Christian Hackenberg knew in a split second he was going to get crushed.
But a split second is all Penn State’s rocket-armed sophomore quarterback needed to find and zap the ball to a wide-open Geno Lewis who ran untouched for a 79-yard scoring strike in the third quarter of Penn State’s 26-24 win over Central Florida in the Croke Park Classic on Saturday.
And Hackenberg indeed got wailed as he threw by a UCF defender who planted into the Croke Park grass. It didn’t matter. The ball still sailed 45 yards — from Penn State’s 15-yard line to where Lewis hauled it in at the UCF 40. All this after Hackenberg got up rubbing and stretching out his right leg after getting sacked and twisted around on the previous play.
“Oh man, great play,” senior safety Ryan Keiser said. “Geno’s a big play guy and Hack did a great job of getting him the ball.”
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Hackenberg made a habit of that on Saturday. He dissected the UCF defense and set a Penn State record with 454 passing yards on 32 of 47 completions. Hackenberg threw two ill-advised interceptions. But he also kept the UCF defense off balance with his scrambling ability and made a handful of eyebrow-raising plays like his effortless bomb to Lewis.
Exhibit A — Penn State’s opening drive. Hackenberg was chased out of the pocket and ran to his right to elude a diving UCF defender who barely missed the sack. Still on the run, Hackenberg fired to his right and hit DaeSean Hamilton for a 15-yard gain to turn what looked to be a doomed third-and-eight into a first down.
Exhibit B — The same drive. Hackenberg dropped to throw on first-and-10 and spied Hamilton streaking down the center of the field toward the end zone between UCF safeties. As Hackenberg planted his feet, his back foot slid out from under him. He stepped up and planted again and delivered a 44-yard strike into Hamilton’s hands despite being off his throwing rhythm.
Exhibit C — Penn State’s first drive of the second quarter. Hackenberg was again flushed form the pocket and rolled to his right. He had tight end Jesse James open down field but with a UCF defender in his face, Hackenberg had no time to plant his feet. He reared back and lasered a pass to James’ breadbasket for a nine-yard gain.
“You guys know we’ve got a special guy playing quarterback,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “The question was, were there going to be the players around him from an experience standpoint to make plays? And they did.”
Hamilton and Lewis helped answer those questions. Hamilton, by breaking Penn State’s freshman record for catches and yards in a game and Lewis for putting on a workman-like, clutch performance.
The most experienced Penn State wideout in the game on Saturday, Lewis only had a handful of games under his belt after playing minor to mid-level roles last season as a redshirt freshman. He was a complimentary piece in 2013 behind Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder and was not expected to be a game-breaking force.
Hamilton spent 2013 on the injured list with a busted wrist and didn’t start catching passes until March. All he could do last year was run, work on his speed and agility and do certain lifting exercises that didn’t hamper his rehab on his wrist.
“From last year, not being able to catch and this year, I had to do a lot of ball drills,” Hamilton said. “My ball drills had fallen off from sitting out for a whole year and I had to just get back up to speed and get to where the rest of the guys are so there was no weak link on the wide receiving corps or anything like that.”
Lewis knew what Hamilton was capable of.
“Today, he had a great game. He stepped up in the first half. Nobody knew who he was,” Lewis said. “I knew DaeSean, he has great ability. He’s very athletic. I knew he was going to come out here and do well. His confidence level is high and I’m happy to have him as a teammate.”
Hamilton was Hackenberg’s primary target throughout the day. He was targeted a team-high 13 times and hauled in 11 passes with six coming in the first half. Lewis on the other hand got off to a slow start. He dropped two of his first three targets before coming on strong -- and in the clutch -- when it mattered most.
Lewis caught three of his eight passes on Penn State’s final drive and was targeted four times in the final minute of the game. The only incompletion that fell at his feet was a result of solid coverage by UCF defensive back Jordan Ozerities who was all over him. But Lewis came up with seven- and nine-yard catches before turning in a critical 18-yard catch-and-run that set up Sam Ficken for the game-winning field goal.
Minutes before, Lewis made his best catch of the game with UCF defensive back Clayton Geathers in coverage. Lewis ran a deep route on third-and-nine from Penn State’s 36-yard line and got tangled up with Geathers as both players played the ball. It bounced up in the air and Lewis, falling to his back, was able to corral it to complete a 41-yard gain and help set up Ficken’s third field goal.
“Geno Lewis made some unbelievable plays today, circus catches,” Franklin said.
Hackenberg has seen Lewis do it before in practice. He had never seen Hamilton do what he did in a gameday environment, of course.
“I think DaeSean is one of those guys that’s worked extremely hard,” Hackenberg said. “I knew he could do that.”