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Jack Freifelder | | September 14, 2016

Week 2 special teams spotlight — Pittsburgh Panthers

  Pittsburgh WR Quadree Henderson (10) had an 84-yard kickoff return to ignite a 4th-quarter scoring drive.

If Week 1 of the young college football season was like Christmas morning for fans, then Week 2 was like the time your parents went to donate all your old presents to Good Will.

OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but the sentiment rings true. 

The old adage goes: “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” and boy was Week 2 a change-up from the high-profile matchups of Week 1.

Nonetheless, there were several surprising finishes across the nation, including Central Michigan’s Hail Mary and lateral to top Oklahoma State, Northwestern’s loss at the hands of FCS foe Illinois State and Arkansas’ victory over No. 15 TCU in overtime.

While it may not have been the most exciting matchup on the day, one of the early games on Saturday featured an intrastate bout between the Penn State Nittany Lion and the Pittsburgh Panthers.

The two teams hooked up in a barnburner at Heinz Field, the 97th time that these two rivals have done battle (Pitt leads the overall series 50-43, with four ties).

Pitt would ultimately come out victorious, 42-39, in a game that featured a ton of offense.

In other words, defense was at a premium as the two teams tallied more than 800 yards of total offense, accounted for nearly 40 first downs and scored 11 touchdowns. Maybe it was only three more scores than Arizona State’s RB Kalen Ballage had against Texas Tech this week, but it made for a pretty entertaining game nonetheless.

Back to the matter at hand.

Pitt raced out to an early two-touchdown lead and Penn State was forced to play catch up most of the game, but the Panthers still needed to create some separation as the game entered the fourth quarter.

With about 12 minutes left to play in the game, Penn State narrowed the lead to four at 35-31 after senior place-kicker Tyler Davis knocked a 38-yard attempt through the uprights.

Cue the spotlight.

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On the ensuing kickoff, Pitt’s sophomore wideout Quadree Henderson made what could arguably be called the play of the game. It's funny to highlight a play that was not a touchdown when 80-plus points were put on the board, but that’s just how things go sometimes.

Henderson made sure to play the short kickoff with his momentum carrying him forward, an oft-unheralded aspect of the kickoff and punt return game that can make a big difference between a mediocre return and a game-breaking play.

After fielding the kick at around the 7-yard line, Henderson proceeds up the right hash mark until he meets a wall of blockers around the 20. He starts to run laterally until he sees a hole in front of him near the left hash, and he hits that opening hard.

Henderson’s quick cut to change direction and turn upfield blows open this entire play.

The blocking and scheme certainly provided the lanes, but play design can only do so much for you in football, sometimes it’s just the pure athleticism that has to just take over.

After the play begins to run downhill, it’s really just a one-on-one battle between Henderson and Penn State’s kicker Joey Julius. 

  Henderson made plays from all over the field against Penn State, including his first career receiving TD..
If you know anything about the size differential here — Henderson at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds versus Julius at 5-foot-10, 271 pounds — it’s a no-brainer to see that Julius will be left clutching at air. The end zone angle here really gives viewers the best perspective of the play as it develops.

Henderson is well aware that a foot race between a wideout and a place-kicker is not much of a match. He's what is colloquially referred to in college football as a burner, and boy does he show off the jets here.

That said, at this point in the game Henderson had already established himself as an all-purpose threat. He would finish the day with 201 all-purpose yards (58 yards rushing, 47 yards receiving, 96 yards on kickoffs) and his first career touchdown on a seven-yard strike from Nathan Peterman in the first quarter, but Penn State makes the mistake of giving Henderson a chance to make another play.

And the sophomore from Wilmington, Delaware — who leads the nation in kick-return yardage and is sixth in all-purpose yardage per game — saved his biggest play for his last touch of the game. 

Pitt would score on a James Conner 12-yard touchdown reception three plays later to go up 42-31, just enough cushion to hold off Penn State and running back Saquon Barkley’s five-touchdown effort.

On a day where offense was the feature, a play in the return game proved to be the decisive blow. Maybe next time teams will think twice before kicking off to Pitt's No. 10.

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