For Penn State Football, Patience is Personified In Smith & Hamilton
Patience is a virtue.
And, when paired with perseverance, is a key component of Penn State’s recent success.
Let’s begin with Saturday:
In its game against Rutgers in Beaver Stadium, Penn State did not score first for the first time in 10 games in 2017.
Rutgers did. It also scored second. On field goals of 33 and then 25 yards.
For the first time all season, Penn State did not score a point in the first quarter. In fact, in the first 15 minutes the Nittany Lions couldn’t muster a first down and managed all of 24 yards.
Over 20 minutes into the game, the Nittany Lions trailed Rutgers 6-0, their second-largest deficit in all of 2017 — exceeded only by the 7 it was behind at Michigan State the previous Saturday.
That day produced the back end of a daily-double that saw the Nittany Lions lose two games in the final — combined — 108 seconds, 39-38 to Ohio State and 27-24 to Michigan State.
And thus, fall from No. 2 to No. 14.
On Saturday in Beaver Stadium, that free-fall stopped. After Rutgers jumped out to that 6-0 lead, Penn State responded by scoring 35 straight points to jump its record to 8-2 (5-2 in the Big Ten).
“We needed to get our confidence back a little bit. Obviously, it’s not easy losing two in a row,” said senior linebacker Jason Cabinda, who led the Nittany Lions with 11 tackles, including the stuff of a fake punt by Rutgers. “We just needed to get back on track and we were able to do that today. We believe in each other, there’s no doubt about it. Just seeing how hard we work day-in and day-out is enough to make guys really believe in ourselves and what we can do.”
In the process, Penn State exhibited the kind of patience and perseverance under James Franklin that has become a trademark of the team, its players and its program.
“I thought we were good in terms of being patient, on offense, defense, special teams — making some subtle adjustments and just kind of kept pecking away at it,” is how Franklin put it afterwards. “…at the end of the day the most important thing is the final result.”
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Saturday’s game came six years and two days after Joe Paterno was fired on Nov. 9, 2011. In the next 58 games, Penn State went 32-26 (.552). In the last 20 games, it is 17-3 (.850).
Fifth-year senior linebacker Brandon Smith got just the third start of his career on Saturday, replacing the suspended Manny Bowen (his second suspension in 11 games). Smith made the most of it, making 10 tackles while playing the outside Will linebacker spot he hadn’t practiced at all year.
Smith’s Start No. 3 came 406 days and 19 games after No. 2, which was against Minnesota last October. Prior to 2016, in his first three seasons at Penn State, Smith had played just three defensive snaps. Apparently, time does wait for Brandon Smith.
“I was excited to get the opportunity and to know that I was going to play a lot more than I had been,” Smith said after the game. “It was the same approach, although I was playing Will instead of Mike. I hadn’t played any Will since camp. It was a matter of adjusting to different angles and different leverage, things like that. It was exciting and I’m thankful for the opportunity.
“Ultimately, it’s about our system and our team.”
I asked Cabinda, whose start against Rutgers was his 33rd at Penn State, if the team and Smith had shown a mature degree of patience.
“Oh, yeah, that’s true — especially on Smitty’s part,” Cabinda said. “Look at his story: Being a walk-on, who didn’t play a lot, to establishing himself and being a starter. He’s the epitome of that, in my opinion.”
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On Saturday, buoyed by Homecoming and Military Appreciation Day, Penn State had a Beaver Stadium crowd announced at 107,531 — the fourth of the past five home games to draw #107K or more. In 2012, the first year of the NCAA sanctions, Penn State averaged 96,730 fans per game in Beaver Stadium. In 2017, Penn State is averaging almost 10,000 more fans per home game — at 106,704.
Wide receiver Juwan Johnson owned spring practice. The redshirt sophomore from New Jersey drew praise from every corner of the program. He started the season in the starting line-up and in fine fashion; he had four catches for 84 yards against Akron. He had only three catches in the next two games. Then he was back up again: 17 receptions for 198 yards and a TD against Iowa, Indiana and Northwestern. Then down, again: eight catches for 87 yards against the Big Three of Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State.
On Saturday against Rutgers, the university from his home state, he was back up, with five receptions for 78 yards. A big man of faith, the 6-foot-4, 226-pound Johnson never stopped believing.
“I think I’ve handled it well. I don’t let a lot of things get to my head,” Johnson said. “I just try to keep my head down and keep working. As far as me trying to live up to expectations, I just try to keep on doing what I have to do and what I have to do for the team.
“I’m getting more comfortable in every game. I’m still young in my career. Getting in there, getting reps, seeing different looks — every game I’m learning what to do and what not to do.”
After starting all 10 games of 2017, Johnson has seen enough of Penn State’s offense from the inside to not let an early jump by Rutgers wreak havoc.
“When we started slow in the first quarter, the biggest thing was for us not to panic,” he said. “A lot of teams will panic when they’re going slow. We tried to keep our composure, work through some things, make corrections and make things happen.”
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From Nov. 12, 2011 — when Penn State fell 17-14 to Nebraska in its first game since 1965 where Paterno was not the head coach — through the end of the 2014 season, the Nittany Lions were 13-9 in Beaver Stadium. Since then, beginning with the 2015 season-opener against Buffalo, they are 19-1, with a 13-game home winning streak. (The loss? 28-16 to Michigan in 2015, avenged last month.)
DaeSean Hamilton sat out the 2013 season, his first at PSU, with a wrist injury. The first Penn State game in played in was in Dublin against Central Florida, when he caught 11 passes for 165. He led the Big Ten in receptions, from the start to the end of that 2014 season, with 82 (for 889 yards).
As a sophomore and junior? Well, on Saturday Hamilton characterized how the 2015 and ’16 seasons went for him:
“I played horrible last year,” he said. “That’s really all it was. I really didn’t have a good year; it was more like the past year-and-a-half, two years I don’t think I played that well. That’s what it came down to.”
So, he spent the past summer — his last in Happy Valley, as he entered Year No. 5 at PSU — working. Hard. “I was working out two or three times a day to get that monkey off my back,” he said. Specifically, he added, this was his routine:
“In the summer, around 8 or 9 (in the morning), I would get treatment, then work out on my own — with weights, on strength, running routes, sprinting and trying to make myself faster by running with a weighted vest on,” Hamilton said. “We’d have a lift in the afternoon around 1 o’clock. I would do the team workout, and have 7-on-7 afterwards, then do a catch with Mike (Gesicki) or Juwan. The next I would do it all over again. I couldn’t wait for the weekend. I would work my ass off every day. But even on Saturdays or Sundays, we’d find a day to throw, with a lighter load.”
That work has paid off. He has 39 receptions and is on pace for nearly 50, which would be the most since his freshman year. He is averaging 16.7 yards per catch — a 50% increase per grab over the 11 yards he averaged as a freshman. Hamilton is Penn State’s all-time leading receiver, with 200 receptions.
On Saturday against Rutgers, he caught a 22-yarder from Trace McSorley for a TD and he also was the front end of a hook-and-ladder play, where he caught the ball and then lateraled it to Saquon Barkley for a combined 11-yard gain.
That was Career Catch No. 200 for Hamilton. That he shared it with Barkley was slightly symptomatic of Hamilton’s career. Even with a two-century landmark reception, someone else got the Lion’s share of the spotlight.
It’s part of what has been a long learning process, he says.
“The times do get tough, but you’re able to get through them as long as you’re patient and continue working through it,” he said. “And good things will pay off…It takes patience and not giving up on yourself, not giving up on what you’ve been doing all your career and all season.”
Records follow. For all the right reasons.
“It means a lot,” Hamilton said. “I’m happy I’m able to produce for my team. It’s not a self-fulfilling thing. It’s really for the benefit of the team.”
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Seven weeks ago, Barkley was the leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy. Now he is not. But on some lists, he is the No. 1 NFL prospect. And the top pick in last’s draft, Myles Garrett, got a $20 million signing bonus.
Barkley had a school-record 358 all-purpose yards in Penn State’s 21-19 last-second victory against Iowa back on Sept. 23, rushing 28 times for 211 yards, catching 12 passes for 94 yards and returning three kickoffs for 58 yards.
Since then, he’s carried the ball 100 times for 381 yards. Since then, he’s caught 17 passes for 182 yards. Against Rutgers, he ran 14 times for 35 yards.
“The running game,” Barkley said on Saturday, “is like a boxing match. I have to be patient.”
“Saquon,” said Cabinda, “is a guy who keeps on believing.”