STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — It had been a long time since Daequan Hardy fielded a punt. It won’t be long until he lines up to catch another one.
The Penn State cornerback returned two punts for touchdowns, sparking the No. 6 Nittany Lions after a slow start in a 63-0 win over UMass on Saturday.
“Get vertical,” Hardy said. “You try to get as many yards as you can.”
That’s exactly what he did, slashing for 129 yards on three returns with a 56-yard score in the first that helped Penn State recover from a sloppy start in a cold downpour at Beaver Stadium.
Drew Allar threw for three touchdowns and ran for another score, Theo Johnson caught two touchdown passes and Tyler Warren, Kaytron Allen, Trey Potts and Beau Pribula scored to lead the Nittany Lions to their 11th-straight win dating to last season.
Coming off a bye week, and with next week’s trip to No. 3 Ohio State looming, Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) committed its first offensive turnover of the season when Tre Wallace fumbled on the opening drive.
But Penn State’s defense was ready. It forced the first of 10 UMass punts, this one to Hardy who’d never fielded a punt in college.
The cornerback’s skill was evident.
Hardy sidestepped the first two Minutemen on the scene before slicing through the rest for the 55-yard touchdown, all but sealing UMass’s seventh-straight loss. He brought the soggy, poncho-covered fans who’d stuck around to their feet in the third quarter with a 68-yard return that made it 49-0.
“This is going to create issues for people that are evaluating us on film,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Something that’s going to cause them kind of long nights in how they’re going to defend us. I’m not surprised. This is who he’s been.”
It was all Penn State from there.
The Nittany Lions scored touchdowns on their next seven possessions while the defense picked up seven sacks, 14 tackles for loss and an interception.
Allar plunged in from a yard out to make it 14-0 early in the second before Allen powered in on a 9-yard run on Penn State’s next drive. Allar hit his tight ends to cap Penn State’s next three drives — a short over-the-middle throw to Warren then 18- and 30-yard darts to Johnson.
Potts and Pribula scored in the fourth and Penn State held UMass to just 109 yards of offense.
No Penn State player had ever returned two punts for scores in the same game until Hardy — who hadn’t lined up deep since high school — on Saturday. He contributed in other ways for a defense stacked with talented corners.
Hardy added a solo tackle and two pass breakups, his best coming on UMass’ first play of the second half. Then, desperate for any spark, quarterback Taisun Phommachanh threw deep to Anthony Simpson who was covered stride for stride by Hardy.
The Minutemen didn’t throw another deep ball.
“It just seemed like the wind came out of our sails on the (first) punt return,” UMass coach Don Brown said. “We never really got going again.”
UMass: The Minutemen couldn’t protect quarterback Taisun Phommachanh, couldn’t run the ball and had no answers for Penn State’s offensive personnel. They’ll have a lot to work on during their bye week.
Penn State: It wasn’t the best tuneup performance before heading to Columbus next week, but the Nittany Lions were able to stay healthy and continue to play great defense.
UMass: Visits Army on Oct. 28.
Penn State: Visits No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday.