Penn State Football

Penn State football: Williams feeling more comfortable with defensive play in second year at cornerback

Penn State's Trevor Williams makes one of his two interceptions during the Nittany Lions’ 13-10 win over Rutgers on Saturday. Williams made the switch from wide receiver to cornerback last season and is more comfortable playing his position this year.
Penn State's Trevor Williams makes one of his two interceptions during the Nittany Lions’ 13-10 win over Rutgers on Saturday. Williams made the switch from wide receiver to cornerback last season and is more comfortable playing his position this year. CDT photo

Trevor Williams’ 2013 season — his first on defense — started in promising fashion. It ended with him spending most of his time on the Penn State bench.

But the former receiver-turned-cornerback appears to have put the second-half struggles that dogged him and cost him playing time last season behind him. Williams made his third-straight start on Saturday and parked Penn State’s defense to a five-turnover performance against Rutgers in the Nittany Lions’ 13-10 win.

Williams led all Penn State corners in snaps played and his five tackles were the second most for Penn State. He made a heads-up play when he snagged a Gary Nova pass that ricocheted off the hands of Janarion Grant. Williams showed off his athleticism and receiver skills when he plucked another Nova pass out of the air at its highest point intended for Leonte Carroo down the middle in the third quarter.

“The defensive line did a great job getting rushes on the quarterback and I was just reacting to the quarterback’s throw. I seen the ball tipped up in the air and I just went for it,” Williams said of his first pick.

He then addressed his second interception:

“I just thank God for blessing me with amazing hands. ... We actually practiced that play in practice. We seen them on film run that play a couple of times and I seen the ball in the ball in the air and I just went for it.”

Learning to properly analyze film and diagnose a wide receiver’s tendencies has been the key to Williams’ turnaround. He spent ample time with defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and defensive backs coach Terry Smith in the offseason breaking down reel after reel.

Having experienced players like fellow corner Jordan Lucas and safeties Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser boosting his spirits has helped, too.

“Last year, experience wasn’t on my side a lot,” Williams said. “This whole offseason, Coach Shoop, Coach Smith, I watched film with those two and they helped me out a lot. Jordan Lucas, he’s a great leader in our secondary and watching film with him, Keiser and Amos, they encouraged me a lot to get better.”

Senior linebacker Mike Hull said he thought Williams played his finest game as a Nittany Lion.

“Yeah, definitely,” Hull said. “He stepped up and made a great play on that post coming over the top and he is a good player. Last year, he was new to the position which is understandable and this year, I think under Coach Shoop he’s just continuing to learn and get better and has taken the coaching every week.”

The Good

Christian Hackenberg has already built an impressive resume just 15 games into his collegiate career but his poise under pressure may be his best trait.

The ice water continued to run through the sophomore quarterback’s veins as he led his fourth come-from-behind, game-winning or game-tying drive in the fourth quarter against Rutgers on Saturday. With his team down by four, Hackenberg went 3-for-3 and threw for 84 yards to help set up Bill Belton’s game-winning touchdown run that capped a six-play, 80-yard drive in 1:51. Before

Belton scored, Hackenberg tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James but it was negated by a holding call.

On the drive, Hackenberg completed passes of 53 yards and eight yards then kept it alive with a 23-yard rainbow between a Rutgers safety and cornerback to Eugene Lewis on third-and-12.

“That’s one of those things that we practice and these guys are used to it,” Hackenberg said of the quick drive. “We had to have some plays. Geno stepped up, made two great plays for us and Bill finished it off. There’s nothing that needs to be said. We all just sort of looked at each other and we knew we had to get it done.”

Hackenberg brought Penn State back from deficits and helped the Nittany Lions tie games late against Michigan and Illinois last season. The Nittany Lions went on to win both games in overtime. He steered Penn State into field goal range against UCF and the Nittany Lions won this season’s opener on a Sam Ficken kick.

So far, Hackenberg is 11-for-15 for 221 yards and has rushed two times for nine yards and one touchdown on game-winning or game-tying drives.

The Bad

It was a rough evening for Penn State’s offensive line. The Nittany Lions gave up five sacks and couldn’t keep Rutgers’ defensive line off of Hackenberg who was hurried eight times.

Meanwhile, not counting sacks, Hackenberg’s gross rushing total of 35 yards was just one yard shy of Belton’s net of 36. Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch were not factors and combined for just three carries for seven yards. Rutgers’ defense combined for eight tackles for loss.

Afterward, Penn State coach James Franklin took the blame for not having the offensive line ready. He praised them for holding blocks when they mattered most, on the game-deciding drive.

“I’ve got to do a better job of coaching those guys and getting them ready,” Franklin said. “I’m proud of them because they fought. It wasn’t always pretty but they fought for each other, they fought for this team and when we needed them to, they were able to protect and open some holes.”

The Ugly

Penn State’s special teams continue to be a work in progress.

The Nittany Lions gave up a blocked punt and a blocked field goal — albeit against the best blocking team in the country since 2009 as Rutgers has blocked an FBS 39 kicks in that span.

The punt return team also did little to help Penn State’s offense. Jesse Della Valle misjudged a few punts, calling for four fair catches, at least one when it appeared he had room to run. The senior tried a return early in the fourth but was hit immediately for no gain.

Day to Remember

Williams set a personal best with his two picks.

His effort marked the first time a Penn State defensive back intercepted two passes since Nick Sukay did so against Temple in 2010. Williams’ second pick got the ball back for Penn State’s offense following an interception of its own and the Nittany Lions turned it into their first points of the game 13 plays later.

Day to Forget

Center Angelo Mangiro and right guard Brian Gaia particularly struggled on an overall forgettable night for Penn State’s front five. Both committed costly penalties that wiped out a total of 53 yards, two successful third down conversions and a potential go-ahead touchdown.

Gaia was flagged for holding in the fourth quarter and it negated a 27-yard pass to Geno Lewis on third-and-14. Mangiro was called for holding in the first half and again in the fourth quarter where his hold wiped out a 19-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James on third-and-2.

Right tackle Andrew Nelson was flagged for a false start penalty, too.

Key Play

You Already Forgot

The Nittany Lions escaped what could’ve been a costly turnover on their second possession of the game. From his own 24-yard line, Hackenberg tried to thread a pass through tight coverage to tight end Jesse James over the middle. Rutgers safety Deion Stephenson made a nice read to jump in front of the pass and got both of his hands on the ball. Fortunately for Penn State and unfortunately for Rutgers, Stephenson dropped the interception at the Penn State 38-yard line.

A Stephenson interception in Penn State territory could’ve set the Scarlet Knights up with favorable field position and perhaps at least an early field goal. Given the final result, it could’ve made a big difference for Rutgers in a low-scoring game. Instead, the Nittany Lions survived to punt on the next play.

Hidden Stat that Matters

Eugene Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton continue to be options 1A and 1B for Hackenberg. Against Rutgers they were phenomenal on third-down plays.

Hamilton caught four of his five third-down targets for 75 yards. The redshirt freshman’s only miss came when Hackenberg let the ball go early under heavy pressure. Lewis was targeted twice on third downs and hauled in both passes for 50 yards although a 27-yarder was negated by a holding call.