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Penn State notebook: 'Hit squad' takes some hits on kick returns

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Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State wide receiver Brandon Felder (85) looks to the stands following the Nittany Lions' victory over Purdue on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, at Beaver Stadium in University Park. Penn State defeated Purdue, 45-21.
Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 6:54 p.m.

“The Hit Squad” took some hits Saturday.

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien introduced another one of his trademark colloquialisms Saturday, referring to the kickoff coverage team as “The Hit Squad.” Whatever you call it, it wasn't the best game for the group.

Purdue's Raheem Mostert had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with 1:05 left in the first half. Two kickoffs later, Akeem Hunt appeared to break free and had only kicker Sam Ficken to beat for another possible touchdown before Ficken brought him down after 37 yards with a nice tackle.

“‘The Hit Squad,' you know we've got to be better there,” O'Brien said. “We've got to go back to work Monday and get that fixed. And we will... Maybe we've got to replace some guys, get some guys in there who are a little bit hungrier.”

The coaching staff has used several freshmen and walk-ons on special teams this season in an effort to keep an NCAA sanctions-thinned roster healthy.

Ficken's tackle became all the more remarkable when O'Brien let it be known he had “a bit of a quad or groin pull.” Ficken, who made a field goal and six extra points and kicked off seven times, had not kicked since Tuesday's practice.

“It's never really good for the team if I'm making the tackle,” Ficken said. “Luckily, I hit the kid in the knee and got him.”

Tracking Robinson

Allen Robinson continued to make his mark on the Penn State record book.

The junior had eight receptions for 98 yards to give him 81 catches this season and 161 in his career. He broke his own season record of 77 and jumped past Jordan Norwood to tie Derrick Williams for third place all-time.

Robinson is 149 yards behind third-place Derek Moye's 2,395 career yards.

Robinson, though, was held without a touchdown for the third consecutive game.

Reversing trends

Struggling Purdue was the perfect tonic for Penn State's offensive struggles on third down and inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

The Lions entered the game 112th nationally in third-down conversion rate and having scored on just half of their red-zone chances over the previous three games. They were nearly flawless in both situations Saturday, going 10 for 12 on third downs and scoring on all seven trips inside the Purdue 20 (six touchdowns, one field goal).

“It seemed like we were scoring almost every time we had it,” tight end Jesse James said.

Over the previous four games, Penn State was 20 for 59 (34 percent) on third down. The Lions had four touchdowns and two field goals in 12 red-zone opportunities in the three games before Saturday.

Nittany notes

Running back Akeel Lynch played for the first time since suffering a knee injury against Ohio State on Oct. 26. He had 44 yards on nine carries. ... North Allegheny graduate Gregg Garrity posted his first stats of the season. A true freshman, Garrity had a 9-yard punt return in the second quarter. ... The announced attendance of 96,491 was behind only the Oct. 12 Homecoming game against Michigan as the second-largest of the season at home.

— Chris Adamski

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