Two punts from two different punters characterized Jesse Della Valle’s day.
Della Valle is one of Penn State’s primary returners who also serves on punt coverage. Special teams dealt with its highs and lows Saturday as the punting game controlled the momentum in Penn State’s 39-28 win over Northwestern.
Della Valle’s highlight play came off the foot of his teammate, Alex Butterworth, on the first drive of the game. Penn State’s offense stalled at Northwestern’s 34-yard line, forcing Butterworth to punt on a short field. A touchback would have netted only 14 yards, but Della Valle smothered Butterworth’s punt at the 1-yard line.
“Field position is a big part of the game and that’s something that they teach to us, especially on the punt team,” Della Valle said. “When we’re trying to kill a punt inside the 10, just get down there and try to down the ball as best you can. It’s a lot of concentration.”
In the second quarter, Della Valle lined up deep to receive a punt from Northwestern’s Brandon Williams. Della Valle called for fair catch at Penn State’s 17-yard line, but muffed the football. The Wildcats recovered, and found the endzone a few plays later.
It was Penn State’s second special teams turnover of the season. Gerald Hodges fumbled a punt in the Lions’ first game against Ohio.
Della Valle hadn’t shown any signs of struggling to catch punts in previous games. Secondary coach John Butler, who also oversees special teams, said Penn State returners have probably caught 5,000 balls in practice since the Virginia game and about 200 each day.
“Jesse’s done a good job returning for us so far,” Butler said. “He just took his eyes off the ball.”
Della Valle said his teammates picked him up on the sidelines after the fumble, which turned out to be only the second-worst special teams blunder of the day.
In the third quarter, Butterworth’s 54-yard punt — his longest of the season — turned into his worst net in a matter of 13 seconds. Northwestern returner Venric Mark returned the punt 75 yards for a touchdown, evading players such as Michael Mauti, Mike Hull, Glenn Carson, Michael Zordich, Ben Kline, Della Valle and even Butterworth himself.
After the game, the junior punter said he outkicked his coverage.
“It’s such a special season that sometimes the pressure builds up a little bit more than you wanted it to,” Butterworth said.
Butler said the game plan was to avoid kicking to Mark, since the unit knew how fast he could run from watching film. On some of his punts, Butterworth employed a rugby-style type of kick where he received the snap, jogged a few steps to the side and booted it away from Mark.
“A rugby-style punt is good because when you roll out, it gives your guys more time to get downfield,” Butterworth said. “The purpose of the kick is to hit a low line drive that hits the ground, like my first one. It’s a risky punt because there’s not a lot of form to it. It’s just hit or miss.”
Butterworth’s punt to Mark on the touchdown return was traditional style. At eight yards away, Mauti was the closest man to Mark when he caught the ball. Mauti has been infamous among opposing punt returners for his convergent coverage this season, but eight yards of breathing room was more than enough for Mark to make his moves.
Even though the play put Northwestern up two possessions on Penn State heading into the fourth quarter, coach Bill O’Brien said his team wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.
The Lions’ offense responded by using more than 12 of the game’s final 15 minutes to amass 22 points for the victory.
“I didn't sense they were down [after the return],” O’Brien said. “I just felt there was a lull. Any time there's a special teams touchdown on any team I'm associated with, whether it was the New England Patriots or any team, there's always a big momentum change when the other team makes a big play on special teams.”
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