ORLANDO, Fla. - Mistakes in the kicking game can be as destructive to a football team as an infestation of termites on a wooden house.
Penn State's two losses during its 10-2 regular season included two long punt returns by Ray Small that helped Ohio State to a 23-7 victory, and a blocked punt for a touchdown as Iowa rallied in the second half to win, 21-10.
On Friday, the Nittany Lions' special teams face perhaps their most daunting challenge yet. LSU has two terrific punt returners - tiny speedster Trindon Holliday (5-5, 161), who had an 87-yard return for a touchdown this season, and not-so-tiny Chad Jones (6-3, 231), who reeled off a 93-yarder for a TD. The Tigers also appear to have a significant edge with placekicker Josh Jasper, who nailed 16 of 19 field goals and converted all 32 extra-point attempts. Penn State's Collin Wagner was 11-for-18 on field goal tries, but hit on all 45 of his PAT.
For the season, LSU returned 41 kickoffs for 765 yards (an 18.7-yard average) and 25 punts for 466 yards (18.6), compared with Penn State's 34 for 651 (19.1) and 26 for 127 (4.9), respectively.
"I've never gone over special teams as much as we have this past week," said Penn State senior defensive end Jerome Hayes, who also is on the kickoff-return unit.
Many of LSU's opponents simply choose to punt out of bounds rather than risk a long return by Holliday or Jones, but Hayes said the Lions won't do that.
"They have some tremendous athletes returning punts and kickoffs, but we're going in there with the idea we can hold them down," Hayes said.
"We just have to be fundamentally sound and stay in our lanes. If we don't, they'll break one on us."
Hayes, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in 2007 and left knee in 2008, graduated in May with a journalism degree and said he is "50-50" as to whether he'll return for a fifth season in 2010.
Two members of the Penn State squad - redshirt defensive tackles Brandon Ware and James Terry - did not make the trip because of what university spokesman Jeff Nelson described as an unspecified "violation of team rules." The 6-3, 341-pound Ware has not played this season, but Terry, from New Castle, Del., played in five of the first six games, registering two tackles and a sack . . . Walk-on running back Kevin Kowalishem tore his right anterior cruciate ligament during workouts in Daytona Beach last week . . . Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Chaz Powell, who missed most or all of Penn State's last two regular-season games with a sprained shoulder, is healthy again, which could mean reduced playing time for true freshman Curtis Drake. "I'm good. I'm 100 percent," Powell said . . .
LSU starting center, T-Bob Hebert, is the son of former USFL and New Orleans Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert . . . Don't be misled by the 35 sacks of LSU quarterbacks this season. After the Tigers had an almost-unimaginable seven passes intercepted and returned for touchdowns in 2008 (when Jarrett Lee, now the backup, was the primary passer), sophomore Jordan Jefferson has been inclined to protect the ball - sometimes too much so - rather than attempt risky throws. "I think he holds on to the ball too long sometimes, waiting for people to get open, but he does have good scrambling ability," Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. *