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September 26, 2011

Special teams take step forward

Many aspects of Penn State's game improved on Saturday, but perhaps the most unnoticed, and critical, was that of the kicking game.

After losing standout starting kickers Kevin Kelly, Jeremy Boone and Collin Wagner the past three seasons, this season's kicking game was a big question mark on Penn State's depth chart. The highly recruited Anthony Fera showed definite promise in his first season with the Nittany Lions, handling kickoffs and punts over senior Wagner. However, his off-field troubles have landed him Joe Paterno's doghouse more than once in his short career.

With Fera suspended by Paterno for the first game of the 2011 season, red-shirt senior Evan Lewis, who was previously listed as a wide receiver, sophomore Alex Butterworth and true freshman Sam Ficken were forced to step up in Fera's absence.

In the Nittany Lions' season opener against Indiana State, Butterworth averaged just 38 yards per punt, and Lewis missed two field goals. It wasn't a stretch to say that Fera, who recorded Penn State's fourth longest all-time punt of 74 yards the season prior, was desperately missed.

Paterno made an executive decision to allow Fera back on the field for next week's matchup against Alabama. He handled three punts, averaging 47 yards, and also kicked both kickoffs.

There still seemed to be something missing though, as it was consistently unknown which kicker would be heading out for the various kicking duties.

That changed this week against Eastern Michigan.

Fera and Ficken were the only kickers to participate against the Eagles, with Ficken handling only the final two kickoffs and final field goal attempt late in the third and fourth quarters.

Paterno switched it up, allowing Fera and Ficken to make their first career field goal attempts. Both kickers connected, from 29 and 43 yards, respectively.

Fera became the first Nittany Lion since Chris Bahr in 1975 to be the starting punter and placekicker in a game. He also became the first Nittany Lion since Wagner in 2009 to kick off, punt and make a field goal. Fera's stats were much improved as well. The red-shirt sophomore averaged 52 yards per punt and had a long boot of 57 yards. His previous longest punt was 55 yards at Temple last week.

"We've just got to keep plugging away and try to get those kids a little bit more confidence in themselves," Paterno said. "We spent an awful lot of time on the kicking game this past week. We still weren't where I'd like us to be, but I thought we were better. They've got to learn to concentrate a little bit more. I thought they had a good week at practice and I'm hopeful they're going to continue to get a bit better each week."

Penn State heads to Indiana next week to begin Big Ten play. With offensive play beginning to fall into place, there's hope that there won't be as much pressure on the kicking game. It's still a tossup as to exactly who will be handling what, but both Fera and Ficken showed much-needed improvement for Penn State's special teams.

"Anthony did a great job kicking for us today," quarterback Matt McGloin said. "And Ficken stepped up today and made some nice kicks too. I think we're coming along there with the kicking game and we should be alright."



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