STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP)KJ Hamler’s juking, high-stepping, highlight-reel performance a week ago earned him praise from coaches and teammates.
Penn State’s star receiver knows he can catch more than six passes for 108 yards in a game and points to his 58-yard touchdown catch and run against Maryland.
”I don’t think last game was a big game,” Hamler said. ”I think it was average. I feel like there’s always something to improve on, and I think I still have a lot to improve.”
He’ll get a chance Saturday when No. 12 Penn State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) hosts Purdue (1-3, 0-1).
Penn State coach James Franklin plans to feed Hamler against a defense that’s been among the worst in the country. The Boilermakers are allowing 451 yards and 33 points per game.
”The more touches the better,” Franklin said.
But for Hamler to get more opportunities, Penn State’s offense needs to stay on the field. That hasn’t been easy despite the Nittany Lions’ gaudy point totals.
Through the first three weeks of the season, they hadn’t converted more than 31% of their third downs in a game. Franklin saw a turnaround with success on 69% last week against Maryland.
Hamler, whose 29 total touches are 10 more than he had at this point last season, does most of his work on first and second down. That’s where he’s caught all but two of his 16 receptions.
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm will try to limit Hamler’s touches by keeping him off the field. But he realizes Penn State’s defense will make that much tougher.
Only nine teams have forced more punts than Penn State so far.
”It starts with their defense,” Brohm said. ”When you shut teams out, when you have some of the personnel that they have, when you look across the board at where they are at, when you watch them on video, man, they play hard, they go hard. They attack.”
Hamler is among those disappointed to learn injured Purdue star Rondale Moore won’t suit up. Moore’s dynamic playmaking skills would make life much more difficult for Hamler’s teammates, but Hamler sees Purdue’s do-it-all receiver as a challenge.
Moore suffered a leg injury last week on the same play that starting quarterback Elijah Sindelar broke his collarbone. Although Moore is expected to return at some point, Sindelar is likely out for the season.
”I wish he would’ve played,” Hamler said. ”It probably would’ve been like the battle of the slots. I hope he’s doing well.”
Moore had already accounted for 387 yards and two touchdowns on 32 offensive touches. His absence creates an opportunity for either Jackson Anthrop or TJ Sheffield to work out of the slot.
If that’s the case, they’ll draw coverage from Penn State’s John Reid, who’s been the Nittany Lions best coverage man.
Purdue lost linebacker Markus Bailey for the season to a knee injury earlier this year and linebacker Lorenzo Neal is also expected to miss this game.
The Boilermakers also will be without running backs Tario Fuller and Richie Worship, offensive lineman D.J. Washington and wideout Jared Sparks.
The Nittany Lions will wear throwback uniforms for the second time in three seasons, a rare occurrence for a program that rarely steers away from its classic blue and white scheme.
Although the slight changes might be tough to spot – there will be numbers on helmets and a blue stripe down the white pants – one stands out. The Nittany Lions will swap out their usual black cleats for shiny white ones.
Hamler, who redshirted when the team wore the uniforms in 2017, is looking forward to getting his a little dirty.
”I’m excited to play in them and just have my sweet feet on,” Hamler said. ”I feel faster in white cleats.”