Penn State Football

Special teams, Nick Scott help spark Nittany Lions

Penn State’s Nick Scott likened his trip to the end zone Saturday to seeing an old friend again.

Scott grinned as he pointed out he used to play offense — he started his Nittany Lions’ career as a running back before converting to safety — and hasn’t scored many touchdowns since high school. But he crossed the goal line Saturday after scooping up a fumble on an Indiana punt return, one forced by wideout Irvin Charles, and taking it 13 yards to a cheering student section.

“It felt good to be back in that rectangle,” Scott said after No. 4 Penn State’s 45-14 win over Indiana.

Special teams sparked Penn State past Indiana thanks to a dominant first quarter. Saquon Barkley started the game with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown — Penn State’s first score on a kickoff return since 2011 — and Scott added the unit’s second score a little more than eight minutes later.

The performance earned high praise from Penn State coach James Franklin.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a better half of special teams in my 23 years of doing this,” Franklin said. “That’s been something that we’ve worked really hard on and invested in since we’ve been here, and we’re really starting to get some real positive returns.”

The improvement on special teams started with taking pride in starting on that unit. Scott said players want to contribute on special teams, adding that they view starting on the unit like they view the importance of Barkley on the offense and linebacker Jason Cabinda on the defense. They can make a difference in the game in their role, and they showed that Saturday against the Hoosiers.

Scott embraced playing on special teams heading into his redshirt freshman season, making it clear to the coaching staff during camp that he was willing to contribute in any role. It was his “first door” to get onto the field, and Scott backed up his words with his passion that season.

“It all started in my first game, where I had a couple tackles,” the redshirt junior said. “I was flying off the field, acting excited like we had just won the Super Bowl, and I think they picked up on how much I loved being out there, how much I loved playing fast and physical.

“And so after that point, they’ve sort of given me the keys to driving that force.”

Scott scored his first career touchdown on an 11-yard run against Army on Oct. 3, 2015, as a redshirt freshman. He accounted for a touchdown later that month on a pass to quarterback Christian Hackenberg against Illinois.

And he finally played a part in another score Saturday — on the unit he embraced at the start of his career. But he was hardly the only special-teams standout Saturday.

Barkley credited the kick-return unit for its blocking. Punter Blake Gillikin averaged 46.5 yards per punt, while nailing four of six inside the 20. And the Nittany Lions dominated the battle of field position.

“We talk about it all the time. We take tremendous pride in it,” Franklin said. “I think that’s probably one of the biggest differences in our program in Year 4 compared to Years 1 and 2.”

It’s a game many of the players on special teams won’t soon forget. Especially Scott, one of the team captains.

“I’m glad that we’re putting some points up on special teams,” Scott added. “We’ve been trying to do that for a while now.”