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Special teams play could decide the outcome of the Penn State-Ohio State rematch

Neither top-ranked teams’ special teams have fared well this season.

Ohio State v Rutgers Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

It was a little over a year ago that Penn State stunned then-No. 2 ranked Ohio State 24-21 in Happy Valley.

While the outcome itself came as a shocker, it was how the Nittany Lions pulled off the upset that really opened eyes.

After getting outplayed for most of the night, PSU blocked Tyler Durbin’s 45-yard field goal attempt and returned it 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Communication issues between the field goal unit and the coaching staff were primarily to blame.

We could see more of the same struggles when the two Big Ten rivals square off on Saturday.

The Buckeyes have overcome various problems on special teams in recent seasons. It was the field goal unit in 2016 and this year, it’s the kickoff group.

I’ll let our own Geoff Hamersley take it away.

“However, a pattern of miscues has cropped up with Ohio State’s special teams unit. Almost like clockwork, a kick gets sent out of the playing field every game. On the opening kick against Nebraska, Blake Haubeil sent the ball out of play. The second kickoff landed at the Cornhuskers’ 33, and was fair caught.

I’ll repeat that again: the kickoff was fair caught at the 33. (For those doing the math, that means the kickoff went roughly 32 yards, which is not good.) Granted, there was some wind in Lincoln, and that may have played a supporting role for why the kickoffs weren’t traveling deep. But three kickoffs reached the end zone on the night, and two of them ended up being touchbacks. There’s a consistency problem with the kicking unit, which is bizarre.”

This is probably the last thing you’d think a team like OSU would be dealing with midway through the college football season.

But here we are.

Heisman Trophy frontrunner Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders have been PSU’s main kickoff returners, but Barkley is the one to watch for. He’s already scored a touchdown on a kick return and is averaging 30.3 yards per return.

And considering his track record versus the Buckeyes, it’s easy to imagine him taking another one the distance.

On the flip side are the Nittany Lions, who have their own nagging special teams quandaries.

Coming off a season in which he didn’t miss any field goals, kicker Tyler Davis is 6-of-13 on field goal tries this year. He isn’t solely to blame, though, as special teams coordinator Charles Huff explains to PennLive.

“Obviously from the outside eye, it's a struggle,” Huff said. “But internally, I see him at about the same spot he was at last year. Now you say, 'Well, he didn't miss any kicks last year.' OK, well he didn't miss any kicks, but you consider replacing the snapper, the holder and eliminate the blocked kicks, he's missed three on his own. Well I've seen him miss eight in practice before.”

Regardless if it’s been the kicking, protection by the line, or their new snapper and holder, PSU’s field goal unit is obviously concerning.

Facing one of best defenses in the country means Davis and Co. will likely have a few field goal opportunities. Failing to convert on one or more tries on the road would be problematic for the Nittany Lions, to say the least.

In any case, two potential playoff teams with essentially everything to lose at this point in the season will have to rely on unreliable special teams units to help win the day.

I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.