One of the difference makers for Penn State’s defense in Saturday’s victory over Indiana didn’t even line up on that side of the ball.
Instead, Blake Gillikin set the Nittany Lions up for success with his leg as he forced the Hoosier offense to deal with poor field position time after time.
Four of Gillikin’s six punts against the Hoosiers backed them up inside their own 13-yard line. Overall, Indiana began just one drive beyond its own 35, and that was the result of a Trace McSorley interception.
Coach James Franklin has constantly pointed to Penn State’s domination of the field position battle this season and the effect it can have on the game’s outcome, and Gillikin realizes its importance, too.
“I think winning that battle every single week has been a big part of our success,” Gillikin said.“That’s also giving credit to the kickoff team, kick return, punt return, all that kind of stuff, and turnovers. I think that’s a key statistic that we need to keep on being successful.”
The punter has been an important part of the special teams transformation that has taken place at Penn State in the last two seasons.
Once something of a liability, the Nittany Lions’ specialty units now feature elite athletes, and that showed on Saturday, as they scored 14 points on special teams in the first quarter to help set the tone for the rest of the game.
“We don’t take things for granted,” said senior linebacker Jason Cabinda. “Special teams is just as important as offense. It’s just as important as defense. You see how the game played out today. I mean, we put up two scores on special teams. You can’t look me in the face and tell me it’s not important after putting up two touchdowns on special teams.”
Though Gillikin’s effort wasn’t as flashy, he maintained an average of 46.5 yards per punt, including a long of 57 yards.
Aside from the obvious points of emphasis like distance, hang time and location, Gillikin has a single primary goal in mind when he takes the field for a kick.
“I’m looking for a fair catch every single time,” he said. “I feel like if I don’t force a fair catch I’m not doing my job as perfect as I could.”
That perfectionist mindset isn’t surprising when it comes from Gillikin, who excels both athletically and academically and dreams of becoming a doctor.
But despite that attitude, he’s able to see the progress that Penn State has made on punts and on kickoffs, even compared to just last season.
“I’d say consistency is probably the biggest factor that’s given us success this year,” Gillikin said. “I think both on kickoff, Tyler Davis has forced a bunch of touchbacks. Our guys are really covering well. I think he’s let up one return outside the 25 all year. And then in the punt game, we’re being really consistent, really limiting returns.”
Though disappointed with Penn State’s inability to make field goals reliably, Franklin is also excited about how his special teams units have played.
“We talk about it all the time,” Franklin said. “We take tremendous pride in it; I think that’s probably one of the biggest differences in our program in year four compared to years one and two is drive start, field position, and punting."