Special teams can be so fickle.
They can give, and they can take away.
At crucial times Saturday night at Beaver Stadium, against the nation’s No. 2 team, when Penn State needed breaks to go its way, special teams did the taking.
And just when things started to look dire, they gave back.
Oh, did they give back in a stunning 24-21 Nittany Lion win over Ohio State.
The biggest gift?
Marcus Allen leaped high, with both arms outstretched, to block Tyler Durbin’s 45-yard field goal attempt. It resulted in a 60-yard Grant Haley return for a touchdown and a victory few expected.
To get a good defense on the Buckeye field goal attempts, the Nittany Lions worked on their defense specifically for what they saw on film by the Buckeyes this past week.
“We had been watching film and Coach Spence (defensive line coach Sean Spencer) great, different blocks,” Haley said. “We had good block this week and it involved Marcus coming in and jumping over the guard and it just worked perfectly.”
On two Ohio State first-half field goals, the Nittany Lions saw the possibilities, and that produced a conversation with the special teams unit at halftime.
“Came clean, went with the adjustment (special teams coach Charles) Huff gave me,” Allen said, “and I blocked it.”
The ball, kicked, from the Penn State 35, bounced out to the 40, where it found the hands of Haley.
“My eyes got big in picking it up,” Haley said. “It was, honestly, when I got to the end zone, it was just a sigh of relief. You know, I made it.”
The sideline, and the stadium, was electrified.
“Just awesome,” head coach James Franklin said. “The whole thing’s a blur to me right now.”
A pair of glaring lowlights played huge roles early.
Facing a fourth-and-11 at their own 30 yard-line in the third quarter, Tyler Yazujian’s snap sailed over the head of punter Blake Gillikin and into the end zone. The freshman, who barely got a fingertip on the ball so high over his head, raced back and dove on the ball before a pair of Buckeyes could get there, at least saving a touchdown, but the two-point safety spun momentum.
Instead of a possible large flipping of field position with the powerful leg of Gillikin, the Buckeyes instead got two more points.
Another major miscue came much earlier.
Penn State put together an impressive drive to start the game, mixing the run and pass for 54 yards to as deep as the Ohio State 17 before stalling at the 21. It brought in the reliable Tyler Davis, who had never missed a field goal in his Penn State career.
But the sophomore drilled a low kick, with Damon Webb getting a hand on the ball and deflected it.
On the cold, wet, windy night, punt-receiving also was an issue.
Ohio State’s Dantre Wilson had the ball slip through his hands inside the Buckeye 10, but they managed to recover the ball.
At that end of that same possession, the punt slid through Nittany Lion John Reid’s hands, giving Ohio State the ball back and turning into a field goal.
The Nittany Lions finally got a break to go their way early in the fourth.
On fourth and seven at the Buckeye 28, with Cameron Johnston back to punt, Penn State freshman Cam Brown raced up middle, pushed through an Ohio State blocker and got a hand on the ball. Troy Apke fell on the ball at the 28.
“To be honest with you, I don’t even know what happened,” Franklin said. “I just heard the thud, and then, you know, from there, chaos.”
Beaver Stadium’s nearly-full house was booming with delight, and it ended with a Davis 34-yard field goal.
Not to be overlooked, the kick coverage after both Davis’ field goal and Haley’s touchdown was stunning, pinning the Buckeyes inside their own 15 on both returns.
Ohio State averaged 16 yards on kickoff returns for the game, and only two of Gillikin’s punts were returned for a net loss of two yards.
In contrast, Miles Sanders averaged 22 yards on his kick returns.
They were by no means perfect, but special teams produced the biggest upset in years Saturday night.
“That’s why they call them special teams — because special things happen in that moment,” Haley said. “I think that’s something as a team we look to and say special teams are important.”