CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Penn State coach James Franklin bristled at a question during his postgame news conference Saturday about the performance of special-teams coordinator Charles Huff.
The Nittany Lions’ special teams have been more liability than asset, a far contrast from the Franklin/Huff company line that the unit will be a strength.
But Franklin disagreed that Huff could be at fault.
“We will look at it, and we evaluate everything in the program,” Franklin said. “But I don’t really look at it that way.”
Three peculiar errors cost Penn State in a 16-14 loss Saturday at Illinois.
The second-half kickoff into a stiff breeze seemingly died in mid-air, fell to the ground near the PSU 20-yard line and was pounced on by Illinois. Franklin said he didn’t believe it was strategic, but Illini coaches and players told reporters that kicker Taylor Zalewski indeed was instructed to kick the ball high into the air.
Chris Gulla, who lost his punting job this season, has been a reliable holder aside from his bobble of a first-quarter field-goal snap Saturday.
And of the flinch of Evan Schwan and another PSU lineman during an Illinois punt snap that eventually led to an Illini field goal, Franklin said, “That happens sometimes.”
The only correction Franklin offered for the errors was that he believed the “up men” on the kickoff return team need to be more aware of where the ball is, in order to make a fair catch in that situation.
A tired defense?
Franklin said he and Illinois coach Tim Beckman discussed during pregame how their respective teams are dealing with fatigue.
For the Lions and their scholarship-sapped roster, the effects are more apparent.
“It’s an issue for everybody this time of year,” Franklin said. “It’s magnified because of the situation we’re in.”
Asked whether he thought his defense was “worn out,” Franklin replied, “There’s no doubt.”
It appeared that way late in Saturday’s game, when Penn State was down two more regulars because of injury. Three of Illinois’ four longest drives — in terms of both yardage and plays — were on its final three possessions. Penn State allowed the Illini to march 150 combined yards during those three drives after they traveled 167 over the previous 10.
Illinois punted on its first six possessions but punted only twice over its final seven drives.
“(Being tired) is a mental thing,” PSU cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “We have lot of tough guys on the team who do lot of things throughout the week and in practice to keep our bodies right. So I never listen to that or say anything like that. Of course, you’re not like you were Aug. 30 (for the season opener), but it’s all mental.”
Huff, who also is Penn State’s running backs coach, said Lions ball carriers have been taught how to hold the ball near their chin. It’s an effort to avoid fumbles. PSU running backs had no fumbles through nine games. But they have one in each of the past two games.
Akeel Lynch’s second-quarter fumble Saturday ended a drive.
“If you watch the play, we were carrying the ball with two hands … like a option quarterback,” Franklin said. “We do ball security drills every single day, (and) we never coach that and have never talked about doing that.”