Penn State notebook: Nittany Lions win special teams advantage — and game
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — In a turn of events, Penn State won a special teams battle. It played no small role in the Nittany Lions winning again.
In breaking a four-game losing streak Saturday with a 13-7 victory at Indiana, Penn State had a net advantage over the Hoosiers in the punting game. The Lions had been outplayed in each area during their previous three games.
“Special teams, we did what we had to do,” coach James Franklin said. “I thought that was a big factor.”
For the first time against a non-MAC opponent this season, Penn State had a better punting average than its opponent. Daniel Pasquariello averaged 37.3 yards on nine punts, and five were downed inside the 20-yard line. He had one touchback.
Pasquariello’s average slightly topped that of the Hoosiers’ Erich Toth (36.7 yards).
The Lions’ coverage was better, too. Indiana netted minus-15 yards on three punt returns. In contrast, Penn State’s Jesse Della Valle had a 24-yard return in his lone opportunity.
“We did a nice job bottling up their returners, especially on our punt team getting down there and covering well,” said Della Valle, a regular member of all the special teams units. “It’s all about the field-position battle.”
Penn State was a net loss in the kickoff return game, but its overall “win” in special teams reversed a disturbing trend in which it was getting outplayed.
Using averages for punts, kickoffs and returns, the Lions conceded roughly 90 yards per game to its past three opponents. The worst outing was a loss at Michigan in which Penn State netted an estimated minus-117 yards to the Wolverines in a game that was decided by one possession and in which PSU had just 214 yards of offense.
Linebacker Mike Hull took a rare unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty late in the fourth quarter. Hull shoved Indiana’s Collin Rahrig after Rahrig applied a late, low, blind block on Hull.
“Just one of those things that happens throughout the course of a game,” Hull said. “Obviously, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. But I was just in the moment.”
Hull was asked whether he felt he deserved the flag.
“(Rahrig) deserved it,” Hull said with a smile. “At least that’s what I thought.”
Hull finished that series with added vigor. He acknowledged the questionable block and flag made him “play angry.”
“I usually don’t. I usually try to play smart,” he said. “But right there for those next few plays I probably played a little bit angry, out of character.”
Is that such a bad thing?
“Definitely not,” Hull said. “Fuel the fire a little bit.”
Hull was in on two of the next four tackles, and the defense pushed back the Hoosiers from what was their deepest penetration into Lions territory and forced a punt.
Saturday’s game featured as many punts as points. … After Franklin teased of “new wrinkles” Penn State would use in the red zone, the Lions did not score a touchdown during their three trips inside the 20, settling for two field goals (and a blocked attempt). One of the so-called “wrinkles” was heavy use of a sixth offensive lineman. … Quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been sacked at least five times during each of the past four games.