I’m trying something a bit different this week, and hopefully, most of you read my weekly preview in either the Times-Tribune, Citizens Voice or another Times Shamrock newspaper, so you’ll understand where I’m coming with this. But, every week, I go in depth for the print edition on the one area I think can make the biggest difference in the upcoming game. This week, I broke down the kicking games for both teams, especially when it comes to the field position battle, which can be especially crucial if the weather forecast for rain at Ohio Stadium holds true.

I asked coach James Franklin at his press conference this week about the importance of field position for his team, which has actually become dominant in this regard. It has consistently won those battles over the last year, and when you do that, teams are having to gain an extra first down or two per drive if they want to score a touchdown. It’s not exciting stuff statistically, but it wins football games, and Franklin tended to agree that it isn’t getting enough publicity.

“It’s something that we tried to emphasize as much as we possibly could, and we’ve got really good team speed right now,” Franklin said of his coverage teams. “We’ve got a punter (Blake Gillikin) that does a great job in the three things that we ask him to do, which is hang time, which is distance, and which is location. Right now he’s doing really good job in all three of those, which isn’t easy to do.
“Then we’ve got guys that are taking a lot of pride in their role in terms of covering kicks and it’s the same thing on kick off. Tyler (Davis) has been excellent in kickoff. I know there’s been talk about we have missed a few field goals or had a few field goals blocked but he’s been excellent in kickoff and I think before the end of the season he’ll be viewed the same way on field goals.”

For the purpose of this exercise, let’s focus a bit more on Davis and the role kickoffs can play.

Gillikin has been a great punter for Penn State, and Ohio State’s Drue Chrisman has been really good, too. He’s averaging 42.6 yards per punt this season, and if Penn State’s DeAndre Thompkins gets a chance to return one this weekend, he might want to keep the ball. Amazingly, not one of Chrisman’s 20 punts have been returned this season. Not one!

There are some outside factors that affect punts, though. Punters can kick the ball out of bounds, and sometimes, it’s good strategy to do so. Punters can kick the ball higher to avoid returns, or kick them lower to invite them. They can spin the ball to get it to bounce away from returners. They can pooch kick or go rugby style or…you get the point.

Kickoff guys can’t. They can angle the ball one way or another, or get a bit more hangtime. But typically, a guy like Davis’ best play is to just kick the ball as far as he can and hope it’s deep enough to discourage a return. Do that every time, and opponents will start every one of their drives at their own 25-yard line. That’s acceptable field position for the defense.

So, does Davis do a good job discouraging enough returns — or, at least, encouraging returns into the best of his coverage — that he becomes a weapon in the field position game.

Let’s look at it statistically:

Penn State Opponent Avg. start, after KO Drives started > 30 Touchbacks
Akron 24.6 1 of 9 4
Pittsburgh 24.3 1 of 6 3
Georgia State 24.4 1 of 9 6
Iowa 24.0 1 of 4 1
Indiana 23.5 0 of 8 6
Northwestern 23.2 0 of 6 3
Michigan 25.9 1 of 7 2

That’s…pretty good. Penn State has only allowed a kickoff to get returned past the 30 once in the last three games. And, really, it has allowed just two all season. Three of the five opposing drives that started past the 30 began at the 35, because the kickoff went out of bounds. And two of those three times, backup kicker Alex Barbir was doing the kicking, in garbage time.

In all, when the ball is kicked off by Penn State, opponents are averaging a start at the 24.3-yard line, just 10 percent of drives are starting past the 30, and 51.1 percent of the kickoffs (and 56.8 percent for Davis) are going for touchbacks.

Davis’ kickoffs are traveling, on average, 63.9 yards in the air. Again, that’s a number skewed, perhaps, by the fact that his coaches might be asking him to keep some kicks out of the end zone. But, it’s still a good number.

And, keep in mind, nobody would argue Tyler Davis is the strongest-legged kickoff man in the nation.

OK, we can infer this from that data:

  • Davis has been consistent.
  • He can get some touchbacks when he needs them.
  • His teammates have been really good on coverage when he has not secured the touchback.

Now, let’s look at the same data for Ohio State’s kickoff men, freshman Blake Haubeil and Sean Nuernberger:

Ohio State Opponent

Avg. start, after KO

Drives started > 30

Touchbacks

Indiana

22.8

1 of 9

1

Oklahoma

32.4

2 of 5

0

Army

28.3

3 of 7

1

UNLV

20.9

0 of 9

1

Rutgers

19.4

0 of 9

0

Maryland

31.3

5 of 10

1

Nebraska

24.6

3 of 9

2

That’s…not the best.

The Buckeyes have allowed eight of their last 19 kickoffs to get returned past the 30. That’s field position Penn State will sign up for Saturday. Also, factor this in: Like Penn State, Ohio State has kicked the ball out of bounds three times this season. But, those kickoffs have come relatively recently, and from the kickoff man (Haubeil) they’ll likely use against Penn State.

When the ball has been kicked off by the Buckeyes this season, opponents are averaging a start at their own 25.7-yard line, with 24.6 percent of drives starting beyond the 30. It’s a testament to how good their coverage guys are, considering this fact: Just 10.5 percent of their kickoffs are being downed for touchbacks.

That’s almost unthinkable in the modern game. Haubeil is averaging 59.4 yards in the air on his kickoffs. Nuernberger, who has kicked off just seven times this season, is a full yard behind that.

That might not matter against Rutgers or UNLV or even Nebraska. But, it very well could matter against Penn State, because it’s Saquon Barkley that you’re kicking the ball to.

If Penn State can hold Ohio State to field goals, and the Buckeyes can’t consistently find the end zone on their kickoffs, Barkley is going to get some chances not only to flip field position in the Nittany Lions’ favor, but maybe even to score.

Ohio State is going to have to find a way to either get better in a hurry on its kickoffs, or devise some sort of coverage strategy to limit what Barkley can do once he gets going.

Other Penn State opponents have simply tried to muscle up on kicks to limit his chances. Ohio State might not be able to do that to Barkley as well as Penn State will against Parris Campbell. And that’s a big advantage for the Nittany Lions.