Penn State wideout KJ Hamler tugged the victory bell three times, smiled and then glanced up. K-J! K-J! K-J!
He couldn’t believe fans were chanting his name. He wasn’t surprised at his performance — six catches, 108 yards, two touchdowns and the game-clinching 4-yard run — but he still didn’t expect that kind of reception Saturday night in the moments after his team’s 28-21 win over Michigan.
“I would never in a million years thought that would happen,” he told reporters.
Hamler wasn’t just the spark in the Nittany Lions’ offense Saturday. He was the fire. He accounted for 40 percent of the offense’s total yards (283) and half its scores. He caught all but one of his targets, accounted for nearly half of Sean Clifford’s completions (6 of 14) and picked up a big play whenever his team needed.
But the bubbly redshirt sophomore, the charismatic 5-foot-9 speedster, still didn’t expect the love he received after Penn State won its seventh straight game of the season. And it caused him to reflect, at least a little, on his journey to this point.
“A lot of people always told me I’m too small. I wouldn’t do this; I wouldn’t do that,” the Michigan native said. “Growing up in Pontiac, there’s not a lot of people that make it out. I really want to be different, change my family’s lives and make an impact on the city of Pontiac.
“I wanted to do something big. And I think that I can, and I think that I will.”
Hamler walked to the locker room under the arm of James Franklin. He pulled away toward the end, only to flex during an emotionally charged moment, and shouted, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” The head coach just smiled.
Maybe Franklin knew it; maybe he didn’t. But, without Hamler on Saturday night, Penn State probably wouldn’t have walked off the field tugging on that bell.
Hamler’s numbers mostly came from the receiving end during the nationally televised game. But he made a critical run on the final drive of the game, on the last third-down conversion Penn State needed to clinch the win and line up in the victory formation. On third-and-3 deep in PSU territory, Hamler took a handoff — QB Sean Clifford could’ve also opted to keep it himself — and turned the corner, lowered his shoulder and strained forward every ounce of his 176-pound frame to pick up 4 yards.