UNIVERSITY PARK, PA – “Misadventures in Happy Valley”–that would be a catchy and fitting title to a new movie starring the Penn State special teams unit.
Well, that and the fact that “Waiting to Exhale” was already taken.
During a season where Penn State football began with many question marks, from offensive line, to wide receivers, to a young and inexperienced secondary, the biggest issue in the end has been special teams.
“Special”…not so much.
Call it the “Benny Hill Show” set in a football atmosphere. That’s the best way to describe Penn State’s special teams play against Indiana on Saturday.
We’re talking to the point that a successful fair catch in the second half (by WR Graham Zug) was greeted with a sarcastic cheer by just about every single one of the 107,000+ fans that watched the game in Happy Valley.
The funny thing is, Penn State’s special teams play has been an adventure all season long, so much that head coach Joe Paterno has been dodging questions on the subject matter sporadically throughout the year.
When recently asked about the program’s philosophy at splitting up the special teams coaching, Paterno replied, “That’s the way I like to do it. We’ve always done that. I grew up with that when I played in college. I grew up with it when I came here as an assistant coach.”
Many critics may think to point to an old-school program that is reluctant to change.
But as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friends.”
The Nittany Lions have made plenty of changes over recent seasons. Two examples come to mind, such as recently playing true freshmen more often than in the past, and even implementing the Spread HD offense, much different than vanilla Penn State offenses of yesteryear.
Change can and does happen in Happy Valley.
But, with a change to special teams–there’s a catch.
“You know, I think when they limit you to nine full-time coaches, you got to be careful you don’t take one out of the mix and doing nothing but working with special teams.”
Paterno makes a solid enough point, up until the time that the “straw broke the camel’s back.”
After Saturday’s fumble parade against Indiana, it became more glaringly obvious–just not to Paterno.
“I thought the special teams did well except for the two punts that we mishandled,” Paterno said. “I thought we did pretty well. Again that kid (Hagerup) did a good job. We had one good return that we fumbled the ball and gave it up. As I said last week, it was not a question of coaching and it wasn’t a question of tactics. I think it was a question of not having the right combination of people in there and we made some switches. I thought we did a pretty good job.”
Only, let’s let the stats do the talking, shall we?
Entering Saturday’s game against Indiana, Penn State was 114th in the nation in kickoff return average and 64th in opponent kickoff return average. On top of that, the Nittany Lions were 108th in the nation in punt return average and 117th in opponent punt return average.
That’s ugly with a capital “U,” right there.
It’s about time Penn State football made another change.
Here’s a solution–why not take a page out of Pete Carroll’s book?
This year, Carroll hired Brian Schneider as the new special teams coordinator for USC. Schneider, carrying 15 years of experience entering the job, was USC’s first full-time special teams coordinator since 2001.
So far, so good–just look at the facts.
Entering this weekend, the Trojans were fifth in the country in punt return average, compared to 72nd from last season. On top of that, USC is ranked fourth in opponent punt return average, up from 78th in 2008.
That’s a significant jump–especially in a category like special teams, arguably the most important aspect of a team’s game.
If you don’t buy that, then look at “Beamerball.” If you have even a middle-of-the-road knowledge of college football, you’ve heard of “Beamerball”, a.k.a. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, and his supreme ability to not just preach, but execute solid special teams play on a regular basis–to the point that the philosophy has vaulted the Hokies to a great deal of success over the last decade and a half.
And while Penn State is bringing in loads of talent, it’s the inconsistent play of the special teams unit that is stealing away victories–and titles.
No bigger point can be made with Penn State’s two losses of the season, which featured significant big plays on special teams by both Iowa and Ohio State.
Therefore, it’s about time that Penn State made a change, because the special teams play has been enough of a red flag that the Nittany Lions should give in and raise the white flag on its old-school experiment and hire a coordinator.
Until then, Penn State fans will have to hold their breath until blue in the face.
* All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com