STATE COLLEGE — It’s been clear that Penn State football coach James Franklin has been looking for explosive plays on offense for the last several weeks.
It wasn’t clear that Franklin also was looking for big plays from the Nittany Lions’ kicking game, so he gave defensive back Daequan Hardy his first chance to return punts Saturday.
Hardy seized the opportunity and set a school record with two returns for touchdowns.
“Obviously he did a phenomenal job,” Franklin said. “Day-Day (Hardy) showed tonight he can be special.”
Hardy returned a punt 56 yards for a touchdown late in the first quarter and added a 68-yarder for a second score in the third quarter as the sixth-ranked Lions pulverized UMass 63-0 at water-logged Beaver Stadium.
Hardy had never returned a punt in college until Saturday, even though he had returned several punts and kickoffs for touchdowns at Penn Hills High School in Pittsburgh.
“A lot of my returns used to get called back,” he said. “My teammates used to block in the back a lot.”
Franklin and Penn State assistant coach Terry Smith watched Hardy in person when he returned a kickoff and an interception for scores against Manheim Central in the 2018 PIAA Class 5A title game. Not long after Penn Hills’ win, they offered him a scholarship.
“Guys who can make big plays, be explosive and protect the football are valuable,” Franklin said. “He’s done a phenomenal job for us. I’m not surprised. This is kind of who he’s been.”
Hardy became the first Penn State player to return two punts for touchdowns in the same game and tied the season record, joining Jimmy Cefalo (1977), O.J. McDuffie (1991), Bruce Branch (1999) and Larry Johnson Jr. (2001).
“It’s a good feeling when you get in the clear,” he said. “Then you just try to beat everybody to the end zone. I’m just happy he (Franklin) gave me the opportunity to go out there and showcase my skills.”
Penn State (6-0) tuned up for its Big Ten showdown next week at fellow unbeaten Ohio State with a dominant performance against the overmatched Minutemen (1-7), who were 42-point underdogs.
The Lions stretched their winning streak to 11 games, all by at least 14 points, and scored at least 30 points for the 14th consecutive game. They posted their second shutout this season and lowered their points allowed average to 8.0 per game.
“We don’t like anybody in our end zone,” said defensive end Adisa Isaac, who had 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. “That’s a good defense to have. I feel like everybody’s playing on the same page. Everybody’s dialed in. We just play together.”
Penn State, which began the day as the nation’s leader in total defense, finished with seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss and held UMass to 109 total yards, including 64 on the ground on 39 attempts.
Defensive end Chop Robinson and cornerback Cam Miller each had two sacks.
“The defense has been able to control the game,” Franklin said. “They’re getting three-and-outs (and creating good) field position. There aren’t a lot of gimme yards. It can be challenging to get 3 or 4 yards against us.”
The Minutemen had one run of 16 yards and one pass of 16 yards and wound up with nine first downs. They never crossed Penn State’s 30-yard line.
“We want a shutout every week no matter who our opponent is,” Robinson said. “It was great for us.”
Hardy’s first touchdown came before Drew Allar scored on a quarterback sneak, Kaytron Allen powered his way through the middle for a 9-yard TD and Allar found Tyler Warren for a 7-yard score and a 28-0 halftime lead.
Penn State scored in the second half on Hardy’s second score, touchdown catches of 30 and 18 yards by tight end Theo Johnson, a 2-yard run by Trey Potts and a 31-yard burst by backup quarterback Beau Pribula.
Allar completed 16-of-23 passes for 162 yards and three TDs without an interception. He has yet to commit a turnover in his 16 college games.
“It’s really just taking what the defense gives you,” Allar said. “If we’re executing, the defense is going to have to do something different.”
Penn State started slowly, the offense committing its first turnover of the season when wide receiver Trey Wallace lost a fumble at the UMass 32. The Lions stalled on their second series after back-to-back negative plays before Hardy ignited them.
He fielded C.J. Kolodziey’s punt at the Penn State 44, received a block on the outside from Miller and another one from Dom DeLuca and sprinted down the right sideline for a touchdown.
“The first one I caught it and made the long snapper miss,” Hardy said. “Then I just ran down the sideline. My teammates did a great job of blocking for me.”
In the third quarter, Hardy caught Kolodziey’s punt at the Penn State 32, broke at least three tackles and outran several UMass players to the end zone for a 49-0 bulge.
“I got vertical and made a guy miss,” he said. “I just tried to get to the edge. My teammates did a great job of blocking again.”
Saunders had been averaging just 3.6 yards on 12 punt returns before he had a 37-yard return himself Saturday, but the day belonged to Hardy.
“This is going to change things for us,” Franklin said. “This is gonna create issues for people that are evaluating us on film. It’s something that’s going to cause them long nights in how they’re going to defend him.”
Source: Berkshire mont