Penn State aims to contain USC's Jackson in Rose Bowl
LOS ANGELES (AP) Penn State special teams coordinator Charles Huff goes to great lengths to prepare his players for any possible situation.
While nobody can fully prepare for Southern California star Adoree Jackson, Huff wants his Nittany Lions to have a chance in the Rose Bowl on Monday.
Huff created a list of scenarios for his special-teamers to review last summer, even including the ''Music City Miracle,'' and added to it during the season with any unusual or unexpected circumstance that might have happened around college football or in the NFL.
''All those things, we constantly try and educate our guys so they don't panic in those situations,'' Huff said.
Those lessons paid off during the regular season against Ohio State, and the No. 5 Nittany Lions hope it happens again in Pasadena against the No. 9 Trojans and another superb special teams unit that features Jackson, USC's versatile All-American and potent kick returner.
Penn State coach James Franklin said the main goal for his special teams was ''not allowing Adoree to wreck the game.''
Huff strives to avoid the apparent panic that hurt the Buckeyes while they held a 21-17 lead late in the fourth quarter on Oct. 22, unsure whether they wanted to go for it on fourth down or try a 45-yard field goal. Despite having a timeout, Ohio State rushed out their kicking team and Penn State responded with a season-defining play.
Safety Marcus Allen sprinted towards the line of scrimmage and vaulted into the air to block the kick, with the ball bouncing right into cornerback Grant Haley's hands. Haley returned it 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown. The result propelled Penn State to the Big Ten East division title and a spot in the conference title game six weeks later, thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker over Ohio State.
''It was one of those things that you feel like - I don't want to say once in a lifetime - everything worked out perfectly on that play, Marcus blocking the kick, the ball just kind of popping up in my hands,'' Haley said. ''During the play I was just trying to get to the end zone, not really taking in everything, but after watching it it was just truly amazing.''
But Allen nearly blocked a kick earlier in the game in identical fashion, off by just six inches, Huff said. The repetition of spending more than 45 minutes every day during a game week in special teams meetings, dedicated practice periods and walkthroughs started to pay off in that game and throughout this season.
It helped that Penn State was starting to replenish its depth that was depleted by NCAA-imposed scholarship reductions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, allowing starters like Allen and Haley to take on a larger role on special teams.
''When your starters or well-known players are involved and they buy in, the rest of the team buys in,'' Huff said. ''And that's makes it easier to teach, easier to motivate and obviously you make good plays. Anytime you get the ball in the hands of your good players good things happen.''
That is certainly the case for USC with Jackson. The junior cornerback who also dabbles on offense averaged 30.5 yards per kickoff return and 15.9 yards per punt return, ranking in the top six in the FBS in both categories. Jackson scored four special teams touchdowns, shredding Notre Dame for scores on a 55-yard punt return and a 97-yard kickoff return in the season finale.
Kicking the ball away from Jackson might seem like a reasonable countermeasure, but it's not nearly that simple.
''Directing a punt with distance, hang time and direction is a little tougher than people think,'' Huff said. ''It's kind of like shooting a bow and arrow. `Don't hit the bullseye right down the middle, hit it six inches to the left.'''
Instead, Penn State will rely on the work it has put in all year long to try and keep Jackson under wraps, whatever the situation.
''It goes back to the time and commitment,'' Huff said.
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