Penn State Turning Special Teams Around

STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 3: Chaz Powell #2 of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates his touchdown against the Indiana State Sycamores during the game on September 3, 2011 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

After a slow start, the Nittany Lions are finally getting contributions from their kicking and return games.

On an overcast day in Philadelphia, Penn State's special teams unit just about hit rock bottom.

Starting place kicker Evan Lewis missed two field goal attempts, backup kicker Sam Ficken had his attempt blocked and punter Anthony Fera saw one of his kicks deflected as well in the Nittany Lions' 14-10 win against Temple on Sept. 17. The missed field goals were the difference between a comfortable 13-point win and the final four-point margin, nevermind the points the Owls nearly scored off the good field goal position following the blocked punt that could have changed the game's outcome.

Needless to say, it was an ugly day, and coach Joe Paterno quickly implemented changes to remedy the struggles. Fera was named the starting kicker for the following week's game against Eastern Illinois, and since then, things have really turned around for the unit.

Fera responded by converting his only attempt against the Eagles before knocking three through the uprights against Indiana en route to a Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honor. He followed that up with two successful field goals against Iowa before making three again this past weekend against Purdue, and another Player of the Week award.

For the season, Fera is now 9/10 kicking field goals. He's also 8/8 on extra points and boasts a gaudy 43.8 yards per punt average in his jack-of-all-kicking trades role not seen in Happy Valley since Chris Bahr handled punting and kicking for the Lions back in 1975.

On Tuesday, Fera said he doesn't mind handling both duties.

"It's not too difficult," Fera said.  "I worked through it in high school and I'm pretty used to it, so it's not a big deal."

The junior was a three-star rated recruit coming out of Houston, Texas, and through he's dealt with some alcohol-related issues during his two years in State College, he's finally become the consistent kicking option many hoped he'd be when he arrived in 2009.

The success hasn't been limited to the kicking game, though. Penn State's returners have gotten in on the act lately as well.

Justin Brown broke a 33-yard punt return in the second half against Purdue that set up a key field goal, and cornerback Chaz Powell electrified the Beaver Stadium crowd in the fourth quarter with a 93-yard kickoff return following a Purdue touchdown that had made the score 20-18 Lions. Though an excessive celebration penalty brought that big return back 15 yards and eventually led to Penn State settling for a field goal rather than converting a gimme touchdown, it symbolized the progress the return game has made lately as well.

Overall, Paterno thinks the group has grown, though he challenged it to do even more in the weeks to come after the game on Saturday.

"We've improved," Paterno said. "Fera is getting better. We still have a ways to go but we're getting a little better there." 

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