Gillikin The Key For Penn State Heading Into Big Ten Play
On the opening drive of Saturday’s 34-27 win over Temple, James Franklin sent true freshman Blake Gillikin out to punt from the 32-yard line rather than attempt a 47-yard field goal, much to the disapproval of Penn State fans hoping to put points on the board.
Gillikin promptly pinned the Owls at their own one-yard line, which gave the Nittany Lions prime field position around midfield after a three-and-out and set up Trace McSorley’s 52-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin, giving them a lead that they would keep for the rest of the game.
Another key punt from the Smyrna, Ga. native on Saturday came after the Penn State offense stalled with less than two minutes to play and was called for a fair catch at the Temple 15-yard line. The Owls were then forced to throw the ball aggressively downfield, which ultimately resulted in John Reid’s game-sealing interception.
“It makes it a lot easier,” redshirt sophomore cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. “[Having a] shorter field makes it better for the offense, [it] makes us just want to get a stop even more. It’s a big improvement that we’ve been working on.”
Gillikin has made a seamless transition to college football through the first three games of his career. The freshman punter has made an impact for Penn State on both sides of the ball by giving the defense ample room, which in turn has consistently given the offense great field position.
“Everybody talked about this summer, the way he was kicking the ball, it was clearly obvious to everybody that he had a chance,” said head coach James Franklin. “You never know until the games get going, but he’s shown it, time after time after time.”
Seven of Gillikin’s 14 punts have left opponents inside their own 20-yard line and three have been for more than 50 yards. In comparison, the three opposing punters, who are all upperclassmen, only left the Nittany Lions inside their own 20-yard line twice and did not even have a punt further than 50 yards.
What makes Gillikin so dynamic isn’t just the clout in his cleat; it’s the precision that he has to almost literally place the ball in the coffin corner of the field, get the bounces that he wants, and generate enough hang time for his teammates to get downfield to catch his punts before they land. That diligence will be key this weekend when Penn State faces fourth-ranked Michigan and the electrifying Jabrill Peppers, who, in addition to starting on both offense and defense, is averaging 21.6 yards per punt return and ran a punt back for a 54-yard touchdown last week against Colorado.
“The biggest thing will be kick location,” Franklin said about the upcoming match-up in Ann Arbor, noting Penn State’s play on special teams as a strength thus far. “One of the mistakes you can make is when you get into one of these games and try to change what you’ve been doing all year long for this specific opponent.”
“The best thing you can do is keep working on the schemes, fundamentals, and techniques that you’re already doing and do them really well. We’re going to make sure our kicks and punts are in the right spots. The last thing you want to do is kick the ball in the middle of the field and give [Peppers] 53 and a third [yards] to work with. You want to corner him in so he doesn’t have a whole lot of room.”
Through three games, Gillikin has limited return men to small portions of the field and even completely removed the threat of a potential long return at times, providing the Nittany Lions some stability at the position for the first time since the pre-sanctions era. Through three games, Gillikin, who is also enrolled in the Schreyer Honors College, is averaging 44.3 yards per punt. To put that into perspective, the last Penn State punter to average over 40 yards a punt over his career was Anthony Fera, who transferred to Texas following the unearthing of the Sandusky Scandal. Over the past five years, the spotty punting of Chris Gulla, Alex Butterworth, and Dan Pasquariello, who Gillikin beat out for the starting job this summer, posed an additional challenge to the Penn State defense, which consistently faced some of the worst opponent starting field position in the FCS over the last three years.
Through just three games, Gillikin has shown that the days of bad field position are behind the Nittany Lions. As he continues to gain experience and flip the field for Penn State, Gillikin will continue being not just a special teams X-factor, but also a catalyst for the offense and defense, who in this year’s Big Ten East division, need all the help that they can get.