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Penn State Football: Mid-season Evaluation for Special Teams

by on October 12, 2012 12:17 PM

This is the fifth in a five-part series reviewing each position at the midway point of Penn State’s season. The Nittany Lions (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) have a bye this week and return to action Oct. 20 at Iowa.

Friday, we take a look at the special teams.

There is more to this unit than Sam Ficken, but the fact remains that a one-point loss to Virginia is not a one-point to Virginia if any of the four missed field goals fly through the uprights. Or, maybe, if the blocked extra point was not blocked.

It is senseless to go on and on about the shortcomings of a placekicker because it’s understood that the alternatives aren’t any better. Likewise, it is senseless to wonder how different the season plays out if Anthony Fera was still in uniform. Are the odds increased that Penn State wins at Virginia? Perhaps. Does Bill O’Brien still opt to go for it on fourth down, trailing by 11 points in the fourth quarter against Northwestern, or would he send Fera out to cut the deficit to eight? And if the deficit is eight, does Penn State still come from behind to beat Northwestern?

Lots of gray area, and O’Brien is more of a black and white kind of guy.

Ficken and punter Alex Butterworth are who they are, and consistency is a very real concern. Ficken is hitting at a 33 percent clip, and Butterworth is averaging 36.5 yards per punt.

John Butler, the secondary coach who also heads up special teams, was pretty frank in how to address those concerns moving forward.

“That will get corrected through years of recruiting,” he said.

For as inconsistent as the specialists have been this season, Penn State has gotten great production out of its kick and punt coverage teams, which are often overlooked by program observers unless there’s a long return. Make mention of Venric Mark’s punt return touchdown last week, but don’t forget to point out Mike Mauti’s forced fumble in the first quarter at Illinois.

A new college rule has limited the impact in the kick return game by moving the ball up on kickoffs and placing the ball on the 25-yard line following kickoff touchbacks, so it’s hard to fault the kick return game.

The big picture? Solid, but glaring deficiencies.

“I think we have to be careful when we say that our special teams haven’t played well,” O’Brien said. “I think our specialists need to play better, but overall our kids on special teams have done good things.”

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Nate Mink covers Penn State football and news for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @MinkNate.
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