UNIVERSITY PARK, PA – During a season where Penn State football began with many question marks, from offensive line, to wide receivers, to a young and inexperienced secondary, the biggest issue in the end has been special teams.
Special? Not so much.
Case in point: In Saturday’s win over Indiana, a successful fair catch in the second half by Graham Zug was greeted with a sarcastic cheer by just about every single one of the 107,000+ fans that watched the game in Happy Valley.
Penn State’s special teams play has been an adventure all season long, so much that head coach Joe Paterno has been dodging questions on the subject matter sporadically throughout the year.
When recently asked about the program’s philosophy at splitting up the special teams coaching, Paterno defended his position. “That’s the way I like to do it,” he replied. “We’ve always done that. I grew up with that when I played in college. I grew up with it when I came here as an assistant coach.”
Many critics may think to point to an old-school program that is reluctant to change. It should be noted that the Nittany Lions have made plenty of changes in recent seasons. Penn State has begun playing true freshmen more often than in the past. Also, the implementation of the Spread HD offense, a very different look when compared to vanilla PSU offenses of yesteryear.
Change can and does happen in Happy Valley.
But, with a change to special teams – there’s a catch.
“You know, I think when they limit you to nine full-time coaches, you got to be careful you don’t take one out of the mix and doing nothing but working with special teams,” Paterno said.
“I thought the special teams did well except for the two punts that we mishandled,” Paterno said after the Indiana game. “I thought we did pretty well. Again that kid (Hagerup) did a good job. We had one good return that we fumbled the ball and gave it up. As I said last week, it was not a question of coaching and it wasn’t a question of tactics. I think it was a question of not having the right combination of people in there and we made some switches. I thought we did a pretty good job.”
But have they done a “pretty good job”?
Entering Saturday’s game against Indiana, Penn State was 114th in the nation in kickoff return average and 64th in opponent kickoff return average. On top of that, the Nittany Lions were 108th in the nation in punt return average and 117th in opponent punt return average.
No bigger point can be made with Penn State’s two losses of the season. The Nittany Lions gave up game-changing plays on special teams – specifically a punt return to the red zone against Ohio State and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown against Iowa.
It’s time for Penn State to make another change, so why not take a page out of Pete Carroll’s book?
This year, Carroll hired Brian Schneider as the new special teams coordinator for USC. Schneider, carrying 15 years of experience entering the job, was USC’s first full-time special teams coordinator since 2001.
Entering this weekend, the Trojans were 5th in the country in punt return average, compared to 72nd last season. On top of that, USC is ranked 4th in opponent punt return average, up from 78th in 2008.
That’s a significant jump – especially in a category like special teams, arguably the most important aspect of a team’s game.
Penn State continues to bring in loads of talent. But it’s the inconsistent play of the special teams unit that is stealing away victories – and titles.
Penn State football needs to continue to embrace change – and hire a special teams coach.
* All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com
Originally posted by Kevin Paul (via B/R and First & Big Ten) on November 14, 2009
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