UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Special teams have been an adventure for Penn State this season, be it coach Bill O'Brien's tendencies to go for it on fourth down, Sam Ficken's missed field goals or the panic that set in for fans earlier when they didn't know who would be receiving punts or how easily those returners would catch the ball.
For the last part, at least, normalcy appears to have taken root. Cornerback Jesse Della Valle has consistently been the punt-returner since the Virginia game Sept. 8. He had his most productive game of the season last week against Temple, with three returns for 45 yards.
"Some guys have a knack for that," O'Brien said of Della Valle's return skills. "They can catch it, they can understand the return, they have good vision."
Before Della Valle, Gerald Hodges was the returner in the season opener against Ohio University. He fumbled a punt return on the Nittany Lions 13.
- Matchup: Penn State (2-2) vs. Illinois (2-2), noon today, Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill. Penn State is favored by 1.
- TV, Radio, Internet: ESPN; KQV-AM (1410) and Penn State Sports Network; www.Go-PSUsports.com.
- Penn State: Is 8-11 in Big Ten openers. ... Outscoring opponents, 35-0, in the first quarter. ... Should have RBs Bill Belton and Derek Day back from injuries. Mike Zordich and Zach Zwinak lead team in yards per rushing attempt (4.6).
- Illinois: Uses two quarterbacks, Reilly O'Toole and Nathan Scheelhaase. When Scheelhaase is in, it runs an offensive style similar to Ohio. ... WR Ryan Lankford leads Illinois with 16 receptions for 243 yards with four touchdowns. ... LB Jonathan Brown leads defense with 26 tackles, five for losses.
- Hidden stat: Illinois and Penn State have not played a game in Champaign decided by 18 points or less since 2007.
O'Brien accepted the blame, saying Hodges might or might not return punts or kicks again. The next Saturday, Penn State discovered a surprising replacement on punt returns.
Before the Virginia game, secondary coach John Butler, who also oversees special teams, told O'Brien that Della Valle, a Shaler Area graduate, was catching everything and doing so better than anyone else. That's all O'Brien needed to hear.
O'Brien has said that he chooses punt- and kick-returners based on performances in practice and pregame warm-ups. He picks the player who appears most ready on a given day.
Against Virginia, Della Valle had one return for 4 yards. He had no returns against Navy before the three returns against Temple. On his best return, he split through a hole and evaded a few tacklers to pick up 29 yards.
"He's a special kid who, I believe, has the best ball skills of anyone in the secondary," said cornerback Stephon Morris.
Morris was referring Della Valle's ability to follow and possibly intercept the ball as a defensive back. It's the same skill set that has impressed O'Brien when he watches Della Valle return punts.
Della Valle also has done enough to convince O'Brien to break from his earlier comments about the return spots being open week to week.
"He's got a little bit of a knack for it, and we're going to stick with him," O'Brien said.psusports