Penn State football: Special teams struggle against Huskers

The mood was triumphant in cold, windy Beaver Stadium on Saturday after freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg hit freshman tight end Adam Breneman for a two-yard touchdown to give Penn State a 6-0 lead over Nebraska.

It was the faces of the future of the Nittany Lion offense on display for the world to see.

The promise of the moment was punctured as Sam Ficken’s extra point try came off his foot low and boinked off the right upright.

That missed kick was foreshadowing of special teams struggles to come.

All season special teams play has been inconsistent at best for Penn State. But in the 23-20 overtime loss to Nebraska, a collection of stumbles and bobbles could arguably be the reason for the Nittany Lions’ fifth loss of the season.

“(They) had a kickoff return for a touchdown, which is not good,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “The kids are trying hard, though. We’ve just got to continue to try to work on it. We work hard on special teams and we’ll continue to work hard on special teams this coming week.”

That’s been a familiar refrain from the coach. And, clearly, all phases need work. One in particular, which has been a work in progress all season, is punting.

In the second quarter, Alex Butterworth dropped back to punt on fourth-and-8 from the Nebraska 49. Butterworth dropped the snap, gathered the ball back in and attempted to get a kick off.

Cornhusker Brandon Reilly broke through and blocked the punt, which Andy Janovich recovered and returned to the Penn State 48.

Nebraska drove to the Penn State 3 but, fortunately for the Nittany Lions, Ameer Abdullah fumbled into the end zone and Jesse Della Valle recovered for Penn State.

In the third quarter, poor special teams play again drained the life out of a raucous stadium.

Hackenberg sprinted 7 yards for a touchdown to give Penn State a 13-7 lead, much to the delight of the crowd of 98, 517.

But, in the span of seconds, the crowd was deflated.

Kenny Bell gathered in the ensuing kickoff at the 1-yard line, burst upfield, found a crack, angled to the sideline, hurdled a last-ditch tackle attempt by Ficken and sprinted into the end zone.

“Obviously, that’s a momentum swing. It flipped the momentum a little bit,” Adrian Amos said. “My mindset is just play the next play. Control what you can control. Get out and get after it. You can’t put your head down. You’ve just got to keep playing.”

Penn State did.

The Nittany Lions took a 20-17 lead on Hackenberg’s 46-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James.

Even when Nebraska answered with a field goal to tie the game and regulation ended with the teams tied, 20-20, Penn State was still confident it could pull out yet another win.

“We’ve been pretty successful in overtime, even going back to last season,” Hackenberg said. “We were confident. Sometimes the ball doesn’t fall your way.”

On this day especially.

The Penn State offense faltered on the Nittany Lions’ overtime possession and Ficken lined up for a 37-yard field goal. It missed wide right.

“It’s not one person’s fault. Everyone went out there and made mistakes. We don’t blame anything on one person. It’s a team effort,” Zerbe said of Ficken’s struggles.

“Sam’s a great kid, a great kicker. I know he played as hard as he could. We all did as hard as we could. It’s not his fault at all. Everyone needs to play better.”

With one game remaining, against a tough Wisconsin squad, they’ll have to if Penn State has any hope of securing a road win.

“We take a lot of pride in special teams,” Zerbe said. “To have those complications today, it hurts.”