UNIVERSITY PARK - Even at just 21 yards, trying to kick a game-winning field goal on the brown and green glop that was the Capital One Bowl grass surface was no gimme.
But Collin Wagner connected on that try, and Penn State held off one last drive for a 19-17 victory and a good feeling to end the 2009 season on that wet New Year's Day in Orlando.
The play also gave Wagner some confidence as he searches for that all-important consistency in the kicking game. Wagner hit on all four field goals that day to finish his junior season 15-for-22 with a long of 47 yards.
"In those field conditions, knowing you can be in that situation and come through helps a lot," said Wagner.
Wagner enters his final year as perhaps the Nittany Lions' most reliable special teams option, which says as much about his lone year learning as a starter as it does the state of the Nittany Lions' unit.
The punting spot is an open contest to replace Jeremy Boone, who graduated as one of the team's best as he averaged 43.3 yards per kick last year and pinned 21 of his 53 punts inside the 20-yard line.
Problems arose, however, on the 32 punts that were returned, as the Nittany Lions ranked 117th nationally in punt coverage, allowing an average return of 15.40 yards and a blocked return for a touchdown by Iowa's Adrian Clayborn in a 21-10 loss to the Hawkeyes.
The rest of Penn State's special teams units fared little better, as the punt return team averaged just 4.97 yards per return, 106th nationally, and the kickoff return team averaged 19.18 yards, 107th nationally. The kickoff coverage unit fared better, allowing 21.78 yards per return, 64th, in the nation.
Penn State does not have a dedicated special teams coach, instead relying on assistants to perform specific oversights as side duties.
Jamie Van Fleet, a walk-on linebacker from Loyalsock who played on the kickoff coverage unit last year, said it can take younger players on units awhile to get their bearings.
"It was kind of a weird feeling, looking out in the crowd. You can't take in how many people are there," said Van Fleet. "It becomes one big blur of people vs. seeing 110,000 fans. It looks bigger here and yeah, it's definitely a big thing."
Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green entered the preseason atop the kickoff return depth chart. Justin Brown and Graham Zug were atop the punt return depth chart.
The punting battle was between Anthony Fera and true freshmen walk-ons Alex Butterworth and A.J. Firestone. Potential starter Ryan Breen left the team in the offseason for personal reasons.
Fera, considered a favorite, was a top-rated kicker in high school in Cypress, Texas, but willing to punt to get on the field. He was also cited for possession of alcohol by a minor in the spring, which cost him his spring practice and considered living it down part of the maturation process.
When asked what he learned most from Boone, Fera answered, "Walk straight."
Fera also said he worked out on his own to show his commitment.
"I've always been able to hit 60-yard punts, but they're looking for hang time," said Fera. "That's the thing."
Joe Paterno hoped preseason practice would identify a solid, if unspectacular, replacement r Boone. Asking him about it drew a long sigh at media day.
"We're going to have a punter, but you never know until he goes out there and punts before a lot of people," said Paterno. "The three kids all have good legs. They're a little erratic right now. We may have a decent punter, maybe not a great one, but maybe a better one."
Wagner has never had Fera's off-field issues, but can certainly empathize with the on-field maturation Van Fleet felt and Fera may soon encounter. He missed 2 of 3 field goals in last year's opener vs. Akron
"The first 3-4 games I was really nervous and tense," said Wagner. "After that I kind of settled down a little."