STATE COLLGE, Pa. — Penn State came out roaring in its season opener on Saturday, scoring a touchdown on the first drive. But Appalachian State answered back right away with a 100-yard kickoff return. After that, the game went back and forth to the final moments of regulation.
Throughout the 45-38 overtime victory, the Nittany Lions played on the conservative side on kickoff returns. But after the Mountaineers took a 38-31 lead late in the fourth quarter, red-shirt freshman KJ Hamler patiently waited in the end zone, wanting to make something happen.
And he did. Hamler took the ensuing kickoff down the right sideline for a 52-yard return.
That didn't surprise anyone on the Penn State sideline because they knew they could depend on Hamler. He justified that faith again by catching the game-tying 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Trace McSorley with 42 seconds left in regulation that forced overtime.
"I hesitated" in the end zone, undecided whether to bring the ball out, Hamler said of the clutch kickoff return. "But I saw that we had two minutes on the clock, and I said we need to play. If I would have got tackled on the 12, that would have been bad. But I risked it, and sometimes you have to risk it to do big things."
"I knew he had been itching the whole game to take it out of the end zone," tight end Jonathan Holland said of Hamler's return. "So when he started going, I just ran as fast as I could to get a block. You know whenever the ball hits KJ's hands, he's going to do something special with it."
Hamler went to Penn State as one of the top recruits of his class. But he was injured his senior year of high school, and Lions coach James Franklin has emphasized that it's been about two years since Hamler played in a real game.
"We got a lot of belief in KJ, and we have for a long time," said Franklin. "We see this stuff all the time from him. One of the things we have to look at [are] ways we can get his hands on the ball a little more."
That goal may stem from the final touchdown in regulation. McSorley connected with wide receiver Brandon Polk on fourth-and-2 to keep the desperation drive alive. Two plays later, Hamler fought his way into the end zone, leaped and caught a tightly-thrown pass by McSorley. It was Hamler's first career touchdown.
"I saw man-to-man coverage," said Hamler. "I just knew I had to make a play, and I knew that I had to win. We are all about winning, and that's what happened."
Hamler's touchdown set the Nittany Lions up for overtime. Junior running back Miles Sanders scored the go-ahead touchdown, and the game was officially sealed when red-shirt senior Amani Oruwariye outfought Appalachian State wide receiver Corey Sutton for the ball and wound up with an interception.