Special Teams Turn In Great Performance In Pittsburgh
The Penn State special teams units shined in primetime on Saturday night. Blake Gillikin and Rafael Checa barely gave Pitt any room to breathe, while returners like DeAndre Thompkins and KJ Hamler were dangerous throughout the contest.
“I thought Blake was a big difference in the game this week compared to last week,” head coach James Franklin said. “We had tough weather conditions and he was able to punt the ball and swing the field position when we needed him to.”
It’s true — Gillikin had himself quite the evening. Four of Gillikin’s five punts pinned Pitt within its own 20-yard line, with a couple even pinning the Panthers within their own 10-yard line. He also sent two punts over fifty yards, not allowing the Panthers to start off within striking distance of the end zone.
In fact, Penn State’s average starting location was its 44-yard line compared to Pitt’s average starting spot of its 25-yard line. Rafael Checa certainly had something to do with that, as Pitt returned just three of his kickoffs for an average of eleven yards. Checa either booted the ball deep into the end zone or forced the Pitt returners to signal for a fair catch.
On the other side of special teams, the Nittany Lions’ kick return game continued to look strong. KJ Hamler returned three kicks for an average of 24 yards.
The freshman wide receiver, of course, made a gutsy decision to return the final kickoff of regulation against App State and ended up bringing the Nittany Lions out close to the 50-yard line. In week two, though, the punt return specialist had a big impact.
“The punt returning was really big by DeAndre,” Franklin said.
It’s true, as Thompkins’ 39-yard punt return touchdown gave Penn State all of the momentum in the world. That touchdown put the Nittany Lions up 31-6 with 28 seconds to play in the third quarter.
It’s easy to forget, but just a few short seasons ago Penn State seemed to be dominated in every aspect of special teams. Now, James Franklin’s team has the ability to dominate its opponent in this area and it shows in the scoreline.
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The celebration will culminate in Penn State’s 100th Homecoming football game against Purdue on Saturday, October 5.
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