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Special Teams, Defense Lift Nittany Lions

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State head coach James Franklin made no major mystery of the game plan last week in his Tuesday press conference.

Naming Quadree Henderson a potential Pittsburgh game-wrecker, the Nittany Lions had seemingly no trouble neutralizing the All-American returner from what could have been a game-wrecking afternoon. 

From kickoff to the moment the clock hit 0:00 on the scoreboard, Penn State's special teams unit refused to step off its proverbial gas pedal, powering the Nittany Lions to a ninth consecutive win at home in Beaver Stadium.

Pinning the Panthers at the 2-yard line on the opening kickoff, Tyler Davis set the tone early as the Nittany Lions swarmed Henderson at the 19-yard line.

Alongside Penn State's standout special teams display though, the Nittany Lion defense also put on a gusty showing, proved no sooner than the first five minutes as corner back Grant Haley picked off Pittsburgh quarterback Matt Browne, looking for Henderson, before weaving 42 yards to put the Penn State offense in prime position to do what it does best.

"It was kind of funny, I was late to the coverage we called, I was kind of late to break on that ball and kind of slipped on my break but the receiver stopped running for the ball and it just kind of slipped into my hands," Haley said. "It was awesome out there seeing all the other 10 guys out there trying to block for me and big man up front on the other side got my foot and stopped me around the 10-yard line."

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley quickly found tight end Mike Gesicki wide open in the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown grab, the first of two for Gesicki in the opening half.

On the next Penn State drive, punter Blake Gillikin pinned Pittsburgh inside the 20-yard line, before Haley came through once again, with his first career sack on third-and-9 forcing a Panther punt, which DeAndre Thompkins fearlessly raced 16 yards on the return.

Even as Pittsburgh devoured the clock, Penn State's defense battled on, holding the Panthers to just a pair of field goals, with the Nittany Lions leading 28-6 following a pair of Saquon Barkley touchdowns, including a career long 46-yard touchdown reception.

"I think at the point in the game where those (field goals) happened, it was a big deal," linebacker Jason Cabinda said. "It was huge and it was really good for our momentum."

Without surrendering a Pittsburgh touchdown until nearly the midpoint of the fourth quarter, Penn State's defense piled up three of its five total sacks, with defensive end Shareef Miller accounting for two up front. 

Pittsburgh moved only as close as 14, while Penn State proved potent in the field position battle.

"Special teams, a lot of people don't understand that we have the ability to change the game," safety Nick Scott said. "Blake [Gillikin] is obviously very talented and he has been doing a great job since he got here, so we take a lot of pride in having influential plays in the game."

Gillikin placed a career-high four punts inside the 20-yard line against the Panthers, something that's only a testament to hard work he puts often when nobody is looking. 

"He's a huge asset, with his talent, he's always working on punting," Scott said. "Not just in practice, but you'll arrive early or leave late and you'll always see Blake on the field working. Same with Tyler Davis." 

For Franklin, Penn State's special teams are tracking in just the right direction, a byproduct of a significant commitment to improvement that Franklin has referenced often this season.

"We've got a two-deep on our kickoff team and our punt team right now that can run down the field and beat blocks and make plays," Franklin said. "I think obviously, you guys know how happy we were with Blake Gillikin last year, but now the combination of Blake Gillikin with our coverage team, with Tyler Davis and our coverage teams, that I think we have a chance to be really good. We've now solved the problem on punt return. We've got an explosive punt returner that people are excited now to watch and it goes hand-in-hand with how we're blocking." 

On the other side of things, as crucial as the Nittany Lion defense proved to be, there's no denying that there's still room for improvement with next weekend's Georgia State matchup now on the horizon. 

"Our defense was on the field probably too long and that's a combination of us not sustaining drives on offense but also our defense not creating enough three and outs," Franklin said.

While it may not have been perfect, Penn State's shining special teams coupled with a resilient defense gave just enough for the explosive Nittany Lion offense to do just what it needed to do to pull out a win in front of Beaver Stadium's seventh-largest crowd in history.

For Barkley though, reflecting on success in all three phrases is simply a beautiful sight to recall, like a musical, as he calls it with a laugh. 

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