Penn State’s special teams remain under construction.
What started as promising, with Alex Butterworth’s punt being downed at the 1-yard line less than four minutes into the game, turned dicey in Saturday’s 39-28 victory over Northwestern at Beaver Stadium.
The Wildcats opened a 28-17 lead when Venric Mark returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown with 50 seconds left in the third quarter. The play marked the first time since the 2006 Orange Bowl that an opponent took a punt to the house against the Nittany Lions.
Butterworth’s punt spiraled 54 yards. But he outkicked his coverage, allowing Mark, who returned a punt a for a touchdown earlier this season against Syracuse, to scamper untouched.
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Butterworth changed his punting styles throughout the game, altering between a rugby and traditional style. He had three punts downed inside the 20 in the first half, but shanked a rugby-style effort midway through the second quarter. He returned to a traditional style in the second half, with Mark fielding Butterworth’s final boot like a center fielder tracking a ball at the warning track.
“We had an unbelievable punt,” said secondary coach John Butler, who oversees the punt team. “It was probably his best punt of the year. (Mark’s) a great, great returner. We knew something like that was coming. Our game plan was to rugby punt it and keep it away from him. While it’s not pretty, it’s a system that you do. We decided to kick it deep to him and paid a price.”
Butterworth said he’s still adjusting to the rugby style, which he dabbled with in high school.
“You have to have a short memory,” he said. “That’s all you can say. That rugby style is a new style and I’m trying to get used to that. But obviously, I have a lot to work on. That punt team isn’t going to let that happen again. We are going to figure out we we did wrong, fix it and go from there.”
Penn State’s special teams also made a major mistake in the second quarter, as Jesse Della Valle muffed a punt at the 17-yard line. Northwestern’s Nick VanHoose recovered it, and the Wildcats scored three plays later on Venric Mark’s 5-yard run.
Della Valle, who returns punts with Evan Lewis, encountered little trouble recovering from the mistake.
“I just knew my teammates would have my back,” he said. “I just kept my head up as high as I can. Guys said, ‘Don’t worry about.’ I’m just happy my teammates had my back and we came out with a win.”
Coach Bill O’Brien bypassed multiple field goal opportunities. With Penn State trailing by 11 points and facing a fourth-and-four from their own 6-yard line, O’Brien decided forgo a field goal attempt. Quarterback Matt McGloin scored on a 6-yard run.
Kicker Sam Ficken, who missed four field goals in a 17-16 loss at Virginia last month, said he understands O’Brien’s decision-making process.
“I’m pretty confident in our offense,” he said. “I will take a touchdown over a field goal any day even though I’m ready to go. The team scored. We won. Touchdowns are more points.”
Ficken kicked a 21-yard field in the first quarter. Three of his seven kickoffs went for touchbacks.
“I’m settling down,” Ficken said.
Reaching 100 – again
Zach Zwinak now owns Penn State’s first and second 100-yard rushing games of 2012.
The sophomore bulled his way to a career-high 121 yards on 28 carries Saturday after rushing for 100 yards on 19 carries last week at Illinois.
Zwinak said he didn’t realize he had reached 100 yards again until 20 minutes after Saturday’s game.
“As a running back, you want to reach at least 100 yards and you don’t want to do worse than you did the week before,” he said. “In a way, it doesn’t matter as long as you are more moving the ball and doing what’s asked of you for the team to win.”
Zwinak received more than half of Penn State’s 48 carries. Sophomore Bill Belton, who returned from an ankle injury last week, started and gained 12 yards on four carries. Belton didn’t play in the second half.
“I don’t think his ankle is bothering him,” O’Brien said. “Bill went in and did some decent things. We felt Zach was running the ball downhill and we felt his physical presence. This type of game, it was something we wanted to go with.”
Senior Michael Zordich added 32 yards on seven carries.
Penn State outscored Northwestern 3-0 in the first quarter. The Nittany Lions have outscored opponents 52-0 in the quarter this season. ... Head linesman Tripp Sutter was carted off the field after colliding with Penn State free safety Malcolm Willis in the second quarter. ... The victory was Penn State’s first over a ranked opponent at Beaver Stadium since defeating No. 17 Michigan State 49-18 in 2008. The Wildcats entered Saturday ranked No. 24.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.