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Penn State special teams problems magnified

| Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

UNIVERSITY PARK — On the first return opportunity Penn State had Saturday against Nebraska, Jesse Della Valle muffed a first-quarter punt.

The first return opportunity Nebraska had in the second half resulted in a Kenny Bell 99-yard touchdown.

On the first opportunity Penn State had to answer, Eugene Lewis fumbled.

The Nittany Lions' first extra-point attempt? Missed. Their first field-goal try, too.

For good measure, Alex Butterworth had a punt blocked for the first time in his career.

It was a game of unfortunate firsts for Penn State's special teams. By most measures, it was the unit's worst performance of the season.

“Special teams are something that we always focus on,” Della Valle said. “We'll just continue to do that and try to play better.”

Luckily for the Nittany Lions, the Della Valle and Lewis fumbles were recovered. Even so, it's not an overstatement to suggest that the specials teams performance cost the Lions a win on Senior Day.

Ever the good teammate, cornerback Adrian Amos repeated the familiar mantra of, “It's a team loss, nobody's fault, not the special teams or not any (individual).”

But even Amos conceded that the kickoff return, in particular, “obviously was a momentum-swinger.”

Later — when not talking specifically about special teams — he indirectly acknowledged how much an isolated miscue such as a missed kick, a missed tackle on a return or a fumble can play a major role in deciding a game's outcome.

“Games like this come down to one play here or one play there,” Amos said. “You always think about those after a loss. ‘If I'd done this or done that, would this not have happened?'”

Most of the Lions' special teams players are not made available to the media. Particularly for NCAA sanctions-saddled Penn State, the units are made up of an inordinate number of freshmen and/or walk-ons.

In every special teams statistic the NCAA and/or Big Ten makes available, the Lions rank among the bottom half of the conference.

They are statistically the worst in opponents' kickoff return yardage. The 25.8 average is 119th out of 123 FBS teams — a function of allowing touchdowns during each the past two games.

No team has allowed more than two all season; only five other teams have allowed two (none in the Big Ten).

Penn State is ahead of only lowly Purdue in the Big Ten in net kickoff coverage, and the Lions dropped to ninth in field-goal percentage. After having a school-record successful field goal streak snapped with a 57-yard miss Sept. 14, Ficken has missed six of his past 15.

The Lions' Big Ten rankings in other special teams categories: Ninth in kickoff returns, eighth in punt returns, ninth in net punting yardage, 10th in gross punting average.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini asserted there's nothing systemically wrong with Penn State's special teams and that the Cornhuskers, on the touchdown return in particular, just made a play.

“I think they are well-coached on special teams; I just think we made a good play and had some nice blocks,” Pelini said. “There wasn't anything that we thought we could particularly exploit.”

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at cadamski@tribweb.com or on Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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