The ball was snapped way over Blake Gillikin’s head.
Penn State was trailing by 12 points against Ohio State and the freshman punter found himself in a dead sprint after the football that had settled in his own end zone. Gillikin dove on the ball before a Buckeye could secure what would have been likely the put-away touchdown.
Instead, it was a safety and Gillikin, still sitting down in the north end zone, flipped the ball to his left in frustration. But a quarter and a half later, all of that frustration was gone.
Penn State overcame that 21-7 deficit and upset then-No. 2 Ohio State for the team’s signature win under James Franklin. Now that the Nittany Lions have maintained their place in and around the top 10 over the last three years, it’s easy to look back on that game as the one that jump-started this recent run.
But that win in October 2016 doesn’t happen if Gillikin doesn’t salvage a safety out of that botched special-teams play.
“It’s funny to think about how such a big play could give the other team two points,” Gillikin said in August, reflecting on the game. “That was a long time ago, but I still think about that play. If you watch the video, I almost get caught from behind.”
He’s right – he nearly got beaten to the ball by Terry McLaurin, current rookie wide receiver for the Washington Redskins. But Gillikin is no ordinary punter, according to Franklin.
“We don't believe in recruiting kickers,” Franklin said a few days after the upset win. “We believe in recruiting athletes who happen to kick and that's what he is.”
But what Gillikin has also been for the Penn State program is a stabilizing force.
When he arrived on campus as a freshman in 2016, he knew what he was walking into. The Nittany Lions special teams were affected the most by the sanctions handed down by the NCAA in 2012. When scholarships are limited, it’s natural for special teams to suffer first.
In the years leading up to Gillikin’s arrival, Penn State had one of the least-efficient special-teams units in the nation, ranking 110th in 2012, 105th in 2013, and 81st in 2014, according to Football Outsiders.
What Franklin and his staff needed was someone who could come in and provide an immediate boost. That’s exactly what Gillikin was.
“They brought me in here to start right away,” Gillikin said. “That’s the mentality I came in here with. I think anyone that doesn’t come here thinking that is selling themselves short. You’re brought to a place like Penn State to contribute.”
But Gillikin’s goal was never to be a special-teams saver. He just wanted to help his team win football games. Plays like the one he made against Ohio State provide tangible evidence of that. But there also are times when Gillikin’s impact has gone unnoticed. That hasn’t happened too often this season, however, as he has earned special-teams player of the week honors twice this fall, once for his outstanding performance against Iowa and once following the sloppy road win at Michigan State.
“My goal every day is to help our defense be successful and help this team win football games,” Gillikin said. “If I look back and can say I’ve done that, that’s a successful career for me. Stats don’t mean anything to me. I could care less about being the all-time leading punter here.”
Still, even if Gillikin doesn’t care about them, the statistics are impressive. His career punt average will likely finish in the top three in program history and he already produced the best punting season in school history in 2018.
Gillikin is going to walk through the tunnel at Beaver Stadium for the final time on Saturday. It’s hard to quantify just how important he has been to the program over the years, but the fact that it’s all coming to an end has crept into the back of Gillikin’s mind in recent weeks.
Whether he does get a shot at the NFL or goes straight to medical school in hopes of living out his dream as a surgeon, there won’t be any regrets about his time in Happy Valley.
“[Saturday’s] going to be tough,” Gillikin said. “But I know I’ve really maximized my four years. It’s more of a reflection than a feeling of disappointment.”