Special teams anything but for Lions
UNIVERSITY PARK - Special teams continue to be Penn State's biggest weakness, but the Nittany Lions found a way to win in spite of them Saturday.
Punt returner Jesse Della Valle fumbled a kick deep in his own territory late in the first half, and Northwestern recovered at the PSU 17 to set up a TD that cut the Lions' lead to 10-7.
Della Valle has impressed coach Bill O'Brien with his reliability catching punts and kickoffs, but that mistake was costly.
"I'm just lucky that my teammates had my back and we came out with a win," Della Valle said.
"Jesse's done a great job," O'Brien said. "He was fair catching it, and he looked up with the fair catch signal and then looked down. He didn't concentrate on the ball. ... He made a mistake. He'd be the first one to tell you that."
Penn State later had a major breakdown on special teams when Northwestern's Venric Mark returned a punt 75 yards for a score. That gave the Wildcats a 28-17 lead with 50 seconds left in the third quarter, and at the time it appeared it might have provided an insurmountable lead. Mark also had an 82-yard punt return for a TD earlier this season against Syracuse.
"It looked like I outkicked my coverage a little bit," Alex Butterworth said of his 54-yard punt that was returned for the TD. "And then, as far as I could tell, [Mark] just went to the other side of the field, and we got too far upfield, and he got us on the break."
The Lions made another return mistake when Evan Lewis did not catch a 64-yard punt that rolled for 15 yards to pin PSU at its 15 in the fourth quarter. The offense made up for that mistake by marching 85 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
Special teams have long been a sore spot for Penn State, but that was supposed to change this season with O'Brien having secondary coach John Butler oversee all the units. At the midway point, the kicking game already has cost PSU one game (against Virginia) and nearly cost another Saturday.
Butterworth did have a punt that pinned Northwestern at its own 1 early in the game, while Sam Ficken made a 21-yard field goal and converted all four of his PATs. Ficken's best kick of the day, though, came on the second-half kickoff as he boomed one through the end zone that hit the crossbar and bounced through the uprights. Too bad they don't give points for that.
Pass interference angers O'Brien
O'Brien was livid about a pass interference call on cornerback Stephon Morris that allowed Northwestern to convert a key third down on a drive that resulted in a TD and 14-10 lead late in the first half.
Morris appeared to make a clean play on a third-and-6 pass from Trevor Siemian to Rashad Lawrence from the Wildcat 38. Morris was flagged, however, and a couple of plays later the cornerback went down on the field with an injury.
During the stoppage in play, O'Brien came over to check on Morris and was screaming at the official. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald appeared to want a flag thrown on O'Brien, who then seemed to say something to Fitzgerald.
O'Brien denied all of it after the game.
"No, I didn't yell at Pat Fitzgerald," the coach said. "I was yelling at myself. I was mad at myself."
How about some rematches?
Penn State has won four in a row and really could be 6-0, but they let a second-half lead slip away against Ohio and had all kinds of kicking problems in a loss to Virginia. Would the players like to face off against those two teams again?
"I would love to," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "But they beat us, and I'll have to live with that for the rest of my life. But I'd definitely like to play them again just to be like, hey, we're a different team than we were when you guys played us."
It's good bye time
The Lions now get a week off before heading to Iowa, then will close the season by playing for six consecutive weeks.
"The bye week is huge for us, especially because it's right in the middle of the season," Hill said. "A lot of teams might have it in the first two weeks, first three weeks; that really doesn't do much. We have it right here smack in the middle, that's big for us. We get a couple days off to just relax, and all the bumps and bruises will go away."
The team will be off today, then practice Monday through Wednesday. They won't be long practices or a "bloodbath," as O'Brien said, and how the team looks in those three practices will determine the schedule for the rest of the week.
Winning Saturday made the upcoming bye week even better.
"It's definitely a lot better because you don't want to go into a bye with two weeks knowing you just lost a game," center Matt Stankiewitch said. "You want to go in there with a great feeling like we [got] today."
The assistant coaches will use the bye week to hit the road recruiting.
"We're going to go out and see games and see kids and basically spread the message, 'Where would you rather play college football than here?'" Butler said. "Anybody that says anything otherwise has never been to a game here."
News and notes
PSU's game captains were DE Pete Massaro, WR Evan Lewis and DE Brian Irvin. ... Massaro (shoulder) returned from an injury to play. ... RB Bill Belton started but had only four carries for 12 yards before giving way to Zach Zwinak. He's had an ankle problem this season but wasn't injured Saturday. ... The Lions made it through the game with no injuries. ... Despite O'Brien's pleas for the students to be in the stands by kickoff, the student section was only about half full at the start of the game. ... Line judge Michael T. Mahouski suffered an undisclosed injury after a collision on the sideline and was carted off the field. He was replaced by an alternate. There was no word on his status after the game. ... The crowd was listed at 95,769 - well short of a sellout on homecoming - and actually was closer to 80-85,000.