Building swagger, Lion special teams reach new peak

Nate Bauer, Senior Editor
Blue White Illustrated

Nick Scott understood the question only a few words in.

The Nittany Lion senior special teams captain, fresh off a 13-yard fumble return for a touchdown in Penn State’s 45-14 win against Indiana Saturday afternoon, just knew where the reporter was going with it.

“How proud are you of Penn State’s special teams being an asset to this team…” the reporter began.

Without missing a beat, “rather than just being another phase of the game,” Scott broke in.

After three years of preaching and a 2016 season in which Penn State showed marked improvements in consistency in every aspect of its special teams, but couldn’t quite come away with the game-changing swings to put the ball in the end zone, the Nittany Lions reached a new peak against the Hoosiers.

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The hits came from the jump.

Lined up deep after the guest Hoosiers chose to defer the opening kickoff, Saquon Barkley turned the decision on its head. Receiving the kick at the Lions’ own 2-yard line, Barkley burst upfield, swung right to the middle of the field at the 10, found the crease to break into the open field at the 25, juked past the kicker at the 45, and escaped a last-ditch tackle attempt at the opposite 20. Touchdown, Nittany Lions, with just 14 seconds passed on the game clock.

And it was only the beginning.

Fewer than eight minutes later, Penn State’s special teams struck again, this time in the form of an Irvin Charles strip tackle to force a J-Shun Harris fumble, scooped up and returned 13 yards for a touchdown by Scott. Dramatically and without warning, the Nittany Lions had produced 14 special teams points in the first quarter alone to help prompt a suffocating 21-0 Penn State lead.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a better half of special teams in my 23 years of doing this,” said head coach James Franklin. “That has been something that we’ve worked really hard on and invested in since we’ve been here. We are really starting to get some really positive returns.”

Evolving from a unit that had struggled as recently as two years ago, finishing No. 80 in punt returns and No. 45 in kick returns, No. 102 in net punting, and No. 114 in kick return defense, the Lions have weaponized their improvements.

“I'm really proud. Special teams, you guys all know that's something I take a lot of pride in,” said Scott. “I’ve been doing it for four years and just to see us making a difference in the game, we've always played fast, we've always played physical and we were getting guys down on the ground. But just to see the strips coming out now, the scoring on kick return and punt return and putting points up, that's huge because that's tangible, you can see that difference.

“So I'm just really proud. I know Coach Huff is proud and I know each and every guy on the unit is proud. It's just more motivating to keep having a huge influence and keep leaving our mark on each game.”

Throughout the season, that mark has been a considerable one for the unit.

Beginning with DeAndre Thompkins’ 61-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter of the Nittany Lions’ season-opener against Akron, continuing with lights out punting from Blake Gillikin to help boost the defense, a blocked field goal at Iowa last week and two special teams scores against the Hoosiers, the Lions have developed a new approach that builds on itself.

“We got swagger. We know we can make change,” said Scott. “The conversation in the huddle before we go out isn't, 'Hey guys, let's go down there and make the tackle' anymore. It's, 'Hey guys. Make the tackle. Strip the ball. And let's put points up.' That's the conversation for everything.

“Or if we're on kick return, it's, 'Saquon. You're scoring this time.' It's not a question anymore. We're not looking for big returns, we're looking for touchdowns and we're looking to get the ball back.”

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