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Impact Play: Little Big Man

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On the final meaningful snap of the game, the smallest player on the field ran through a sea of big bodies.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

With 1:51 to play, facing a 3rd and 3 needing one more first down to ice the game, Penn State went to their best offensive player. While the manner with which the Lions got the ball in KJ Hamler’s hands was unexpected, we should not be surprised that it was Hamler that got the call on the pivotal play.

After the game coach James Franklin referred to Hamler, who is listed generously at 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds, as a power back. He looked the part during the play that we will be featuring this week.

Before we get into the play, please raise your hand if you were outraged or perplexed last season when Penn State chose to run that ball on its final play against Ohio State. You know the play. Okay, great. Now, lower your hand if you would have accepted the play call this past week had it come up short. Penn State gave the ball to a tiny player, to run straight into an 8-man box when they were sold out to protect 3 yards.

Those of you with your hands still raised, we salute your honesty. Since the play to KJ Hamler was a success, there has been very little second-guessing of the play call, thankfully. Had it been stopped short, Michigan got the ball back, and somehow won the game, the play call would have been scrutinized heavily. Even though the defense would have allowed another touchdown or more, people still would have gone all the way back to the 3rd and 3, where crazy Ricky Rahne gave a tiny little guy the ball amid a sea of big dudes.

“We could have run the clock out and won they game!” they would have said. Well, it worked. Penn State ran out the clock. Now is the prudent time to celebrate a gutsy and successful play call.

Setting The Stage

Just before KJ Hamler shifted into the backfield, this was the formation. Jahan Dotson was split out to the left and Hamler was in the slot. Nick Bowers was lined up at tight end on the left side while Pat Freiermuth was lined up behind right tackle Will Fries.

KJ Hamler ran into the backfield just before the snap and Michigan’s defense adjusted. As you can see, the Wolverines were anticipating a run, with 8 men in or near the tackle box.

Take notice of the two linebackers, Jordan Glasgow (29) and Khaleke Hudson (7) in the still frame above. They will be the key blocks for the pulling offensive players of Penn State, C.J. Thorpe (69) and Pat Freiermuth (87). Both Thorpe and Freiermuth will be asked to run from the right side of the formation to the left, hit the hole, and find their linebacker to block. As you can see in the gif below, it worked out great.

Also key to the play was the block on the left side of the line by tight end Nick Bowers. Bowers needed to move Aidan Hutchinson (97) out of the hole so that Freiermuth, Thorpe, and then Hamler could get through it. It was a great block by the unsung senior tight end.

Rasheed Walker (53) did a great job of moving Micheal Dwumfour (50) to the right, sealing that side of the hole, and the rest of the interior line won their battles as well, pushing their man to the right.

Watch Noah Cain’s movement in the backfield and how he influences the movement of both linebacker Khaleke Hudson (7) and the safety behind him, Josh Metellus (14). With Cain to account for, both defenders slide slightly outside and are delayed in pursuing where Hamler would eventually run, more toward the middle.

That was what the play call got the team and the players executed it very well. But it was not quite enough on its own.

Without KJ Hamler’s second effort, with an assist by big No. 69, the play may have come up inches short. Backside safety Brad Hawkins (20) met Hamler right at the first down line, right in the hole. For a player known more for his elusiveness and speed, Hamler had only one option; to put his head down, get low, and absorb the hit.

You can see the force of the hit in the gif below. Also notice C.J. Thorpe coming to Hamler’s aid. Thorpe was most likely trying to help Hamler forward but he also shielded him from one more hit from Jordan Glasgow. Hamler took enough abuse as it was, but his second effort, the spin and fall up the field instead of backwards, made the difference.

It was a great play for the Lions and it worked out perfectly. Without the great blocking, hard running, and a little aid late from C.J. Thorpe, Penn State may have been forced to punt. I’m going to go ahead and say that it was a great play call as well. Had it been stopped short, many people would have wondered why the ball didn’t go to Cain. Or why it wasn’t a pass. Or anything other than a play that didn’t work.

It ended up looking similar to a counter trey, only with Bowers and Thorpe switching responsibilities. No, that wasn’t 6-foot-2, 230 pound running back Johnny Riggins in the backfield, it was KJ Hamler.

It worked because it was a good play call. It worked because Penn State blocked very well. It worked because KJ Hamler ran like a little truck through the hole and gave up his body for the team. Had one block been missed or had KJ flinched or turned sideways in the hole, we might be talking about what a stupid decision it was by offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne. Instead, he’s a genius, at least until the next play that doesn’t work.

Here is the entire play, with a little atmosphere before and after. Chris Fowler’s voice got very emotional during the call, borderline manic. As he delivered the line, “He’s right near the marker,” Fowler began to sound like Ren of the Ren and Stimpy cartoons. Sean Clifford cheered toward the crowd and of course, the white out responded.