Nick Sukay was the wrong player in the wrong place doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Or, the exact opposite of the winning philosophy that Joe Paterno speaks of frequently.
Penn State's special teams play was awful last season, with Paterno himself calling it "the worst year we've ever had."
"We'll get better," he vowed this past week at Big Ten media days in Chicago.
They simply have to this season because, if for no other reason, they can't get any worse.
The most glaring special teams gaffe of 2009 occurred with 12:31 left in the game against Iowa. The Nittany Lions led, 10-5, and were punting from the Hawkeye 47-yard line.
LINING UP WITH THE LIONS
Cory Giger's position breakdown of the Penn State football team this fall:
Starters: Sr. PK Collin Wagner; R-Fr. P Anthony Fera; Jr. KR Chaz Powell; Jr. KR Stephfon Green; So. PR Justin Brown
Backups: R-Fr. PK Anthony Fera; So. P Russell Nye; Sr. PR Graham Zug
2009 stats: Wagner was 15-of-22 on FGs with a long of 47; he was 11-of-12 inside 30 yards but just 3-of-5 from 30-39 and 1-of-5 beyond 40; he made all 46 PATs; Powell returned 16 kicks for 371 yards (23.2 average) and a long of 54; Green returned four kicks for 102 yards (25.5); Brown returned seven punts for 41 yards (5.9) and a long of 20; Zug returned eight punts for 26 yards (3.2).
Big shoe to fill: The Lions must replace three-year starting P Jeremy Boone, who averaged 43 yards for his career. Ryan Breen was in line to take over the job, but he unexpectedly quit the team in the spring. Fera found himself in Joe Paterno's doghouse for an alcohol-related offense in April, but he must be back in good graces since he's listed first on the preseason depth chart. Paterno expressed concerns that the redshirt freshman has never punted in a game and said he's actually further along as a place-kicker than punter.
Capital gains: Wagner didn't have a great 2009 season but was 4-for-4 in the Capital One Bowl win over LSU. They were all chip-shot distances (26, 21, 20 and 18), but Wagner did a good job given the awful playing surface. "It gave me a sense of confidence going into the offseason," Wagner said. The kicker concentrated on one key thing during the offseason. "I really went into this winter trying to get my leg strength up with the leg exercises that we do, which are leg press, leg curl, squats, but the main one was leg press. That's all hamstrings and glutes, so that really gets you stronger. I've been out kicking by myself, and I've been doing pretty well from 55, so I'm hoping I can extend my range out to low 50s."
Happy returns: Brown gives the Lions an exciting punt return option, which they didn't have last season. As long as he can hang on to the ball -- JoePa cares much more about that than anything -- he could be fun to watch. Powell and Green provide two outstanding options returning kicks.
Best-case scenario: Wagner gains accuracy from longer distances, Fera's big leg helps him top 40 yards per punt and the kickoff and punt protection units don't get burned.
Worst-case scenario: Last year was the worst-case scenario, with special teams collapses leading directly to the only two losses. Things can only improve.
The bottom line: As the headline on Page C1 points out, PSU needs to rethink its entire special teams approach.
Iowa lined up stud defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a 6-foot-3, 290-pounder who likely will be a first-round NFL draft pick next year. The Lions, playing what Paterno called a "punt safe" formation because they didn't expect a block attempt, had Sukay standing a couple of feet back from the left end trying to block Clayborn.
To say that the 6-1, 213-pound Sukay was no match for Clayborn is an understatement. There's a telling video on YouTube -- search for "Adrian Clayborn 53 yard punt block return" -- that shows the defender in a bull rush, starting from about five feet away, and running full steam at Sukay.
Clayborn crashed into and immediately bounced off the PSU safety on his way to blocking Jeremy Boone's punt. He scooped up the ball then returned it for a touchdown and 11-10 lead, and with the energy sucked out of the Lions and Beaver Stadium, the Hawkeyes went on to win, 21-10.
The block wasn't Sukay's fault. It was the coaches' fault for putting a player in that position when he had little chance to succeed at the task given to him.
Then there was the Ohio State game.
Ray Small returned Boone's first punt 41 yards to the PSU 9 -- it was a low kick, so coverage wasn't there in time -- and two plays later the Buckeyes took an early 7-0 lead on Terrelle Pryor's TD. Small also had a 45-yard punt return in the third quarter, and Graham Zug muffed a punt to complete PSU's "un"special trifecta.
One other thing that gets infuriating to watch: Stop fair catching every punt!
It's like the coaching staff has given up on that aspect of football, deeming it irrelevant. It's been that way for several years, but last season was downright embarrassing.
The Lions finished the season with a total -- yes, total -- of 144 punt return yards in 13 games. Small had nearly that many against PSU alone, busting loose for 130.
Many teams split up special teams duties among assistant coaches the way Penn State does, but the major difference is other teams often have one coach who coordinates everything.
"A lot of people do it that way, but we don't have one guy," Paterno said. "We try to work it out as a staff," he added.
Every coach wants the best possible players on his special teams unit, and Paterno admitted, "We fight over personnel."
"We're always going to get the best players available, but it depends on what else they're going to do," he added.
The issue comes when a few starters are on so many special teams units.
"You get in the middle of the fourth quarter, you've got a tired kid on your hands," JoePa said.
Paterno still has final say over every personnel decision, and if he sees a player or two is getting overused, he said he will tell a special teams coach, "You've got to give up one or two guys."
It's debatable whether having one coach in charge of everything would help special teams. Paterno is so old school and conservative that, if he doesn't feel like he has the right personnel, he's not going to let players take chances anyway.
He gave Derrick Williams freedom returning punts two years ago, but he didn't let Zug or Drew Astorino take off and run the ball last season for fear of fumbling, so they would fair catch all the time.
One thing that's not debatable is, no matter what they do with the coaches, the Lions need to place more emphasis on special teams and getting the right players in the right spots. Penn State went 11-2 last year, and both losses were a direct result of lousy special teams play.
For all the things Paterno has adjusted well to late in his career -- like going to the shotgun, opening up the offense and delegating more -- when it comes to special teams, he still believes the more conservative the better.
Meanwhile, other high-profile programs are putting their best athletes in key spots and turning them loose, hoping to hit home runs.
Until Penn State finally adopts that type of aggressive philosophy, it will continue to enter many games facing a big disadvantage on special teams.
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. He can be reached at 949-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.