Lewis, Hamilton establish themselves as Hackenberg’s top targets
DUBLIN — One of the biggest concerns surrounding Penn State this season was finding someone to replace Christian Hackenberg’s go-to target, Allen Robinson, who opted for the NFL.
Hackenberg may have found two answers to that problem on Saturday.
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Geno Lewis caught eight passes – including three on Penn State’s game-winning drive – for 173 yards and a touchdown. And redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton made 11 receptions for 165 yards.
The two combined for 338 of Hackenberg’s school-record 454 passing yards in Penn State’s 26-24 victory over Central Florida in the season-opening Croke Park Classic.
“We knew we had playmakers outside,” Hackenberg said. “You just haven’t seen them yet, or a lot of them yet.”
Lewis’ final 18-yard catch set up Sam Ficken’s game-winning kick. Lewis got separation near the Lions’ sideline and cut up field after making the catch. He said he knew he needed 10 or 15 yards to give Ficken a comfortable try, and he muscled out extra yards to set up the 36-yarder.
And that play didn’t even top his personal highlight reel, which included two circus catches.
Also on that game-winning drive, Lewis made a bobble-and-catch for nine yards. It resembled a catch on the previous drive (captured in the Instagram video below), when on third-and-9, Hackenberg connected with Lewis in stride down the right sideline. A defender hit Lewis as the ball arrived, but Lewis stayed with the play and hauled in a 41-yard reception.
That catch extended the drive, which ended in a 24-yard Ficken field goal and a 23-17 Penn State advantage.
“That's basically just something off of reaction,” Lewis said. “You got to have strong hands, basically, that’s the main thing. Have strong hands and look the ball in the whole way.”
Lewis showed some speed, too. His touchdown came on a 79-yard pass late in the third quarter, after a double-move got him behind the Knights’ entire defense.
Hamilton was just as important. He broke Penn State records for freshman receptions and receiving yards in a game and was the first Penn State freshman receiver with 100 yards in a game since 2005.
The 6-foot-1 wideout said he was trying to make the season opener feel like a high school game in order to get rid of jitters. It must have worked.
He caught Hackenberg’s first pass of the season for eight yards. Several snaps later, Hamilton took a 44-yard reception down the middle to the 2-yard line. It ultimately led to a Zach Zwinak touchdown run from one yard out and an early 7-0 lead.
“I ran a post to the field and I think Hack slipped, maybe, because we were running that play all practice long, all week long,” Hamilton said. “And that was supposed to be for a touchdown.
“I was like, ‘Please make this ball hurry up and get here so the other safety can’t come and get it.’ I just knew I had to make a play on it because it was just hanging a little bit, and I knew nobody else was going to get that ball but me.”
Hamilton sat out all of last year with a wrist injury, and played in front of Beaver Stadium fans for the first time in April’s Blue-White game. At Penn State’s media day, wide receivers coach Josh Gattis tabbed Hamilton as “by far, the biggest sleeper in the Big Ten.”
Hamilton’s performance drew comparisons to Robinson after the game, but the wideout thought otherwise.
“It makes me feel like people should stop sleeping on us,” he said. “The whole receiving corps, we have something to prove. ... We’re going to prove that we should be here, prove that there’s no drop off from last year to this year, that anybody can make plays at any given time.”
(Writer Eric Shultz, and photographers Kelsie Netzer and Hannah Byrne ,are students in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.)