Bothered by Special Teams Penalties, Nittany Lions Look to Make Improvement
Sitting at a podium in the bowels of Spartan Stadium Oct. 26, winner of a rain-soaked 28-7 battle with Michigan State, Penn State head coach James Franklin was asked to describe the performance of his Nittany Lions’ special teams.
No critical field goals were needed to secure the win, Penn State’s combination of Jake Pinegar and Jordan Stout not even attempting one on the afternoon, and the Nittany Lions’ 28-0 lead before the end of the third quarter ensured they wouldn’t be vital to the outcome.
But on an afternoon that punter Blake Gillikin produced a season-high eight of his 62 total punts on the year, averaging 44.2 yards per attempt with a long of 58 yards and five pinning the Spartans inside the 20, it proved a critical element.
“The way we were able to punt the ball and pin them deep, you'd love to score every possession, but if you're not, you want to pin people deep and we were able to do that pretty consistently tonight,” Franklin said. “I think the last two weeks that's been huge for us. So that's Blake, but that's also (gunners Drew) Hartlaub and that's also (Dan) Chisena, and that's even (Chris) Stoll as well.”
The major positive for the Nittany Lions, there were counterpoints to be made, though.
Explosive return man K.J. Hamler fumbled the opening kickoff but teammate Jesse Luketa was able to corral it to keep possession. Avoiding the disaster, the Nittany Lions were still charged a 10-yard holding penalty to take the ball back to their 19-yard line.
Later in the fourth quarter, keeping the Spartans at arm’s length despite a dearth of production due to increasingly torrential rain, the Nittany Lions had an opportunity to truly put the game away. Forcing the hosts to punt from the shadow of their end zone, Penn State set up Hamler for a return in prime field position.
Sure enough, Jake Hartbarger’s punt from the 8-yard line traveled only 40 yards, leaving Hamler to unleash his magic.
A spectacular return, the penalty flag that would ultimately mitigate it was on the field before Hamler even got started. Charged with a 5-yard penalty for running into Hartbarger, the mistake by Luketa upended the Hamler’s proverbial nail in the coffin.
Even on the re-kick, the Nittany Lions couldn’t avoid penalty trouble, a theme consistent through the duration of the season on special teams, an illegal block sending Penn State further back to their 37-yard line.
“I think overall, our specialists are playing good,” Franklin said. “The thing we've got to eliminate, we've gotta eliminate the penalties. We've got too many penalties on special teams that are eliminating big plays. We had a kickoff return for a touchdown last week by K.J. brought back for a hold that was unnecessary, during a double-team. And then tonight, we get a punt return for a touchdown and get another penalty. So we got to eliminate the penalties.”
Joining reporters Tuesday via Zoom web conferencing, Joe Lorig agreed.
Following his first season at the helm of Penn State’s special teams, the coordinator offered that some of the improvements that had been made over the effort in 2018 were offset by his disappointment in penalties still committed.
“We only have two goals on special teams: To own the ball; we don't want to give up possessions. There was a drastic improvement in that last year,” Lorig said. “And then, no penalties. There was a little bit of an improvement in that last year. I want to see more improvement in that.”
One of the least penalized teams in college football last season at just 4.5 penalties per game (57 for the y4ear), finishing tied for ninth nationally and tied fourth among all Power Five conference programs, Penn State’s special teams were particularly susceptible to flags. For the season, 66 total penalties were called in 13 games, 57 of which were accepted by opponents.
Among that tally, Penn State’s special teams were attributed 10 penalties, or nearly 18 percent for the season. And, of particular relevance to Lorig and, by extension, Hamler, punt return was a particular trouble spot.
“Just to put it in perspective for you,” Lorig said, “had we eliminated penalties, which I know you can't say that after the fact, but just as a teaching tool for the players I'm going to use, if we didn't have penalties on punt return we would have been sixth in the country on punt return alone.”
During a season in which Penn State’s opponents chose to avoid punts to Hamler as frequently as possible, credited with just 27 attempts on the year, of which Lorig said only 21 were returnable, the Nittany Lions had seven penalties charged on their punt return operation. Said Lorig, “That had nothing to do with how they punted or nothing to do with K.J., that had to do with us getting penalties.”
Looking ahead to next season, though, Lorig is optimistic about what Penn State’s punt return unit can produce.
Finishing the year ranked 83rd in punt return nationally, averaging just 6.36 yards per return (178 yards on 28 returns), and 85th on kickoff returns (19.61 yards per return on 28 attempts), the Nittany Lions' room for improvement is undeniable.
Happy to have accepted an opponent net punting average of just 35.15 yards for the season, a number that would have ranked eighth-worst out of 130 teams last season, Lorig expects mindsets to change moving forward. Less predisposed to punting scared or over-coached, as Lorig explained many opponents did last season, Penn State’s unknown quantity at punt return is more likely to enjoy additional opportunities.
“K.J. is phenomenal,” Lorig said. “But I actually expect better production out of those units because I think people won't know as much about our guys, and so at least early on, until we prove we are what I think we can be, I think people will kick and punt to us without as much fear, and that may open up some more possibilities for better play in the return game, which I expect.”