Achilles' Heel Exposed

FOS COMMENTARY: Poor special teams' play proves fatal in Penn State's first loss of the season.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In the aftermath of Penn State's 27-25 loss to Michigan here Saturday, the prevailing sentiment was that the better team came up on the short end of the score. And for a Nittany Lion outfit that fell for the first time this season (against six wins), there was plenty of blame to go around.

The rebuilt offense struggled to punch the ball into the end zone through the first three quarters. The vaunted defense gave up two touchdowns and a field goal in the game's final 9:32, including the game-winner on the evening's final snap. The coaching staff was aggressive when it should have been passive (the last kickoff) and passive when it should have been aggressive (the last play). The officiating left a little something to be desired, too.

Yes, there was serious room for finger-pointing following the heartbreaking loss to the unranked Wolverines, who improved to a very ordinary 4-3 overall. But the one person who should have been called out — or held accountable or fallen on his sword or been thrown under the bus — was the Nittany Lions' special teams' coordinator.

But he wasn't, for the simple reason that he does not exist. Penn State has literally not had a special teams coach since current defensive line coach Larry Johnson handled the job in 1999. The duties are spread throughout the staff, with no single assistant overseeing the entire operation. State's comical special teams' showing in the Big House Saturday was simply the latest indicator of how badly the program needs someone — anyone — in charge of the kicking game.

Try on these numbers for size: Penn State had more rushing and passing yards than Michigan (420 total yards to 375) but was outgained 164-48 on kickoff and punt returns. The Lions' average starting field position in the game was their own 22, while the Wolverines' was their own 33. In the fourth quarter PSU's average starting position was its own 24 while U-M's was its own 44. These hidden yards can seriously impact a game.

Michigan's final-quarter numbers were bolstered by Steve Breaston kickoff returns of 39 and 41 yards. The former came after State was called for being offside on a kickoff (the second time in two weeks that happened). The latter came with less than a minute to go in the game, and set the table for the Wolverines' game-winning drive.

Both kicks went straight to Breaston, who broke a 95-yarder for a touchdown in a loss to Minnesota a week earlier. Even Lion coach Joe Paterno later admitted he was “kicking myself” over kicking to Breaston on the final boot rather than squibbing.

But he should be kicking himself over more than that. The return issues were only part of an overall pattern of sloppy special teams. The center-to-holder snaps were an issue on placements all afternoon, leading to kicker Kevin Kelly making only 1 of 3 field-goal attempts and forcing the little guy to pick up another bad snap on a PAT and run it in for two points.

Calvin Lowry, a fine safety, continued to struggle in his role as primary punt-return man in a scenario that looks an awful lot like a head coach sticking with a player out of sheer stubbornness. Three days after mocking a caller on his weekly radio show who asked if it might not make sense to use a faster player to return punts, Paterno looked on in the second quarter as Lowry failed to field a kick that rolled — and rolled and rolled — to a stop at the PSU 5.

On the season, the Nittany Lions have gone through three punt snappers (Nick Daise, Isaac Smolko and E.Z. Smith), a pair of placement snappers (Pat Weber and Jason Alford) and two holders (Paul Cronin and Jason Ganter). Of those moves, only the holder switch was made for a reason other than poor performance (Cronin was kicked off the team).

Penn State's Sept. 24 nail-biter at Northwestern (34-29) might have never been that close had the Nittany Lions not fallen for a fake punt and a pooch onside kick. In that same game, the coaching staff went against the common-sense tactic of going for two following a late score that gave them a 33-29 lead, and instead kicked a meaningless one-pointer. Paterno's irrational explanation of the scenario led you to believe either he, the staff or both had no clue what to do with a late four-point lead.

There's more: Minnesota busted a 65-yard kickoff return against PSU Oct. 1 and had another breakout called back by a penalty. Cincinnati recovered an onside kick vs. PSU. Penn State ranks 10th in the Big Ten in kickoff return coverage, 9th in kick returns and 7th in punt returns; this with some of the fastest athletes in the league.

Meanwhile, PSU finished last in the conference in kickoff returns in each of the past two seasons and has now fallen victim to at least one onside kick in the last three years, with Minnesota successfully opening games with that tactic in 2003 and 2004.

There have been a few special teams' bright spots this season, to be sure. Jeremy Kapinos generally has been terrific, averaging more than 40 yards with only one touchback against 11 kicks that have been downed inside the 20. Kelly has been solid for a freshman, too. Most of his troubles on placements have been due to poor snaps or holds, though the range on his kickoffs could be better. And Ethan Kilmer has emerged as a gunner with a nose for the ball.

But there are so many other issues, problems that have been around since the turn of the century. As the Nittany Lions were bumbling through four losing seasons in five years, one never got the sense that special teams was THE one area that was preventing Paterno's club from being as good as it could possibly be, but rather it was one of many broken pieces.

That's not the case anymore. It became painfully apparent in Ann Arbor Saturday night that Penn State's offense and defense — despite their minor flaws — both have the goods to compete at the highest level. And Paterno and his staff deserve so much credit for the quick turnaround.

Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, special seasons also rely heavily on special teams. And in a program with no coordinator, it was only a matter of time until the kicking game turned out to be an Achilles' heel.

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