Twenty minutes after the final whistle, Grant Haley still had a smudge of eye-black below his right pupil.
His critical interception — one that led to the Nittany Lions’ first touchdown in a slow first half — was still fresh in his mind. “It was cool seeing all the guys block for me up front,” he acknowledged. But he still shrugged off the play, telling reporters it was simply the product of his team’s mindset of starting fast and finishing strong.
His teammates didn’t downplay the impact of that play, though.
“Getting that turnover was huge,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said after the 33-14 win. “It was big-time.”
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Said linebacker Koa Farmer: “That’s a big, explosive play in that game. It’s momentum.”
The interception occurred just 2:12 into the game, but it might’ve been the biggest play of the 60-minute contest. Pitt quarterback Max Browne overthrew his intended target by about four yards as the ball sailed into the waiting arms of the 5-foot-9 Haley.
The senior broke a tackle from Pitt wideout Quadree Henderson, blew past another Pitt receiver and then tip-toed down the right sideline a few yards. He then cut inside, faking out another would-be tackler and getting brought down from behind. All told, he ran 42 yards to his opponent’s 8-yard line.
Trace McSorley found tight end Mike Gesicki on an eight-yard play-action pass the very next play. Touchdown.
“He’s just such a dependable guy,” coach James Franklin said. “He’s made big play after big play his entire career.”
With 24 seconds left in the game, Haley took two deep breaths and rested his hands on his hips. He was tired, no doubt, from sprinting all over the field. He came away with four tackles, a sack and a breakup.
But he was all smiles, as he and running back Saquon Barkley lingered on the field afterward. The two laughed and chatted as they made their way to the tunnel. Barkley and Haley both brought up the time, over the summer, when they debated about the team’s top playmaker.
“Obviously, he’s No. 1, he’s going to say,” Haley said. “I tried to give my case.”
Haley told Barkley during camp that, if he ever got the ball in his hands, he was going to score. Granted, he came up short Saturday — but it was still a big play.
Not big enough for Barkley to change his vote. But still big.
“Oh, that argument’s going to go on forever,” Barkley said, smiling. “But Grant is a great playmaker, and he’ll tell you he’ll find a way in the end zone. I’m pretty sure you’ll see a lot more plays from Grant Haley and the defense.”
Said Haley: “That’s the mindset you have to have: Score no matter what.”
The senior cornerback declined to label where this one ranks in the big plays he made at Penn State. But its importance can’t be understated.
Without that interception, Penn State’s 14-3 halftime lead is potentially 7-3. And that’s a whole different ballgame.
It was early in the game but, his teammates noted, it’s also early in the season. And odds are Haley will be on the receiving end of a lot more key plays.
“You’ve heard Grant’s name a lot,” Farmer added. “And you’re going to be hearing it a lot more.”