Cory Giger on PSU: Special teams made it a win

There’s no doubt Penn State’s defense played an excellent game against Ohio State. The team, in fact, had a terrific night of complementary football, getting timely contributions from all three phases.

But read this week’s question to the right carefully. It says, “What element was most responsible for beating Ohio State?” It doesn’t say, “What element was most responsible for staying close against Ohio State?”

As well as the Nittany Lions played on defense, they still trailed, 21-14, in the fourth quarter. Then:

• Cam Brown blocked a punt in Ohio State territory, leading to a field goal; and

• Marcus Allen blocked a field goal before Grant Haley returned it 60 yards for the go-ahead TD in a 24-21 victory.

Even with the strong defensive effort, Penn State probably would have lost without those 10 special teams points, and we would all be talking this week about a moral victory of staying close against the nation’s No. 2 team.

There were two mistakes: John Reid muffed a punt that led to an Ohio State field goal, and a bad snap punt led to a safety. I’m not going to try to sugarcoat those. They were bad.

Still, one of the most dramatic improvements on this year’s team has been on special teams, and not just because place-kicker Tyler Davis and punter Blake Gillikin have kicked very well.

The Lions were a disaster on special teams the past two years, with just about every game including one huge mistake. A big part of the turnaround this year is because of improved overall depth in the program, meaning more good players can play on the special teams units.

James Franklin noted Wednesday how Brown, a true freshman, was forced into action at linebacker because of all the injuries. Brown handled that role well, gained more confidence in himself, and on special teams he was in position for the big blocked punt Saturday.

Allen and Haley are two of the better players on defense. But they will forever be remembered in PSU history not for a defensive play, but one on special teams.

Coordinator Charles Huff was heavily criticized the past two season because of all the special teams mistakes. Huff came in promising a bunch of big-time plays, and we frequently saw them, just from the other team.

Now that he has more talent to work with, Huff will get a chance to show what he can do as a special teams coach. When two plays score 10 points to beat the No. 2 team in the country, it’s a sign that Huff and everyone involved on special teams have taken an enormous leap forward.

Cory Giger writes for The Altoona Mirror and covers Penn State football.

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