Penn State’s ho-hum special teams play continued against Rutgers and James Franklin is expecting more out of his “wefensive” units a quarter of the way through the regular season.
Franklin sometimes calls special teams “wefense” because they provide chances for Nittany Lions players to all “come together.”
On Saturday, however, the Nittany Lions combined to give up two blocked kicks — a foiled field goal and a swatted punt — and failed to provide a big play in the return game against the Scarlet Knights.
“Right now we are not really a positive or a negative special teams,” Franklin said. “We must start providing more value, better coverage on return units, big plays in the (return) game, blocks, etc., things like that.”
For the most part, Franklin was happy with his punting team. Although the Nittany Lions gave up a block at their own 33-yard line, freshman punter Chris Gulla was able to keep the ball away from Rutgers’ shifty return man Janarian Grant all evening. Grant, who returned a kickoff and punt for touchdowns last season, didn’t get a chance in his team’s first Big Ten game.
Gulla followed Penn State’s preferred procedure to kick the ball toward the sideline, in an effort to pin the opposing returner to one side of the field or eliminate him entirely. He booted two balls out of bounds inside the Rutgers 20-yard line and his gunners raced downfield, forcing Grant to call for a fair catch on another.
In addition, Grant let two punts bounce and Penn State players downed them. True freshman Grant Haley made a nice play to keep a Gulla punt from bouncing into the end zone and it appeared Penn State downed it at the Rutgers 1-yard line. But the ball bounced off of Da’Quan Davis’s helmet at the seven.
“Right now, I think Grant is doing a lot of nice things for us,” Franklin said. “Maybe some of those things go unnoticed on the stat sheet, but for a freshman he’s really bringing a lot of value in a lot of different areas for us.”
Although Haley has seven kickoff returns for 172 yards with a long of 44 yards, punt return hasn’t been one of those areas. The speedy cornerback has not been used as a punt returner. Penn State has opted to go with special teams captain Jesse Della Valle instead.
Jordan Lucas returned one punt for zero yards earlier this season, but Della Valle has been the primary deep man on punt returns. Della Valle has returned just three of a possible 13 punts. By comparison, 46 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) players have returned more punts than Penn State players have combined for this season.
Della Valle made four fair catches on Saturday, two where it appeared he had room to run, and tried to return his final attempt but was tackled immediately for no gain.
Franklin is still waiting for a spark on his return units. Penn State fans have been waiting much longer.
The Nittany Lions haven’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 159 quarters, dating back to Chaz Powell’s score against Indiana State in the 2011 season opener. Meanwhile, Penn State’s last punt return score came from Derrick Williams 290 quarters ago against Wisconsin in 2008.
“Just being able to give our offense better field position, giving them some momentum with a big return; whether it’s a return for a touchdown or whether it’s just a chunk of field position. That’s what we’d like to do,” Franklin said. “So I think we’ve done some nice things, I really do. There’s still a lot of areas for improvement.”
Franklin has outlined his process in the past for identifying which players — specifically true freshmen — who have redshirt seasons available and will use those redshirts or burn them.
Now that the season has started, Franklin’s procedure remains the same.
Primarily, Franklin categorizes players as green — they’ll play; yellow — they’re on a wait-and-see basis; and red — they’ll redshirt. So far, six true freshmen have taken the green light. Defensive back Marcus Allen and Haley have played, as have receivers Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin. Tight end Mike Gesicki has also played in every game so far.
Freshman cornerback Christian Campbell was the most recent true freshman to get in on special teams when he made his debut against Rutgers. So far, linebackers Troy Reeder, Jason Cabinda and Koa Farmer have not played despite being talked about as potential depth options in the preseason.
The remaining true freshmen on the roster appear unlikely to see the field this season unless an injury forces Franklin’s hand.
“The guys that have played obviously will continue to play and their roles will get bigger,” Franklin said. “It’s not like at this point of the year we’ll start throwing new guys in there, unless there’s a need.”
Rutgers’ Big Ten debut against Penn State was the highest-rated college football game on Saturday in the New York and Philadelphia designated market areas, the Big Ten Network announced Tuesday.
According to Nielsen overnight ratings, the low-scoring, down-to-the-wire contest drew a 4.4 rating in Philadelphia and a 2.2 rating in New York. By comparison, Georgia at South Carolina finished second in the Philadelphia market with a 2.7 rating while the Purdue at Notre Dame game was second in the New York market with a 1.7 rating.
A record 53,774 attended the game at High Point Solutions Stadium.
Starting Friday, Penn State will honor its women’s sports teams as 2014 marks the 50-year anniversary of the first women’s intercollegiate athletic programs.
Penn State women began play in basketball, fencing, field hockey, golf, gymnastics, lacrosse, rifle, softball and tennis in 1964 and have expanded to compete in 14 programs today. Festivities will begin Friday with a 4 p.m. field hockey game when the Nittany Lions host Michigan, and women’s volleyball will host Eastern Illinois at the same time.
The women’s soccer team will also be in action over the weekend, and former athletes will be honored at halftime of Penn State’s game against UMass.
“(That’s) something that makes us really, really special in my opinion,” Franklin said.