No. 2 Penn State rely on receivers to win 1-on-1 matchups
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Long after their teammates had left Penn State’s practice field Wednesday night, DaeSean Hamilton, Juwan Johnson and Mike Gesicki trotted to midfield to play catch.
For Hamilton and Gesicki, Penn State’s all-time receptions leaders at receiver and tight end, respectively, it’s been the norm for years. Lately, Johnson’s gotten in additional work, too.
The extra effort has shown up in nearly every phase for the No. 2 Nittany Lions, who will look to create more mismatches with their big-play passing attack against the No. 6 Ohio State on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.
“We have a lot of threats,” Johnson said. “And it’s just hard for a defense to prepare. It takes a lot for us to try to get the ball around but it’s alright as long as we get the W. That’s pretty much all that matters.”
Penn State has won 16 of its last 17 games as defenses struggle to find ways to slow down an offense that stretches the field with the pass and is always a threat in the running game because of star running back Saquon Barkley.
“You put the ball in his stomach and the safeties jump toward the box and that leaves us one-on-one matchups outside on the corners,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “And you’re past the safety because his eyes are in the backfield, he’s flat footed, he’s not seeing the receiver run by him. He focused on making his run support.”
All of Penn State’s receivers are taking advantage.
Hamilton can run a bevy of routes from the slot and has made 17 catches for 272 yards and three touchdowns in the last three games. Johnson joined the starting lineup this season and has become a reliable and sizable target at 6-foot-4 and 226 pounds. Then there’s the quick-footed DeAndre Thompkins and his knack for making the first defensive back miss on the perimeter.
McSorley has a bigger target should he need it in the 6-foot-6 Gesicki. The senior tight end showed what a matchup nightmare he can be with two leaping snags over Michigan defensive backs last week for 52 yards that set up two touchdowns.
“He’s really a wide receiver,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “He’s a very, very good athlete who makes catches men his size usually can’t make. He’s very flexible in his upper body and can contort his body in all different ways.”
Schiano will have his hands full defending all of them.
The Buckeyes have been susceptible through the air at times this season. No. 10 Oklahoma, Indiana and Nebraska combined to hang 1,155 yards and eight touchdowns on Ohio State. Cornerback Denzel Ward is a future NFL draft pick. He has some issues against Indiana’s 6-4, 220-pound Simmie Cobbs in the season-opener, but he is winning more of the one-on-one matchups than losing this year.
Then there’s Barkley.
The star running back is Penn State’s leading receiver with 32 catches as the Nittany Lions will line him up all over the formation. Barkley has also benefited from another aspect of the receiving corps’s game.
Lately, when he’s broken runs into the second levels of defenses, he’s seeing more daylight thanks to downfield blocks.
Take Barkley’s 15-yard touchdown run in the first quarter against Michigan last week. As Barkley turned the corner, Hamilton and Thompkins corralled Michigan defenders to clear a path to the goal line.
“More than anything it creates explosive plays,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “I think we’ve done a really good job at that, we emphasized it all offseason. It’s something our DBs needed in practice so they could work on block destruction and we could work on sustaining blocks, so I think it’s probably been the area of most improvement on our offense this year.”