Lost amidst the continuing Penn State quarterback controversy has been the woeful performance of the special teams unit through the first three games.
On the first official play against Indiana State, Chaz Powell took the opening kickoff back for a ninety-five-yard touchdown. It would be difficult to script a better opening play of the season. However, that highlight has been one of the lone bright spots for the unit. Since that kick return, the Nittany Lions:
- Are 1 for 6 on field goal attempts.
- Missed an extra point against Indiana State
- Had a punt blocked against Temple, giving the Owls the ball in Penn State territory.
Miscues with blocked punts and punt coverage are not isolated to 2011. This problem has haunted Penn State in some big games for a few years now:
- In the 2009 Big Ten opener against Iowa, Penn State, leading 10-5 in a rainy, defensive battle, had a fourth quarter punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. Iowa took an 11-10 lead and never looked back, going on to win 21-10. Watching Adrian Clayborn running with the football toward the end zone with no one in his path as Penn State’s National Championship and Rose Bowl hopes slipped away remains the saddest sports moment I have ever witnessed live.
- Later on in 2009 against Ohio State, the Buckeyes returned an early punt all the way to the Penn State nine-yard line, setting up an easy score and early lead in a game Penn State would go on to lose 24-7.
- In last season’s Outback Bowl loss to Florida, the Gators returned a second quarter blocked punt for a touchdown to take a 14-7 lead over the Nittany Lions.
Between Iowa, Florida, and Temple last weekend, that is three blocked punts in a span of three years, two of which were returned for touchdowns and directly contributed to losses.
College athletes are not perfect. An occasional missed field goal or botched snap that messes up an extra point is an excusable mistake. Blocked punts repeatedly returned for touchdowns is beginning to push it.
Kickoff coverage has also been a problem this year. Penn State has kicked off thirteen times so far this season, and the opposing team has begun a drive at or beyond the twenty five yardline eleven of those times. In contrast, Penn State, after receiving a kickoff, has began a drive past the twenty five yardline only twice, and four times behind the twenty. Improving field position and eliminating little mistakes could have a huge impact on what appears to be a relatively wide open Big Ten race.
A hot topic related to this has been that Penn State does not have an official Special Teams coach. Regardless of how people feel about this, it is not going to change as long as Joe Paterno is running the football program. Penn State’s special teams has been very good in the past, as recent as 2008, and can be solid again:
- Anthony Fera was rated as the number two kicker in the nation when he was recruited in 2008. His booming leg on punts is already established and could be an upgrade at placekicker over converted wide receiver Evan Lewis.
- If Fera sticks to solely punting, freshman Sam Ficken is another option. Ficken connected on a fifty two yard field goal in high school but has not been given much of a chance yet aside from having a forty nine yard attempt blocked against Temple.
- Chaz Powell and Devon Smith are seeking consistency but have the speed and ability to make the return game special.
The pieces are in place to correct mistakes and potentially turn the special teams unit from a sore spot into a positive. The coaching and execution remain in question for now as Iowa comes to Happy Valley for another Big Ten home opener in less than three weeks.