Penn State Football: Special Teams Under the Watchful Eyes of the Coaching Staff Leading Up to Purdue
Penn State’s tenuous kicking situation has left a lot for Bill O’Brien to consider on fourth down. He’s taken plenty of risks in tight spots, some successful, others not as fortuitous.
It won’t stop Saturday at Purdue, either. Not with kicker Sam Ficken not fully healthy.
O’Brien confirmed Wednesday that Ficken is dealing with a minor quad injury on his right kicking leg. The injury has bothered him at least since last week, but he was good on three attempts from different distances during the brief 15- or 20- minute window of media access at Wednesday’s practice.
“We have been monitoring that and not kicking him as much in practice,” O’Brien said. “We have confidence in Sam's ability, but we have had to monitor his leg over the last couple of weeks, so that's what we're trying to do here leading into this game, too, and hopefully by the end of the week we will have a better idea of what his range can be.”
We can only do our best to estimate that range. On the season, Ficken is 0-for-4 from 40 yards or beyond. Last week, O’Brien opted to go for it on fourth down from the OSU 20, which would’ve been about a 37-yard attempt. Following a false start penalty to make it 4th-and-12, O’Brien still opted to go for it. Ficken did connect on a 27-yarder in the third quarter.
Of course, those decisions were made both when the game was scoreless and a one-possession game early in the second half, respectively. Imagine the thought process behind a potential game-tying or game-winning field goal by the Indiana native.
Change coming on Kick Return Unit?
The field goal kicker isn’t the only special teams unit the coaching staff is monitoring this week.
A decision will be made by the end of the week if there is to be a change in who returns kickoffs.
“I thought our kickoff return team was terrible,” O’Brien said Tuesday in review of the Ohio State loss.
Bill Belton and Jesse Della Valle currently are the return men. Belton fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half, leaving Penn State with field position at its own 11. Only Illinois and Northwestern have a lower average return mark than Penn State’s 17.2 yards per return.
“I tell you, it's a little bit of everything. It's the blockers, it's the scheme, got to do a better job with the scheme,” O’Brien said. “Got to do a better job with the scheme. It's the return guys. It's 11 guys working together. We've got to coach it better. We've really worked on it this week and hopefully you will see improvement in it this weekend.
“Again, when you're starting drives inside the 20 yard line, inside the 15 yard line, in the Big 10 it's hard to drive the ball consistently 90 yards, 85 yards. It's easier to play on a shorter field, so hopefully we can show the improvement that we think we have seen in practice, hopefully we can show that in the game on Saturday.”