Penn State Football

Nittany Lions special teams play shines again

Penn State football coach James Franklin cheers on the team during Saturday’s game against Rutgers at High Point Solutions Stadium.
Penn State football coach James Franklin cheers on the team during Saturday’s game against Rutgers at High Point Solutions Stadium. psheehan@centredaily.com

As the Penn State kickoff team waited to take the field, James Franklin broke into the unit’s huddle.

The Nittany Lions head coach found Juwan Johnson and wrapped him in a hug to celebrate after his big special teams’ play led to the team’s first touchdown. Johnson shot into the backfield untouched and blocked Rutgers’ Michael Cintron’s punt. Penn State’s Garrett Taylor recovered the loose ball, and the Nittany Lions found the end zone three plays later on a 1-yard touchdown run by Saquon Barkley.

Before the ensuing kickoff, an animated Franklin sought out Johnson.

The blocked punt was part of a difference-making performance by No. 8 Penn State’s special teams in a 39-0 win over Rutgers on Saturday night at High Point Solutions Stadium.

“If you get a punt blocked against you or block a punt, that has a way of really swinging a game so I think it obviously factored in,” Franklin said. “And I love seeing all these young players stepping up and making plays on special teams.”

The unit contributed to the team’s first five scores as kicker Tyler Davis connected on four field goals and the blocked punt set up the first touchdown.

Penn State took a 9-0 lead into halftime thanks to three Davis field goals.

After Penn State’s second drive stalled, Davis connected on a 32-yard field goal to push his team ahead 3-0 with 6:34 left in the first quarter. He hit a 34-yard field goal with 20 seconds left in the first and drilled a 40-yard field goal in the second quarter.

Davis dealt with windy conditions throughout the night.

Usually, he’d try to gauge the wind before the game.

“But today during pregame, it wasn’t really windy,” Davis said. “It changed a lot.”

When he got out on the field, he made adjustments.

“You definitely have to take it into account, but I never aim outside of either post,” Davis said. “I’ll aim inside the right post a little bit or inside the left post a little bit, but I’ll never aim outside the goal post.”

Davis said the conditions were the toughest he’s ever faced.

He still managed to connect on all four field goals to improve to 20 for 22 on the season.

“That guy’s a warrior,” Franklin said. “If you had to name probably an MVP right now, it would probably be him.”

Johnson provided the spark for the Nittany Lions at the start of the second half.

Rutgers went three-and-out on its first possession of the third quarter, bringing Cintron on the field to punt it away.

Johnson, a New Jersey native, got into the backfield with ease and saw his opportunity to make a play.

“The ball was still in his hands so I was like, ‘Yeah this is my time,’” Johnson said.

Johnson, a 6-foot-4 wide receiver and four-star recruit coming out of high school, said it’s been second nature playing on special teams.

“You’re kind of just playing football, what you’ve been doing your whole life,” Johnson said.

Davis did not play football his whole life.

But the former soccer player has been consistent all season for the Nittany Lions.

He delivered again Saturday to build Penn State’s early lead before the offense got going.

After Johnson’s blocked punt and Barkley’s touchdown run, Davis hit a 32-yard field goal — his fourth and final field goal — to make it 19-0 in the third quarter.

Said Davis: “I’m just doing my job.”

Ryne Gery: 814-231-4679, @rgery

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