Indiana's kick and punt coverage units have been lacking in recent years, but those struggles often pail in comparison to the Hoosiers' defensive woes. Naturally much focus was on how IU's defense would perform Saturday against Penn State.
Turns out it was the special teams that helped change the momentum of the game and put the finishing touches on Indiana's 44-24 win over the Nittany Lions, the first in program history.
The special teams line for kickoff, punt and field goal coverage: a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a blocked field goal, a grand total of three punt return yards by Penn State and a punt downed at the five yard line.
First came the blocked field goal. Late in the second quarter Penn State lined up for a 42-yard field goal that would have tied the game at 10. Junior Bobby Richardson got a hand on the initial attempt, which was waved off because Penn State called a timeout. He came close to doing it again before Ralphael Green skied to record the block that counted.
"We were talking before the play," said Richardson, "and the one before that I actually blocked that one, too — we just talked about, ‘We need this stop. They get this it's going to be a big momentum change.' We need this stop and Ralph came through and got it."
Indiana held the ball for the rest of the half, which ended on a 27-yard Mitch Ewald field goal. The six-point swing gave the Hoosiers a 13-7 lead going into the break.
The Hoosiers took a comfortable 35-17 lead with 10:42 to go in the game on a spectacular touchdown catch by Kofi Hughes, but IU has watched late leads evaporate before. Indiana needed a kill shot.
It came the very next play.
Penn State returner Eugene Lewis took the ensuing kickoff from the goal line and was met at the 12-yard line by Steven Funderburk, who laid down a punishing hit. Cody Latimer was right there for the recovery at the Penn State nine-yard line.
Tre Roberson iced the game on the next play with a nine-yard touchdown run.
"Somebody was blocking me, I threw him by and I see Funderburk beat his man and just come and strip the ball out," Latimer said. "And I was like, ‘Oh, there's the ball and I just got on it.' I'm a receiver so seeing the ball out there was like, ‘Oh, let me go get that.'"
Latimer, who had career highs with nine receptions and 140 receiving yards, has experienced an increased role on special teams. The coaches hinted in the preseason he would be on kick coverage, but he said he never actually expected to make a play like his fumble recovery.
"It's fun, but it's tiring at the same time going back and forth, back and forth," he said. "But this is great. It's a great feeling knowing I can make plays for my team on special teams."
He later recovered Penn State's onside kick attempt.
The kicking and punting units performed well, too. Erich Toth averaged 41.5 yards per punt. He put good backspin on his punt downed at the five-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. Ewald, already Indiana's most accurate kicker in program history (80.4 percent coming into the game), was 2-for-2.
"We know in Big Ten season you need (good) special teams play," said cornerback Tim Bennett. "You need special teams to make a jump and that's what I think we did today."