Daequan Hardy Makes History In Stunning Performance During Win Over UMass
Daequan Hardy has a humble and soft-spoken aura about him. He doesn’t brag, nor does he strike you as the kind of person who craves the spotlight, even when he plays well. But Hardy would’ve had every right to brag after his performance in Penn State’s 63-0 thumping of UMass on Saturday, as he set a school record by returning two punts for touchdowns while additionally posting a modest two pass breakups and one tackle.
Hardy’s performance was historic in other ways, too. He became the first Big Ten player since Iowa’s Kevonte Martin-Manley in 2013 to accomplish return two punts for touchdowns, and he is now one of 25 FBS players with two punt return touchdowns in one game since 2000. Whether he likes the attention or not, Hardy put himself on the map against UMass, and it was as clear as daylight to James Franklin.
“Obviously, the story of the night is Daequan Hardy,” Franklin said. “This is going to change things. First, this is going to create issues for people who are evaluating us on film and something that’s going to cause them kind of long nights in how they’re going to defend him. So, guys that can make big plays and be explosive and protect the football are valuable and he’s done a phenomenal job, but I’m not surprised.”
Hardy’s first touchdown came with four minutes remaining in the opening quarter. He received a punt at Penn State’s 44-yard line and ran with it, maneuvering his way around scores of Minutemen and into the end zone, emulating Saquon Barkley’s signature celebration after completing a 56-yard return to give the Nittany Lions a 7-0 lead.
“I just ran…my teammates did a great job blocking for me,” said Hardy. “When I kind of got past the first level, I was just thinking ‘touchdown’ after that.”
To. The. House. pic.twitter.com/2FBmHth2pO— Onward State (@OnwardState) October 14, 2023
The second play came around the same time in the third quarter. Hardy made the catch at his own 32-yard line, slipped between two Minutemen, and then ran around several others, outpacing another defender on his way into the end zone. What was left of the rain-soaked crowd erupted, and Penn State led 49-0.
“I caught it, got vertical, and made a guy miss. I was trying to get to the edge and my teammates again just did a great job of blocking as the play went on,” he said afterward.
Twice as nice pic.twitter.com/lwiSbMgRC9— Onward State (@OnwardState) October 14, 2023
Hardy’s athleticism was on full display in both plays. The 5’9″, 178-pound cornerback said he ran a 4.32 in the 40-yard dash, so it’s not surprising that he was able to outrun and maneuver around an entire UMass team twice.
However, this is something Hardy has done for years. He returned punts in high school, and it is something that is like second-hand nature to him.
“I just think being a ball carrier is almost a natural thing, so just being able to find the holes and make guys miss is almost just natural to me,” he said.
The redshirt senior feels he’s only gotten better this season. He has become more familiar with Manny Diaz’s defense and believes he’s grown as a player.
“Right now, I feel like I’m doing a good job,” Hardy said. “My man coverage from last year has improved; just understanding the concept and the scheme of the defense has helped me just play faster and be a better player.”
Hardy, however, hasn’t been talked about much or generated significant buzz during his five years in Happy Valley. He naturally flew under the radar, but it’s unlikely he’ll be able to do so after Saturday’s performance. As Franklin said, teams will have to dedicate more time to preparing for Hardy, adding another layer of stress that comes before playing a team as good as Penn State.
Despite the noise that comes with this impressive performance, Hardy doesn’t appear fazed. He’s focused on doing the best he can on a daily basis, which includes anything that is asked of him.
“I just go on the field and try to perform my best,” Hardy said.
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