Kahlee Jacoby Hamler, or KJ as he is known by Penn State fans, has officially arrived on the scene. It has been a long time coming for Hamler, who missed the entire 2016 season as a senior at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida as his teammates went on to win the national title. In 2017 he sat out while still recovering from the ACL tear, taking a redshirt while watching as his Penn State teammates enjoyed an eleven-win season and Fiesta Bowl victory.
Now it is his turn to make an impact on the field. Hamler finished with a team-high 68 yards receiving on four catches, including a clutch touchdown grab in the final minute of regulation. The biggest play of the game, if we were forced to choose just one in this exciting overtime thriller, was Hamler’s kick return to begin the drive that tied that game and led to the overtime victory.
While we will give KJ a great deal of credit for his athleticism and for the fact that he properly executed the meticulous planning of his head coach James Franklin, it was revealed following the game by Franklin that the return was in fact a designed play.
Hamler’s contribution came just in time to save what could become a memorable season for the Lions.
In 2005, trailing on the road versus Northwestern in September during what would prove to be an 11-1 season, Derrick Williams made the first touchdown reception of his career. The catch gave the Lions a 34-29 win in what would become a game that could have derailed the team’s hope of finishing off a great year, which included a Big Ten title and Orange Bowl win, the team finishing 3rd in the final rankings. In modern times, that team would have had a chance to play for the national title.
Hamler’s exploits versus Appalachian State, in his first game at the college level, could prove to have a similar impact. The 5’9, 173-pound receiver and return specialist came to Happy Valley with less anticipation than the former Lion great, Williams, but he still has almost his entire playing career ahead of him.
Let’s take a look at what led up to the kick return across midfield.
A Game With Many Turns
Following a first half that finished with the teams tied 10-10, but saw the defense of the Lions taking control for the latter part of the half, it appeared that it would be just a matter of time before Penn State turned the corner.
With 13 minutes left in the second half, Brent Pry sent John Reid on a nickel blitz on 3rd and 22. Reid got to Thomas in time to force an errant throw. There are many things that a slot corner can be taught, but the timing that Reid has on his blitzing comes from within, and it is a great skill to have for a player that lines up where Reid will on passing downs. Notice how initially Reid was picked up by the running back, but then bounced off the block and got to Thomas fast enough to keep him from getting the ball to his target.
On the next Penn State possession, Juwan Johnson made a play that few college receivers can make, high-pointing the ball on a fifteen-yard catch to start the drive. Johnson had catches of 8 and 15 to add to that gem, and Trace McSorley capped the drive with a ten-yard touchdown run. The score was just 17-10 in favor of the home team, but the momentum seemed tipped heavily to its side.
Yetur Gross-Matos swallowed App State quarterback Zac Thomas on third down to end the next drive, getting the Lions the ball back quickly. Thomas made the mistake of optioning YGM. The 6’5, 260-pound defensive end chose both options; take away the pitch man and then tackle the quarterback.
Brandon Polk made a nice catch on a 3rd and three for the Lions on the next drive, which went on to contain Ricky Slade’s first career rushing touchdown from 27 yards out. The Lions appeared to be rolling, up 14, the offense and defense firing on all cylinders.
Then Appalachian State scored touchdowns on three of the next four possessions to take a 38-31 lead, stunning the home crowd and those watching from the safety of their couch or bar stool.
The Turning Point
With 1:47 on the clock, trailing by a touchdown, KJ Hamler stepped in to execute the plan laid down by coach James Franklin. He did just that. Having received the ball in the end zone, Hamler gave No. 20 Johnathan Thomas every impression that he was staying put. Then while Thomas turned his back, Hamler crept out of the safety of the end zone. It was just as it was drawn up, if coach Franklin was being serious in his post-game comments. I can never tell.
Here is what it looked like, slowed down to the point where it would be possible to see the wings of a hummingbird flapping, or in this case, Hamler’s feet moving, as they took him across midfield.
If you watch carefully you can see a great deal of the depth and talent that coach Franklin has been able to bring to Happy Valley over the past few years. There are the veterans such as Thomas, and also Koa Farmer (7), in the picture early, contributing on special teams. Thomas was taken by surprise, but he quickly chose one of the two free Appalachian State would-be tacklers and made a solid block. Hamler hopped to his left to avoid being tackled at the seven yard-line. Farmer occupied the initial contain man enough so that Hamler could run past him.
No. 5 Tariq Castro-Fields made a block as did fellow standout underclassman defensive back Lamont Wade (38). Starting tight end No. 18 Jonathan Holland and starting linebacker Cam Brown (6) were nearby as Hamler cut up the field at the twenty yard-line. Zech McPhearson (14) made a block at the 22 to allow Hamler to put it into second gear. Redshirt freshman, 6’3, 328-pound offensive lineman No. 69 C.J. Thorpe escorted Hamler from the thirty yard-line to nearly midfield. Following an offseason which featured Thorpe running his mouth constantly in practice, the future star offensive lineman showed that he can run with his feet as well. As you watch big No. 69, who is just a few cheeseburgers short of being twice the size of Hamler, running alongside Hamler, it is easy to forget how large and athletic Thorpe really is.
It was a team effort, along with the great athletic play by KJ Hamler. While it is conceivable that Trace McSorley, with two timeouts and nearly two minutes to work with, could have led the comeback from the 25 had Hamler not taken the ball out of the end zone, the play energized the crowd and from that point, the Lions owned the advantage.
Brandon Polk made a clutch catch on 4th and 2 on the ensuing drive, and a few plays later McSorley found Hamler for the game-tying touchdown. Momentum was once again on the side of the Lions though the game was tied.
In overtime the Lions gave the ball to Miles Sanders four times in a row. It was as though the stadium had been jacked up on the opposite side, lifted a hundred feet into the air so that Sanders had no choice but to lean forward and run downhill for the go-ahead touchdown.
The Penn State defense was well-rested with all of the substitutions throughout the game, and ready to pounce. Amani Oruwariye put the exclamation point on the win with an interception in overtime.
While momentum went back and forth many times during the game, KJ Hamler’s decision to take the ball out of the end zone, and across midfield, energized the crowd inside Beaver Stadium. It was this week’s turning point.