UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It's always something with the special teams. Take a week ago against Ohio State, for example.
Kicker Sam Ficken made his lone field-goal attempt. Linebacker Michael Yancich scored on a Mike Hull blocked punt. Punter Alex Butterworth had five punts that averaged 41.2 yards -- one went for 58. Besides his first punt, coach Bill O'Brien liked his game so much that he said he was comfortable playing a field-position battle in the first half.
But the kickoff returns left plenty to be desired. Bill Belton returned one kick to the 11, and Penn State's average starting position was the 19.
O'Brien unscientifically but thoroughly summed it up Tuesday, calling the kickoff coverage decent, the punting good, the punt block good, the punt return team decent and kickoff return team terrible.
- Matchup: Penn State (5-3, 3-1) vs. Purdue (3-5, 0-4), 3:30 p.m. today, Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, Ind. Penn State is favored by 3 1/2.
- TV, Radio, Internet: ESPNU; KQV-AM (1410) and Penn State Sports Network; www.Go-PSUsports.com.
- Penn State: After gaining 32 rushing yards last week, the Nittany Lions face a defense that allows nearly 200 per game. ... Tight end Kyle Carter is probable with an ankle injury. ... Has been outscored in the third quarter this year, 66-38.
- Purdue: Sophomore safety Landon Feichter leads the team in tackles (49) and interceptions (4). ... Top defensive tackle Kawann Short is nursing an ankle injury but should play. ...Consistently has used three quarterbacks in Caleb Terbush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry.
- Hidden stat: Penn State ranks second in the Big Ten Conference in sacks with 23. DE Deion Barnes leads Penn State with four.
"There were some definite positives, but there were some things that we need to shore up," he said.
Special-teams play consists of five aspects: field-goal kicking, kickoffs, kick returns, punts and punt returns. O'Brien, of course, has peppered the field-goal kicking and especially the punting game with fakes.
In almost every game this year, something has gone wrong in this area. Here is the list:
Ohio: Gerald Hodges fumbles on a punt return.
Virginia: Sam Ficken's four missed field goals and one blocked extra point.
Northwestern: The Wildcats return a punt for a touchdown.
Iowa: Blocked field goal and the Hawkeyes return a kickoff for a touchdown.
Ohio State: Poor kickoff returns.
Dedication to special teams is a must for any team, and Penn State is no different. Hull said Penn State goes over every aspect of special teams on Mondays and Thursdays and visits certain portions of them on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Each week, says O'Brien, the kicking position is technically a competition, as is the return position.
Cornerback Adrian Amos said several players, including himself, have practiced as returners on a regular basis. So far in games, seven players have returned kicks and three have returned punts. Belton has been the primary kick returner when healthy, and Jesse Della Valle has returned the most punts.
On Fridays or even sometimes in warm-ups on Saturdays, a final decision is made. This week will involve a great attention to detail for the returners as well as the blockers.
It's necessary. Penn State knows as well as any team what can happen when special teams drag.
"We've got to play well on special teams because the first mistake you make you're not going to have a very good chance to win the game," O'Brien said.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @mdent05.