Penn State vs Ohio State
Penn State vs Ohio State is the premier Big Ten matchup of the week, maybe even of the season depending on who you ask about Wisconsin. Within the clash of two conference powerhouses lies an explosive player matchup between an electric receiver and a cornerback who sticks like glue: Penn State WR KJ Hamler and Ohio State CB Shaun Wade.
Of the two, Wade is on his way to becoming a higher draft pick, but Hamler is too exciting a player not to start with.
Hamler isn’t an imposing figure at 5-foot-9, 176-pounds. There isn’t a DB in the country that he will bully physically, but his short, slippery frame makes him a ghost in space. Hamler is tough to get a hand on, especially once the ball is in his hands.
Players as small as Hamler shouldn’t have this kind of balance. Only a step or two after catching the ball, Hamler bounces off a Maryland tackler flying in from a safety position. Hamler is able to make a slight move just before contact to soften the blow, allowing him to slip out of the tackle attempt for regaining his balance and taking off down the sideline. With a bit of shake-n-bake, Hamler makes another Maryland defender whiff. One of Hamler’s teammates picks off the last defender in the way of the goal line and springs the short speedster into the end zone. Plays like that are just a sliver of what makes Hamler one of the most explosive post-catch players in the country.
Hamler isn’t just a weapon in the open field with the ball, though. Playing out of the slot at his size, Hamler is often tough to get a hand on at the line of scrimmage and throughout his early stem. As a result, Hamler is often afforded an early cushion to maximize his stunning quickness and ability to separate at a moment’s notice. Hamler is particularly deadly if he gets a step on vertical routes.
Hamler is the #3 receiver to the trips set here (innermost receiver). As usual, Hamler is off the ball and afforded a few yards of cushion off the line of scrimmage from the defensive back. Hamler stems straight down the midpoint of the defensive back until slicing up and to the left. The defensive back never gets a hand on Hamler to slow him down and immediately falls behind in the play. The instant Hamler got even with the defensive back, he separated further and further with each subsequent step. Hamler turned the route into a foot race as quickly as possible, and Hamler doesn’t lose very many of those.
The vertical aspect of Hamler’s game, in particular, should be an issue for his primary opponent, Ohio State slot cornerback Shaun Wade. Despite being a generally impressive athlete, Wade has a tendency to let receivers get past him and burn down the field. This doesn’t happen at an alarming rate and Wade isn’t a detriment to Ohio State’s coverage in any way, but if there is a spot where he has shown vulnerability from time to time, it’s against vertical routes.
In all fairness to Wade, this throw from Wisconsin’s quarterback is sick, but it’s still a loss for the Ohio State corner. At the snap, the receiver takes a rather wide stem at the snap and avoids immediate contact from Wade. By the time Wade gets a hand on the receiver, he is not able to stack on top of him and play in front of his inside hip. Wade gets caught trailing a half step behind and is exposed to being beaten with a throw over the top. Wisconsin’s quarterback provides just that and places the ball away from Wade, as he was never able to slow down the route or get into a dominant position against the receiver’s route.
On the other hand, Wade is shutdown with everything that doesn’t ultimately turn into a foot race. Wade’s short-area quickness and hip flexibility make it easy for him to redirect and match wide receiver’s routes without missing a beat.
Wade being this sticky in coverage isn’t just about his athletic ability. No matter where the route breaks, Wade shows a great sense for how, when, and where routes are going to break. That takes instincts and a degree of film study that not every player has or can strive for. The extra split second he saves in anticipating routes combined with his athleticism gives him all the tools to run receivers’ routes for them and beat them to the ball.
While Wade will likely be the one to face off against Hamler for most of the game, do not be surprised if Jeffrey Okudah gets a few reps versus Hamler. Okudah is primarily an outside cornerback and Hamler is mostly a slot receiver, but both have seen time at opposite spots this season, so it isn’t out of the question that they see each other a few times.
If they do get to face off at all, Okudah vs Hamler is an even more compelling matchup. Okudah is a star cornerback with elite movement skills in every sense of the concept. It might be an easy comparison because they share the same Alma Mater, but Okudah’s blend of length, speed, and smooth hips all around are reminiscent of Marshon Lattimore, who has been a stud for most of his career with the New Orleans Saints. Hamler would have a tougher time with Okudah not only because of his speed, but because Okudah is dominant at the catch point whereas Hamler is … just there. The puny Penn State track star should be hoping to avoid the future top-10 pick at cornerback.
Assuming Ohio State provide better safety help over the top than most other schools have been able to do against Hamler, Wade (and Okudah) should come out ahead in this matchup. Hamler will likely make a splash play or two because of the sheer volume of chances he will get, but Wade has the goods to keep Hamler contained for a good portion of the day.
Arizona State vs Oregon
No wide receiver in the country has done more for their NFL Draft stock this year than Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk. The senior entered the season as a fairly unheralded Day 3 candidate who played second fiddle to N’Keal Harry for years. Fast forward a few months later and Aiyuk is suddenly looking at becoming a top-50 draft pick and an athletic stud that evaluators across the league are dying to see at the NFL Combine.
Penn State WR KJ Hamler made an appearance earlier in this week’s spotlight for his ability after the catch, but not even Hamler can match Aiyuk after the catch. Not only does Aiyuk have the speed, shiftiness, flexibility, and balance to be an all-around destroyer of worlds with the ball in his hands, but he seems to have an innate sense for how to manipulate his body just right to create unique angles or movements. It’s tough to tangibly identify what Aiyuk is doing to minimize contact, but it’s similar to the slipperiness that Lamar Jackson shows. There is just something about his ability to mitigate contact or slip past it altogether from positions that most other players just can’t.
This clip isn’t the absolute peak of Aiyuk’s unique ability to evade contact, but it’s still quite impressive. Aiyuk catches this ball and instantly turns up the field. While blazing at full speed away from the cornerback who was supposed to cover him, Aiyuk bends his path back behind where he initially caught the ball to bend inside of the deep safety. For one, there is no way the safety expected Aiyuk to take that path, but it’s also absurd that Aiyuk is able to bend his path all the way back like that without losing an ounce of speed. Few players can maintain their top speed while weaving through traffic.
Rather than straight line speed and flexibility, here is a look at Aiyuk’s balance and burst. Aiyuk is forced to reach back for this ball and stop his momentum upon receiving the ball. Despite losing all his speed, Aiyuk is able to plant his feet and shake off the would-be tackler. Shedding the first tackler is impressive in and of itself, but Aiyuk immediately flies out of the broken tackle down the sideline, beating the angle of another Oregon State defender on his way to an extra 15 yards.
The Oregon Ducks feature a better secondary than the Oregon State Beavers, though. DC Andy Avalos’ rock solid defense is held together on the back end by junior CB Deommodore Lenoir and redshirt sophomore CB Thomas Graham. Neither are star cornerbacks with a first-round future, but they will get picked, if they choose to declare, and have enticing upside were they to stay in school for another year (or two).
Of the two, Lenoir is more likely to stack up against Aiyuk. Lenoir sports a fair build at 5-foot-11, 202-pounds and covers all the bases in terms of athleticism for the position. Lenoir doesn’t quite have the oily hips of Marshon Lattimore or the closing speed of Jalen Ramsey, but his issues will seldom root in his inability to matchup athletically. The junior CB even flashes a fair amount of physicality and balance, particularly in pestering WRs through their stems.
Where Lenoir really shines, though, is when the ball comes his way. Lenoir understands quite well how to locate the ball and find a way to get to it before the wide receiver can. Of course, that means just disrupting the catch point for an incompletion more often than not, but Lenoir constantly gives himself chances at interceptions, even if he doesn’t regularly come down with them.
As Aiyuk’s profile shows, however, the catch point isn’t really where he wants to win anyway. Aiyuk thrives in being able to separate down the field and being an unrivaled after-the-catch player. While Lenoir have the skills to limit Aiyuk to just a few catches, Aiyuk may only need a handful of chances to break off the big one.
Aiyuk’s speed and prowess in the open field should prove too overwhelming for Oregon, as it has for every other team in his path.
Utah State vs Boise State
What better place to choose an unusual matchup than the Mountain West? The MWC is a whacky, watered down version of the PAC-12 and it’s only right that the late-night charades earn a matchup as unusual as the conference.
Utah State QB Jordan Love won’t have to worry about outdueling another draft eligible QB or a particular defender in coverage like past QB features have had to worry about. Instead, Love will have to keep his head on a swivel so that he doesn’t get it clean knocked off of his body by Boise State EDGE Curtis Weaver. Weaver is currently third in the country and first in the Group of Five in sacks, and you’d best believe he wants to get that top overall spot by season’s end.
Like the conference and this matchup, Weaver is a bit of an atypical player. He carries a sort of frumpy 6-foot-3, 265-pound frame, which may suggest he is more of a strong-side end with a major in run defense, but Weaver is a speed rusher first and foremost. Weaver’s burst off the line is among the best in the country, as is his understanding of how to attack the outside shoulder and dip around the arc. The redshirt junior pass rusher has other ways to win, but in the MWC, he isn’t often required to use other tactics.
Through raw speed or a nice hand swipe, or a mix of both, Weaver can consistently find his way into opposing pockets. Weaver has failed to record at least a half-sack in just three of his ten appearances this season. For comparison, Weaver has just as many games without a sack (three) as he does with at least two sacks (three). Weaver is as much a model of consistency as he is a force for play making.
Love will have a target on his back in this one. The matchup may be particularly tricky for him not only because of Weaver’s individual prowess, but because Utah State’s offensive line is a disaster and Love’s handling of pressure is hit or miss.
More specifically, Love can be okay against pressure if he is afforded room to step up in the pocket. With Weaver being an edge rusher, there may be cases in this game in which Weaver gets around the edge, but the interior of the pocket is open enough for Love to move up. However, Boise State’s interior is also rather impressive for a MWC and, as stated, Utah State’s offensive line isn’t doing their quarterback any favors.
As such, it’s likely that we end up with a number of plays that look closer to this example. Love is not provided an immediate place to step up into the pocket and is forced to make a hurried decision. Love tries to scramble at first, but quickly realizes he is going to be closed in on, so he tries to rush a throw out to avoid being sacked. While Love could have thrown this away and allowed his team to punt, the redshirt junior passer fires a ball into a nonexistent window for an interception that set up the opponent with excellent field position.
With as prone as Love is to making hurried decisions and how bad Utah State’s supporting cast around him is, Weaver and the Broncos should be able to tee off on the 6-4 Aggies offense. Boise State are the best team in the Mountain West (again) and Weaver won’t let a quarterback with more interceptions than touchdowns stop that from being true.