With a strong-armed, bold young quarterback at the helm of their offense, Penn State’s receivers know they’re going to have plenty of chances to strike at any defense down the field as the college football season wears on.
Christian Hackenberg hooked up with his targets for nine plays of 15 or more yards in a Week 1 win against UCF and that trend continued on Saturday where, despite an inconsistent running game, Penn State beat Akron 21-3 at Beaver Stadium.
Facing a Zips’ defense with three new starters, Christian Hackenberg completed nine passes of 15 or more yards again. Two of them — a 22-yard fling to running back Bill Belton and a 44-yard dart to Jesse James — went for touchdowns. Three of Penn State’s five touchdowns on the season have been passing plays of 22 yards or more.
“You’re always one play away,” James said. “Anything can happen in one play from an offensive perspective. You can have a big play that goes for a touchdown and that changes the perspective of the whole game. That’s kind of our tempo and our mindset going into that.”
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Receivers Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton continued to be the focal point in Penn State’s passing attack. Lewis caught six of Christian Hackenberg’s passes for a team-best 98 yards and Hamilton turned in a team-best seven catches and added 69 yards.
Through two games, Hamilton is averaging 13 yards per catch while Lewis is picking up 19 yards per catch.
“The fact that we have two guys that are making plays, that causes issues for defensive coordinators watching our tape, because it’s not just one guy that they’re trying to stop,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Obviously, we need to get the running game going.”
Franklin and the rest of the offense believe that an effective running game will lead to even more big plays through the air. That much was evident on James’ second touchdown.
Penn State finally got its ground game going with help from the wildcat formation. Akeel Lynch found running room and picked up 19 yards on two plays before Zach Zwinak took over and carried five Akron defenders on his back and legs for 18 yards. With Akron defenders playing closer to the line on Penn State’s next drive, Hackenberg sucked them closer with a fake handoff. James ran straight past them and Hackenberg found him for the 44-yard score.
It was just a glimpse of what Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan hope to accomplish as the season unfolds.
“We were finally able to establish the running game and get it going and then you go play-action and guys are wide open,” Franklin said. “That’s what I’m trying to get everyone to understand. It’s going to help the tight ends. It will help everyone out once we establish the rush.”
Coming out of the locker room at halftime, Belton wasn’t happy.
Akron was hanging around and within striking distance of the Nittany Lions in the second half.
And that brought back bad memories.
Two years ago in the Nittany Lions’ season opener, Ohio, another Mid-American Conference team had rallied in the second half to stun the Nittany Lions 24-14.
So Belton reminded some of his teammates, with a little more pungent language than he could relate to the media, about the dangers of the Zips staying close.
“When you give a team like that a chance to hang around in a game, something crazy is going to happen, they get momentum and they’re going to score,” he said. “Most of the guys were here for that and I was kind of reminding them of that Ohio game.”
Defensive tackle Tarow Barney and wide receiver Matt Zanellato made their season debuts against the Zips.
Barney, a junior college transfer in his first season at Penn State, sat out the season opener against UCF with a hand injury and assisted on one tackle.
Zanellato returned after a lower-body injury kept him out of the Week 1 game. He was targeted once on Saturday and threw a good block to help spring Lewis on a 20-yard gain in the first quarter.
Gary Wooten subbed in for Mike Hull and made his season debut at middle linebacker in the first half.
With one of Penn State’s all-time greats at the position watching, Hackenberg achieved a few more quarterbacking feats.
The sophomore passed for 319 yards and with Kerry Collins watching, racked up half of a two-game total 773. It broke Zack Mills’ two-game mark of 686 in 2002 against Iowa and Wisconsin.
Saturday’s game also marked the sixth time in fourteen games Hackenberg has eclipsed the 300-yards passing mark. It pulled him into a tie with Matt McGloin for the most 300-plus yard games in Penn State history.
Meanwhile, freshman punter Chris Gulla got some more practice. He punted just once against UCF but got five tries against the Zips. His average of 48.8 yards set a record for a freshman punter. Jeremy Kapinos previously held that mark with a 48.7 average.