Penn State vs. Nebraska: Comically Shorthanded Special Teams Cost Lions Game

Tim TolleyContributor INovember 23, 2013

November 24, 2012; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions kicker Sam Ficken (97) kicks the go-ahead field goal in overtime against the Wisconsin Badgers at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like all year, the Nittany Lions have struggled to put together a complete game. When the offense plays well, the defense struggles. When the defense does it's job, the offense has crucial turnovers or fails to put up enough points.

Against Nebraska, the offense and defense both played well enough to win.

Unfortunately, the special teams units did not.

Against Purdue, the kickoff team made up of primarily guys you've probably never heard of, gave up a return for a touchdown. That now looks like foreshadowing.

The Penn State offense has seemingly found its identity, outrushing the conference's third-best running offense and controlling the clock for big chunks of time.

Outside of one 50-yard run, the defense held the Big Ten's leading rusher Ameer Abdullah to 97 yards on 24 carries, a four-yard per carry average. They also held the Nebraska passing offense to less than 200 yards. They forced a fumble while protecting the goal line and another that set up a 1st-and-goal situation for the offense.

The special teams units allowed a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a blocked punt while missing a PAT, as well as the costly 37-yard field goal in overtime.

The kickoff unit is comprised, in part, by walk-on freshmen. Trevor Williams and Brandon Bell are joined by guys like Jesse Merise because the team simply can't afford to send out key contributors to risk injury.

The punt returners today were Jesse Della Valle and freshman walk-on, Gregg "Pook" Garrity, who is listed as 149 pounds. He replaced the walk-on freshman who usually returns punts, Von Walker, due to an injury.

There are always plays that you look back on as game-changers, especially in a three-point, overtime loss. It's hard not to wonder how this game turns out if the special teams units aren't responsible for an 11-point difference.

It's common to hear coaches talk about the three phases of the game, and it's easy to dismiss special teams, as though they don't play as big of a role. It's days like Saturday in State College where that role becomes enormous.

The Nittany Lions have one more shot at securing a winning record when they head to Madison to take on Wisconsin next week. The 9-2 Badgers will test the defense on the ground like no other team has this year. If Penn State plays like they did today, the offense and defense may be good enough to keep it close.

The question will be, is that enough? It wasn't enough against Nebraska.