even O'Brien is getting into the act, calling for the student section -- about 20,000 strong -- to arrive on time for the noon kickoff. While they can be loud and boisterous, students also tend to arrive late for early Saturday afternoon games due to, um, distractions the night before.

"We feel like we are doing some good things. We need all those students in the stands at noon for that kickoff," O'Brien said. "These guys, they feed off of that. You know, the crowd noise, the student section, these guys feed off of that. So whether it's 'whiteout,' this out, that out, I don't know; I just need them in, in the stands at noon going nuts for this football team."

The NCAA also cut a significant number of scholarships from Penn State, though O'Brien pointed to early positive signs on the recruiting trail. Each of Penn State's first three home games have attracted up to 50 prospects.

It's not an unusual number for early-season games, though almost anything related to the program is under a microscope these days in the aftermath of the scandal.

These recruits tended to be either those who have either already verbally committed, or are lesser-known prospects -- also typical given higher-profile visits are saved for higher-profile opponents or rivalry games like Ohio State, said Mark Brennan, editor of FightOnState.com, which covers Penn State recruiting.

According to recruiting services, Penn State has 11 verbal commitments for a possible 15 maximum scholarships for the 2013 class, including highly ranked players in Virginia quarterback Christian Hackenberg and Pennsylvania tight end Adam Breneman. But it's too early to tell how well Penn State may do on the recruiting trail since prospects don't have to officially commit until February. Since most teams can sign 25, Penn State is at a disadvantage due to the NCAA sanctions.

O'Brien didn't pass up an opportunity Tuesday to turn up his recruiting pitch before the room full of reporters gathered for his weekly press conference.

"This is a place where you can play great football with great kids, as teammates, and get a fantastic degree. You can play in front of a 100,000 people. You can play on national TV. You can play where you're going to be at practice (where) every NFL team has been in here to scout our players already this year," the former Patriots offensive coordinator said. "So you're going to have exposure to that. You are going to play for a coaching staff that has NFL experience, national championship experience. "

He points one of the the biggest examples of his impact so far -- the fiery competitors on the field spearheaded by Mauti and the close-knit, adversity-tested senior class.

"Look, again, I don't know what's going to happen this year. I'm not a genie," O'Brien said. "But people enjoy watching this team play because of the effort with which they play."

Make no mistake. These are Bill O'Brien's Nittany Lions now.

And Mauti has helped a bit, too.