Blake Gillikin wasn’t really sure on the rules.
Penn State’s freshman punter knew in high school football that on a bad snap, he was allowed to kick it out of the end zone for a safety; he did it once before.
But in the moment during the Ohio State game, Gillikin was uncertain whether or not doing so in college football was legal.
So he reacted, and fell on the football in the end zone for a safety — a play that turned out to be one of the more underrated ones in Penn State’s improbable run to the Rose Bowl.
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“Saving six points and turning it into two was a big deal,” Gillikin said Friday at Penn State’s Rose Bowl media day. “I don’t think we win that game without that play.”
Of course, the Nittany Lions defeated No. 2 Ohio State in a 24-21 upset that vaulted Penn State back into the national conversation. It turned out to be the Nittany Lions’ third win in what is now a nine-game unbeaten streak, but is considered by many to be the turning point in Penn State’s season.
And a key sequence in that game was Gillikin’s cunning move.
The Nittany Lions were down 19-7 with 8:38 left in the third quarter, and Gillikin stood back at his own 15-yard line to punt. The snap sailed out of reach, and the unnerved freshman had to act fast.
“I saw it release high so my first instinct was to jump. I thought I was going to get to it, but it just wasn’t going to happen,” Gillikin recalled. “I heard the Ohio State guy behind me. ... I heard him huffing and puffing running, so that was scary.”
The player Gillikin beat to the ball was a wide receiver, Buckeye sophomore Terry McLaurin.
A punter and a wideout chasing after the ball? You’d think McLaurin would get to it before Gillikin, but Penn State special teams coordinator Charles Huff said that’s where the freshman’s instincts kicked in.
“He’s a football player that happens to kick. He’s a competitor who’s a punter,” Huff said. “Those savvy things like falling on the ball, knowing what to do, knowing when to one-step versus when to two-step, as a football player those are things he understands.”
And as far as actually punting the ball, Huff has been more than pleased with Gillikin’s freshman campaign. The Georgia native has averaged 42.1 yards per punt this season, ranking 42nd in the country and third in the Big Ten.
That’s a sizable improvement for the Nittany Lions, who ranked 108th and 126th in yards per punt in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
“You look at the top teams in the country and they have dominant players at that position,” Huff said. “Outside of the quarterback, left tackle and left defensive end, he’s probably going up against the top guy on the field, kicking to the punt returner. His ability to control the game helps.”
Gillikin faces a tough test in the Rose Bowl, though. Southern California’s Adoree’ Jackson averages 15.9 yards per punt return (third nationally) and has scored four times on special teams (two kickoff, two punt returns).
It’ll be a tall task, but it’s one Huff knows Gillikin will relish on Monday.
“Adoree’ is one of the best return men in the country,” the special teams coordinator said. “We talked to Blake and the rest of the cover team about being consistent and being disciplined. That’s what it’s going to take to bottle this guy up. ... (Gillikin) wants the challenge.”