OSU: Not-So-Special Teams

Nittany Lion kicking game breaks down on several fronts in a 24-7 loss to Ohio State at Beaver Stadium.

One of the most critical plays in Penn State's 24-7 loss to Ohio State Saturday at Beaver Stadium occurred early in the first quarter. Ray Small fielded a Jeremy Boone punt, took off down the left sideline and kept on running until he was driven out of bounds deep in Nittany Lions territory.

Two plays later, Terrelle Pryor scored on a 7-yard scramble, giving Ohio State an early 7-0 lead and quieting the fourth-largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history. The Nittany Lions spent the rest of the game paying for that lapse.

Penn State had plenty of problems against Ohio State, from the offensive line, which was manhandled, to the defense, which finally buckled in the fourth quarter after spending too much time on the field in the previous three.

But the special teams stood out because their difficulties were symptomatic of a larger trend. The kicking game has had breakdowns in several games this season, most memorably in the Lions' other showcase home game, a 21-10 loss to Iowa in which a blocked punt swung momentum to the Hawkeyes.

This was apparently Joe Paterno's big fear heading into the matchup with Ohio State, a game that, thanks to Iowa's loss to Northwestern earlier in the day, suddenly had Rose Bowl ramifications for the Nittany Lions.

“I said prior to the game, 'I'm worried about the kicking game,' ” Paterno said. “That obviously was a big difference. We didn't have much field position the first three quarters. In fact, we didn't have field position until the game was out of hand -- any kind of field position.”

The Buckeyes capitalized big-time after stopping Penn State at its own 13-yard line on its first possession and forcing Boone to punt from his own end zone. He said he felt some pressure and didn't strike the ball the way he wanted because he was concerned about getting the punt off. “I tried to compensate a little bit and I hit it across the field,” he said. “Small made some good [moves], and I don't know what happened after that.”

The 41-yard return was the most dramatic special teams play of the game, but there were others that hurt Penn State. There was kickoff confusion, as Jerome Hayes and Chaz Powell got mixed up on a return in the first half, resulting in a bobble and a 7-yard return by Powell. There were punt-return mishaps, with Graham Zug fumbling (and recovering) a ball late in the first half. There was even a field goal problem, as the Lions jumped offside, shaving 5 yards off of Devin Barclay's first and only attempt of the game, a 37-yarder in the second quarter.

And things could have been worse. Small appeared headed for a touchdown in the second half only to be ridden down by Boone. The senior punter was being helped off the turf by an Ohio State player after being knocked down on the kick when he realized the play was coming his way. “I saw Small make some good moves,” he said, “and the next thing you know I'm hitting Small and falling over.”

Even after Boone's touchdown-saving tackle, the Buckeyes still finished with 130 yards on seven punt returns.

The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, had a much rougher time. Of Ohio State's eight punts, they returned only one -- for zero yards.

The reasons for Penn State's problems have proven elusive. Personnel? Maybe, but there are plenty of starters on the various kicking teams. Coaching? Maybe; there is, after all, no dedicated special teams coach on the staff. But Paterno isn't sure a full-time coach is the answer, either. “We'll take a look at it, obviously,” he said. “But I don't know whether it's a question of looking at it and changing things.”

Players vowed after the game to look at the films and make the necessary changes as they prepare for their final two games and a likely bowl trip to Florida or Texas. For now, all they know is that they're frustrated.

“We're struggling,” said Drew Astorino, who has been returning punts along with Zug. “I couldn't really tell you what's going on, but we're definitely struggling in the special teams area. It's pretty frustrating, but a lot of the starters are on special teams, including myself. We've just got to work harder. … I think every single person has to do a better job with what they're doing and care about it a little more.”

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