Understand this, because it matters here: Penn State won because K.J. Hamler made the wrong decision.
Laughable to think now, given how it shook out, given that the wrong decision will be talked about in a positive way for a long time in Happy Valley, and given that Penn State almost certainly goes down as the team that didn’t learn from what happened to Michigan 11 years ago to the day at the hands of this very same opponent.
But for the first time in three years, Hamler was playing a football game, returning kicks and basically just fielding pop-ups booted into the end zone by Appalachian State kickoff specialist Clayton Howell.
“Can I take it out?” he kept pleading with any coaches within earshot, throughout the game.
“Just follow your rules,” they kept responding.
The rules are simple: If you catch a kickoff deep in the end zone, take a knee and start the drive at the 25-yard line. If you catch the kickoff while backpedaling deep into the end zone, take a knee. If you are standing in the end zone wondering what to do next, take a knee.
Breaking the "rules:" So, with 1:47 left, and No. 10 Penn State trailing the upstart Mountaineers by seven points, Howell’s kickoff arched toward Hamler. He backpedaled into the end zone, caught the ball and stood motionless for a second before gingerly advanced toward the goal line, where fellow return man Jonathan Thomas stood near him with his back to the fast-approaching Appalachian State coverage team.
Just when everyone expected him to follow his rules, to drop to a knee and jog out to the offensive huddle near the 25, he took off. Past Thomas. Past his blockers. And into the State College night.
“When it came down to it,” Hamler said afterward, “I saw there were (less than) two minutes left on the clock, so I just took it out.
Then, he flashed the broad grin his teammates have raved about since preseason camp started.
“I didn’t follow the rules.”
Pumping life into Lions: Penn State had no life and very little chance to avoid being the latest upset victim at the hands of the Mountaineers, and then Hamler became the human defibrillator. He shocked his sideline, his up man, his blockers and, most importantly, the Appalachian State coverage unit. Darted up the Penn State sideline. Made a few defenders miss. Then didn’t get dragged down until he covered 59 yards and handed the Nittany Lions the ball at the Mountaineers’ 41.
Seven plays later, when the ice-veined quarterback Trace McSorley looked toward the end zone, it was Hamler who he found, beating the best cornerback in the Sun Belt Conference, Clifton Duck, one-on-one and stretching his 5-foot-9 frame as much as he could to haul in the touchdown that tied the game, led to overtime and a stirring 45-38 win.
It was the craziest play on a day full of them. It was the wrong decision turned right. It was, if Penn State goes on to be as special as it still believes it can be this season, a play that could live on in glory.
In need of playmaker: Most of all, though, it was a fitting play for a program in dire need of a new band of playmaker, from that new brand of playmaker.
“I thought the kickoff return play that we schemed up where everybody kind of stopped and K.J. acted like he was staying in and Jonathan Thomas came and almost tackled him and (Hamler) went up the sideline for 50 yards,” head coach James Franklin said tongue-in-cheek, “that was coaching. That was coaching right there.”
Franklin also admitted it was the play of the game.
The Nittany Lions lost a lot of talent from last year’s team. Maybe, more talent than most Penn State fans dared realize. There is no Mike Gesicki or DaeSean Hamilton to look to for a big play in the passing game. There is no experienced secondary to make it difficult on opponents gaining big yards to come back. There is no Saquon Barkley to make all the problems go away with a video-game cut and a sprint. At times in the fourth quarter, when Appalachian State sophomore quarterback Zac Thomas picked apart the defense and the Mountaineers scored 28 points and came back from 14 points down to take the lead, it didn’t look like Penn State would recover.
Ill-advised, but gutsy: Then, Hamler made a play.
An ill-advised play? He’d admit that, perhaps, he took a risk.
A stupid play? An argument can be made it was that. It could just as easily have ended Penn State’s chances of winning instead of sparking them. Would have looked bad had he gotten tackled on the 12, Hamler conceded.
But a confident play? A gutsy play? It was unquestionably both, when Penn State needed confidence and guts. And to get that from a redshirt freshman who battled a knee injury as a high school senior and sat all of last season is maybe the best sign to come out of this game for the Nittany Lions. This team is raw and unseasoned and is going to make its share of mistakes. It’s also going to create its share of electricity thanks to guys like Hamler.
“I know I keep saying it, but it’s all there is to say: Just execute,” McSorley said. “You can’t go out and stress, and then make a play. You just do your job and run your route and do your thing. That’s exactly what K.J. did at the end of the game.”
Hamler said expects Franklin to say something about his decision to take that ball out of the end zone when the team reviews film today.
He’ll probably tell him, to paraphrase the famous line from manager Lou Brown in the movie Major League, “Nice play. Don’t ever do it again.”
Unless a play is needed...
Then throw caution — and the rules — to the wind.