STATE COLLEGE — Nope. Nope. Nope. OK. Go.
The thought process for KJ Hamler wasn’t any more complex than that.
It produced the day’s worst decision. And it saved Penn State’s season.
The Nittany Lions’ chest-clutching 45-38 overtime win over that most famous of underdogs, Appalachian State, was made possible by the bravado of Hamler, a redshirt freshman playing his first game in two full years after a knee injury wiped out his senior season in high school.
With Penn State just 1:47 away from the wrong end of a historic upset, Hamler fielded one final kickoff in the end zone. All day long Hamler watched in frustration as the Mountaineers’ kicks boomed into the back of the end zone.
Fifth-year senior Johnathan Thomas was typically in his face each time, instructing him to kneel it to get the ball at the 25. On one kick, Thomas nearly planted the 5-foot-9 Hamler to the ground to prevent him from taking it out.
Thomas was not in front of him this time. With the Lions trailing 38-31, Hamler ran toward the front of the end zone.
He stopped short of the goal line. He waited. He waited.
To the shock of everyone — including, apparently, Appalachian State — he ran it out.
“Uh, to be honest,” Hamler said, a smile creeping across his face, “there wasn’t no thinking.”
Fifty-two yards later, he was across midfield. A few moments later, he was going up and snagging a Trace McSorley pass behind App State’s best corner in the end zone to send the game to overtime.
Everything that came after — a missed 56-yard field goal by the Mountaineers at the end of regulation, a Miles Sanders touchdown in overtime and an Amani Oruwariye interception in the end zone — was made possible by Hamler.
“I was very tired of taking a knee,” Hamler said. “I was asking coach, ‘Can I take it out? Can I take it out?’ And he was like, ‘Follow the rules.’ OK. I respect your decision.
“But when it came down to it and I saw two minutes left on the clock. I took it out. I didn’t follow the rules.”
In film session on Sunday, he’ll hear about it from James Franklin and the coaching staff. On Saturday night, Hamler could smile all he wanted.
It’s what the Lions were hoping for from him when he stole the show during spring practice. It carried over into training camp, where he earned a starting job along with veterans Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins.
He outdid all of the Lions receivers with four grabs for 68 yards, including hauling in a 46-yard bomb from McSorley in the fourth quarter, right in the middle of the Mountaineers’ 28-point onslaught in the frame.
“We’ve got a lot of belief in KJ and have for a long time,” Franklin said. “We see this stuff all the time from him. One of the things we probably have to look at is ways we can get his hands on the ball a little bit more offensively and on special teams because he has a chance to change the game at any moment.”
Franklin sensed, however, that the usually talkative Hamler was wound tight in the early going.
“He hadn’t said a word, and I think you guys know the only thing faster than KJ’s feet is his mouth,” Franklin said. “I said, ‘You need to start talking and having fun because I’m not seeing that.’ He said, ‘Oh I’m locked in.’ I said, ‘No, I want you to practice the same way you play in games. And you don’t act like this in games, so start having some fun, start enjoying yourself.’ I don’t know if that’s what did it or not.”
Hamler said it helped, that it was part of the reason he brought the ball out to begin with. That and the interminable wait between his last game and this one.
“I’m not a quitter. I’m a fighter,” Hamler said. “So I had to fight through that injury, and now I’m back to being me.”
Just in time for the No. 10 Lions, who suffered through dreary, muggy weather as the Mountaineers answered every punch. Opening drive Penn State touchdown? App State ran the ensuing kick back 100 yards for a score.
Penn State found itself tied 10-10 at halftime before seemingly pulling away 24-10 and 31-17 as McSorley ran for a pair of scores and running backs Miles Sanders and Ricky Slade both had one in regulation.
But 11 years to the day of the Mountaineers’ monumental win over No. 5 Michigan in the Big House, they were set to claim another Big Ten scalp when Jalin Moore danced into the end zone from 16 yards out with 1:47 to play.
Hamler, Sanders and Oruwariye stopped it from happening. But barely.
“I don’t know what’s in the water in Boone, North Carolina,” Franklin said of the Mountaineers’ hometown. “It seems like they’ve been doing this for a long time against whoever they play.”
Odds are that “whoever” will no longer include any teams from the Big Ten.
No. 10 Penn State 45, Appalachian State 38
App. State`10`0`0`28`0 — 38
Penn State`7`3`14`14`7 — 45
PSU—McSorley 12 run (Pinegar kick), 12:02
ASU—D.Evans 100 kickoff return (Staton kick), 11:48
ASU—FG Staton 38, 4:10
PSU—FG Pinegar 32, :11
PSU—McSorley 10 run (Pinegar kick), 9:41
PSU—Slade 27 run (Pinegar kick), 2:41
ASU—Mal.Williams 17 pass from Z.Thomas (Staton kick), 13:39
PSU—Sanders 2 run (Pinegar kick), 11:17
ASU—Mal.Williams 24 pass from Z.Thomas (Staton kick), 7:40
ASU—Z.Thomas 1 run (Staton kick), 6:03
ASU—Moore 16 run (Staton kick), 1:47
PSU—Hamler 15 pass from McSorley (Pinegar kick), :42
PSU—Sanders 4 run (Pinegar kick), :00
Time of Possession`32:28`27:32
RUSHING—Appalachian St., Moore 18-88, Z.Thomas 15-43, Heath 1-19, D.Evans 3-9. Penn St., Sanders 19-91, McSorley 12-53, Slade 6-39, Allen 5-24, (Team) 1-(minus 3).
PASSING—Appalachian St., Derrick 1-1-0-22, Z.Thomas 25-38-1-270. Penn St., McSorley 21-36-0-230.
RECEIVING—Appalachian St., Sutton 6-87, Moore 5-36, Mal.Williams 4-66, Hennigan 4-28, Heath 2-35, D.Evans 2-10, Virgil 1-14, Papenheim 1-8, Pearson 1-8. Penn St., Ju.Johnson 6-67, Hamler 4-68, Sanders 3-20, Allen 3-18, Holland 2-36, Polk 2-19, Dalton 1-2.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Appalachian St., Staton 56.
A — 105232