UNIVERSITY PARK - Let's see if we can take a little stock here.
In the first half alone, Penn State lost two fumbles on punt returns and fumbled a third punt that was graciously wiped out by Indiana's interference.
The Nittany Lions also fielded a punt at their own 7.
After a scolding a halftime, they came out and promptly fumbled the ensuing kickoff back to the Hoosiers.
And just to put a ribbon on this not-so-special performance, in the third quarter, once it moved into position to take its first lead - as a 26-point favorite - Penn State saw its 34-yard field goal hit the crossbar.
Oh, for the days when this program was special.
It's not anymore.
Penn State overcame its special teams and a sluggish offensive start to put away Indiana, 31-20, and when he arrived at the media room afterward, Joe Paterno was at a loss to explain.
"You tell me," he responded to a reporter's first question. "It gets contagious. You make a couple bad plays, and everybody starts pressing."
Nowhere was that more evident than with the Lions' return squad. Paterno forced a smile when it was mentioned that the coverage teams, scorched in last week's loss to Ohio State, made progress only to see the latest dike open via the return units.
"I thought the special teams did well except for handling the punts," he said, which is akin to a pitcher throwing a three-hitter but giving up three grand slams.
The Nittany Nation is hoarse screaming for a special teams coordinator, but Paterno defended the lack of special coordination.
"Again, the kid kicked [punted] the ball pretty high," he said. "I don't think it's a question of coaching or scheme. It's a question of having the right people in there."
Graham Zug has struggled as the punt returner for two weeks. If they aren't the breakaway threats that, presumably, Devon Smith, Curtis Drake or Justin Brown might be, Zug and Drew Astorino share the position because of their sure hands.
Both fumbled away first-half possessions - Astorino after a 21-yard return, the team's longest this year.
Paterno debated removing Zug after his second fumble but stuck with him. He approached Zug at halftime and challenged his "moxie to catch the football," JoePa said.
Zug appreciated the confidence and says his isn't shaken. He fielded the only punt that came his way in the second half.
"The one I fumbled I was just trying to make something happen," Zug said. "We needed a spark. It was frustrating, but you can't let it affect you."
Zug said Paterno was "fired up" at half, "but that's what a coach needs to do when he sees a team losing a game on their own."
Fresh from that inspiration, Jerome Hayes, the defensive end placed in deep formation as a blocking back, fielded a short kickoff and rumbled 35 yards.
And then fumbled. (Ironically, the play-by-play sheet credited Zug for the fumble; he, like Hayes, wears No. 5).
Hayes hates special-teams mistakes because he thinks, correctly, it's a poor reflection on the coaching staff that divides up the responsibilities.
"The unfair thing is unfortunately when we mess up, the coaches get the flak - [critics say] 'special teams isn't doing the job, coach Paterno needs a new special teams coach,''' Hayes said. "We preach it, but it's up to us to make it happen. It's definitely not the coaches' fault."
Even though he smiled that he may be the lone defensive end in the country who has returned kicks this year - "I'm proud to be the only one" - Hayes took the blame for the second-half kickoff and said he should have let Stephfon Green take it.
"I got a little ahead of myself and the guy made a great play and knocked the ball out," he said. "I have to do a better job with ball security."
Hayes said JoePa quickly addressed the special teams in Monday's film session after the Lions allowed Ohio State 130 punt return yards and gained none themselves.
"He was not happy," Hayes said. "He emphasized special teams, and the periods were a little bit longer this week. We did a great job covering today, but we did a sloppy job catching the ball and we have to correct it because Michigan State can make us pay for it."
A dejected Paterno tried to be philosophical - "you see some of the best teams fumble a couple times and then they go eight weeks without one" - but he heads to the regular-season finale knowing what was once a program strength contributed most significantly to both of the Lions' losses this year.
And that this could have been a much more special season.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.