Penn State football notes: Nittany Lion TE Carter comes through in clutch

Kyle Carter has been AWOL from the Penn State offense for most of the 2013 season.

The 6-foot-3, 244-pound redshirt sophomore burst onto the scene last year in Bill O’Brien’s tight end-centric offense. He caught 36 passes for 453 yards, at times looking unguardable.

This season, Carter had been limited to just 13 catches for 171 yards through seven games heading into Saturday’s game against Illinois.

Part of the decline in production could be attributed to a nasty elbow injury suffered in the season opener against Syracuse.

Now that he’s healthy again, he just might be on his way to asserting himself as an offensive force alongside Allen Robinson and Bill Belton.

Carter only had one catch for 15 yards, but it made all the difference on this day.

On third-and-11 at the Illinois 15 in overtime, Carter gathered in a bullet from Christian Hackenberg for what turned out to be the winning score.

“We run it every day. I’ve probably run it upwards of 50 times. That’s his (O’Brien’s) favorite play,” Carter said. “We all know it’s going to get run somehow, some way during the game.”

Lined up in the slot on the right side of the formation, Carter released and ran a square-in pattern. Hackenberg rifled the ball into a tight window and Carter snatched it for a touchdown.

“Watching that play on film from the Patriots, it looked pretty similar to the type of windows that (New England quarterback Tom) Brady throws. I’m not saying anything ” Hackenberg said, and then laughed along with the throng of media surrounding him.

“It looked pretty good so I felt confident and thought, ‘What the heck,’ and Kyle made a great catch.”

“We had a lot of options on the play, including a run option,” O’Brien said. “It’s one of our favorite plays and Chrisitan, the line, Kyle Carter and the receivers in the back executed it well.”

For the introspective Carter, it was definitely a pick-me-up.

“It definitely is. I’m my own biggest critic. I think about my season every day and just trying to get back to where I was last year,” he said. “Making that play definitely helped my confidence a lot.”

Movin’ on up

Penn State fans need to enjoy wide receiver Allen Robinson while they can. It’s clear that the junior is not only establishing himself as one of all-time greats at Penn State, but also a player that NFL teams would dearly love to add to their rosters should he declare for the draft at the end of the year.

Robinson made 11 catches for 165 yards against Illinois, moving him into fifth on the Penn State all-time receptions chart and fourth on the all-time receiving yards list. He now has 146 catches for 2,085 receiving yards in his career.

On Saturday, he became the seventh Nittany Lion to amass 2,000 yards receiving in a career.

Robinson moved past three Penn State greats — O.J. McDuffie, Kenny Jackson and Bryant Johnson — on the receiving yards list.

Illinois coach Tim Beckman was impressed.

“Allen Robinson is a very, very good football player. There’s a reason he’s been one of the top receivers in this conference. I thought he had a good football game,” he said.

“He was on (our) sideline once and I said to him, ‘I’ve got freshmen out there. Take it easy on them.’ Just kidding with him. He’s a very, very good football player.”

Sending a message?

O’Brien switched up several starters on both offense and defense against Illinois.

As he hinted at during his Tuesday news conference, one of the changes came at tackle. Adam Gress got the start at left tackle over Donovan Smith. Garry Gilliam was the starter at right tackle for Gress.

On defense, Ben Kline got the nod over Nyeem Wartman. Anthony Zettel got the start over Kyle Baublitz at defensive tackle.

Oh, snap!

There was an unusual rash of illegal snap calls in Saturday’s game. Illinois was whistled once and Penn State twice.

Sustained excellence

Penn State put together its most time-consuming drive of the season and also one with the most plays spanning the first and second quarters.

The Nittany Lions drove 82 yards on 17 plays in 7:15. Hackenberg capped the drive with a nifty nine-yard run, complete with a little wiggle, for the touchdown.

Joining elite company

Bill Belton’s 201 yards on 36 carries, both career highs, were crucial to Penn State’s success on Saturday. And, after the first quarter he had, it was no surprise he hit that plateau.

The junior from Sicklerville, N.J., had 65 yards on 11 carries at the end of the first quarter and 95 yards on 15 carries at halftime.

The last time a Penn State back gained more than 200 yards was Larry Johnson’s 279-yard day against Michigan State on Senior Day in 2002. That was the day that Johnson became just the ninth player in NCAA history to gain more than 2,000 yards. He finished the day with 2,015 yards on 251 carries, setting an NCAA record with an average of 8.02 yards per carry.

Belton said being the consistent starter helps his game.

“Getting reps like that, you get more experience under your belt. I’m feeling comfortable out there and I’m seeing things I wouldn’t have seen last year,” he said.

And, despite carrying 36 times, Belton said he wasn’t worn out.

“I’m not tired at all,” he said. “(Strength and conditioning coach Craig) Fitzgerald does a good job with us in the weight room and in conditioning. That’s a testament to him.”