UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — 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 yards or more 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, Hackenberg completed nine passes of 15 yards or more 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.”
Receivers Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton continued to be the focal point in Penn State’s passing attack. Lewis caught six of 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 grab.
“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.”
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