Hackenberg delivers in debut
Four months prior to Saturday's Battle in the Apple against Syracuse, Christian Hackenberg was at his senior prom and anticipating his high school graduation.
Saturday, the true freshman signalcaller stepped on to the field as Penn State's starting quarterback before 61,202 in the same stadium that will host the Super Bowl later this season.
So how did the youngster do? He performed above expectations by providing thrills in some cases while showing his inexperience in others. The bottom line is the folks in Happy Valley are seeing rays of sunshine through the dark clouds that have hung over State College the past two years.
Against an above average Syracuse team, the Virginia high-school product with plenty of area ties, shredded the Syracuse defense with 71 percent accuracy by hitting on 22 of 31 passes. He totaled 278 yards and two scores. While those numbers are rather impressive, Hackenberg also threw two interceptions.
"He made some nice throws and he made some mistakes," head coach Bill O'Brien said.
Hackenberg, whose father (football) and mother (volleyball) were both Division I athletes who graduated from Marian High School and later coached there, connected on his first six passes and 11-of-15 in the first half in spite of the fact that All-Big Ten wide out Allen Robinson was benched for undisclosed reasons. His only mistake was an interception deep in Syracuse territory that killed a potential scoring drive.
With Penn State leading 6-3, Robinson returned to the lineup after intermission and caught six passes for 115 yards. Hackenberg hit him on a screen on the first play for 25 yards and then for a 51-yard bomb for his first collegiate touchdown pass.
"He's a great player and he made some great plays for us," Hackenberg said afterwards about Robinson.
Hackenberg's big day did not end there. He orchestrated a long drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters and led to the third of three field goals by Sam Ficken and a 16-10 lead.
This led to his biggest throw of the game. With 11:54 left in the game, Hackenberg went deep and hit Geno Lewis for a 54-yard touchdown pass that boosted Penn State's lead to 23-10.
"He's got a tremendous future," O'Brien cautioned. "But we're not ready to waltz him into the College Football Hall of Fame and certainly not the NFL Hall of Fame. We're just saying that he's a talented guy but he's got a long way to go."
The fact that Hackenberg has a long way to go is what the Penn State fans should keep in mind. That last true freshman to start a game at quarterback for the Nittany Lions was Rob Bolden in 2010. He connected on 20-of-29 for 239 yards against Youngstown State and that energized the Penn State faithful. Bolden, a third stringer under O'Brien last year, transferred to LSU where he sits as a third string quarterback for the Tigers.
On the possession following the touchdown, the inexperience of Hackenberg showed. After a Syracuse punt, Penn State took over on its own 12-yard line. An 18-yard screen pass by Hackenberg to Robinson gave them some breathing room, but not enough to keep the freshman out of trouble.
On 2nd and 11, Hackenberg was pressured in the pocket, evaded the rush and threw the ball away; a skill that some pro quarterbacks fail to achieve.
On 3rd and 11, O'Brien asked his freshman to throw again. With the primary receiver covered to the left, he scanned right and threw to what he thought was an open receiver. Defensive lineman Robert Welsh stepped in front for the interception. The return to the 1-yard line and eventual score cut the lead to six points.
"Hindsight being 20/20, I put him in a bad situation there," O'Brien said. "I made a mistake. I put him in that position. I need to look at that and do a better job of that."
O'Brien said the Orange defense made a great call to drop the defensive lineman into coverage and Hackenberg has never seen that type of coverage in a game. That type of zone scheme will surely be seen down the road as they play the rigorous Big Ten slate.
"We've got a long way to go. We were just trying to win the day and we won today and we're grateful for that," O'Brien said of the win. "We have a lot to improvement to do on offense, I think everyone can see that there is talent on offense."
While the future may be bright, it will have its bumps and its growing pains. Hackenberg, with all of his hype, has withstood his first college test and passed it with high marks. His second test came after the game facing the fifty or so media asking him questions.
"I was definitely nervous," Hackenberg said when asked about his pre-game jitters, thanking his coaches and teammates for getting him through that. "Once the game starts, it's just football."
"He's a very poised kid, he's got a fantastic demeanor," O'Brien said.
In the coming weeks, Hackenberg will need that poise and demeanor as well as Allen Robinson for a full game. The star receiver finished with 7 catches for 133 yards a score. Imagine what his and Hackenberg's numbers would have been if he had played the whole game.