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Penn State denies big plays on special teams but must cut down on penalties

The Nittany Lions have seen a big improvement in punt coverage in 2019.

Penn State's Dan Chisena (88) celebrates after bringing down Michigan's Donovan Peoples-Jones on a punt return in the second quarter on Oct. 19, 2019.
Penn State's Dan Chisena (88) celebrates after bringing down Michigan's Donovan Peoples-Jones on a punt return in the second quarter on Oct. 19, 2019.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Speedy Michigan punt returner Donovan Peoples-Jones caught Blake Gillikin’s punt while backpedaling inside his own 10-yard line.

Once he caught the ball, he turned left and headed toward the Michigan sideline.

But, as he tried to turn up field, he was quickly wrapped to the ground by one of Penn State’s own speedy wide receivers — former walk-on and sprinter Dan Chisena.

It was one of five punt return opportunities Peoples-Jones had during the Nittany Lions’ 28-21 win over the Wolverines. Peoples-Jones, who averages nearly 7 yards per punt return this season and has already returned two for touchdowns in his career, totaled just 12 return yards on Saturday night.

Special teams coach Joe Lorig’s "motto is just change the game,” Chisena said Tuesday. “There’s no small role on special teams. Special teams is a huge part of every game, and it’s a huge part of our team. And there are guys that make plays every week, and guys take pride in being on those units and willing to make an impact even though it might go overlooked in small moments.”

Lorig’s unit certainly has changed games so far this season. The Nittany Lions are allowing an average of just 2.67 yards per punt return through seven games as opposed to the nearly 9 yards per return they allowed on average last season.

“I’m happy with our coverage,” Lorig, who is in his first season at Penn State, said earlier this month. “We haven’t given up any big returns, [and] we’ve faced a couple of really good returners.”

“What we have done this year, probably better than years past, is we haven’t had any of the catastrophic plays,” head coach James Franklin said. “The kickoff return for a touchdown. The punt return for a touchdown. The explosive return that swings momentum and field position.”

According to Chisena, one of the team’s biggest special teams contributors, there’s been a buy-in from the unit as a whole this season that has made a huge difference.

“It gets overlooked sometimes, but like I said, I think a lot of guys on those units, they take a lot of pride and a lot of guys have found roles on their units who don’t get the offensive and defensive reps that they necessarily hope for. And it’s great to have guys who take a lot of pride in that and then want to be a part of that,” Chisena said.

Playing on special teams, especially as a gunner on punt coverage, has allowed Chisena to return to his track and field roots. He was a sprinter in high school and for a brief time at Penn State.

“It’s just a great opportunity to try and do your part on the team,” Chisena said of special teams play. “It’s just a role that I’ve tried to embrace and take a lot of pride in.”

Even though the Nittany Lions’ coverage unit has seen an improvement in 2019, there is still room to grow on the flip side. KJ Hamler’s kickoff return for a touchdown that was called back due to a holding penalty against Michigan is a perfect representation of that.

“I think the biggest thing we have to do is eliminate the penalties on special teams,” Franklin said. “We’ve had too many penalties on special teams. Obviously the penalty on Saturday. We had a kickoff return for a touchdown on a double-team. You don’t need to hold on a double-team. We didn’t have the guy blocked anyway. Wasn’t going to make the tackle. We’ve just got to be smart because those penalties are impactful.”