So far, making field goals seems to be Penn State’s biggest achilles heel in 2017.
Thus far, it hasn’t led to a de-feet. But it could.
As it stands, place-kicker Tyler Davis has made only five of 11 field goal attempts through a 5-0 start for the Nittany Lions.
That includes a missed 21-yarder and a blocked attempt from 42 yards against Indiana in a 45-14 Penn State victory on Saturday.
Davis did make a 45-yarder against the Hoosiers, but the Nittany Lion who in 2016 won the Vlade Award as college football’s most accurate kicker — 22 of 24 on field goals, perfect on all 62 PATs — seems to be MIA for PSU.
Davis was 2 for 4 on field goals last week in Iowa (a miss from 41, a block from 31), when points were at a premium. He is on a (bad) streak where he’s made just 2 of his last 6 attempts.
“Obviously, we have to get the field goal situation cleaned up,” head coach James Franklin said after the game. “That’s unacceptable. I’m not pleased with that at all. I don’t want this to come off the wrong way: We are going to enjoy wins around here, but there are still some things we have to be honest with ourselves about some things we have to get cleaned up.”
In 2017, Davis has been perfect on all 26 PAT attempts. However, among his missed field goals this season are short attempts from 21 (vs. Indiana) and 31 yards (vs. Iowa). It’s the FG operation that especially needs work, said Franklin, who promised lots of focus on just that on Sunday and Monday.
“We’re going to spend time to get our field goal unit fixed,” the coach said, “because that’s kind of the missing piece for us on special teams.”
Unit is the operative word. While there are eight blockers, the key lynchpins of Penn State’s field goal group are Davis the kicker, Kyle Vasey the long snapper and Billy Fessler the holder. Fessler, the fourth-string quarterback, held for Davis for three games in 2016, when regular holder Chris Gulla was out. During that stretch, Davis was perfect on six field goals and 15 PATs, as Davis made field goals of 32, 32, 34, 35, 39 and 40 yards — four of them in the wind and rain and cold that was the night game at Rutgers.
Blake Gillikin, Penn State’s stellar sophomore punter and an all-round athlete, battled Fessler for the holder’s position in preseason camp in August. Fessler won the job. Vasey was the No. 3 long snapper in 2016, backing up Tyler Yazujian and Zach Ladonis, both of whom have graduated.
“Billy’s done a great job this year,” Gillikin said after the game, after averaging 46.5 yards on six games. “So we’re probably going to stick with him.”
Davis was missing from the post-game interview room in Beaver Stadium, so Gillikin’s insight is especially valuable. Not just as a potential holder, but as a place-kicker as well. As a senior at Westminster High School in Georgia, Gillikin was a very successful kicker. He was first-team all-state and made all 54 of his PATs. He was 16 of 26 on field goal tries, with bests from 52, 53 and 56 yards.
WHAT BLAKE SAYS
Given Gillikin’s experience as both a holder and kicker, he was asked what was missing from the Nittany Lions’ field goal kicking efforts in 2017.
“I’m not really sure. It’s probably a combination of things,” Gillikin said. “There’s a lot of moving parts on a field goal unit. You obviously have protection. Then you have snap, hold, then kick. So you have three guys involved.”
Gillikin says don’t look to him to help with the kicking duties, either placements or kickoffs.
“I only did it my senior year,” he said. “But that was in high school, so I don’t think I’m taking over anything kicking-wise in college. I’m really focused on punting.”
In 2016, Joey Julius handled most of the kickoff duties for Penn State, averaging 62.1 yards on 93 kickoffs, to just 8 for a 57.6-yard average for Davis. When Julius did not return to the squad this season, Davis approached Franklin and offered to take on took on most of the kickoff duties as well. He’s averaged 64.2 yards on 31 kickoffs — including all eight on Saturday vs. Indiana — this season, while backup Alex Barbir has handled five for 60.8-yard average.
“Everyone is focusing on — and I am as well — that we have to get our field goal unit cleaned up,” Franklin said. “But I think Tyler has been awesome on kickoff.”
A KICK OUT OF DAVIS
A transfer who played collegiate soccer at Bradley University in 2013, Davis has never handled both placement and kickoff duties. In fact, until he came to Penn State in 2014 (for a redshirt season), Davis had never kicked in a football game. Ever.
He caught on quickly, going 8-for-8 on field goals and 11-for-11 on PATs in 2015. At one point, Davis made 18 consecutive field goals in the 2015-16 seasons.
These days, he’s missing with regularity. Maybe it’s the double-duty of kickoffs and placements, which can have an impact both physically and mentally. Maybe it’s the snap-hold-kick troika having a new member.
Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem like Barbir will get a shot. Or Gillikin — as either a holder or a kicker.
For right now, that’s missing too.