Milestone Game From Hackenberg Pushes Penn State Past Maryland

Story posted October 25, 2015 in CommRadio, Sports by Marley Paul

BALTIMORE — Christian Hackenberg first donned the prestigious white and blue Penn State jersey in August 2013 as he began his collegiate career at MetLife Stadium for a program buried in NCAA sanctions, including a four-year postseason ban. Two year later, the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year walked out of M&T Bank Stadium as a cemented Nittany Lion great, and bowl eligible for the second straight season.

It’s been a tumultuous season for the Nittany Lion aerial attack, but a 315-yard day on 13 completions with three touchdowns from Hackenberg carried Penn State over Maryland 31-30. 

The junior signal caller now stands as the all-time school leader in career passing yards (7,453), completions (608), and attempts (1,082), surpassing ’04 quarterback Zack Mills. Hackenberg also is now tied for second in passing touchdowns (43), trailing Matt McGloin by three.

"For me, that’s something that’s not going to hit me until later on down the road,” Hackenberg said, reflecting on the records. "But it was really cool to be able to go out and get that done today and have my teammates around.” 

“It’s a product of a lot of things, a lot of great players coming through here helping me out. I don’t ever try and make it about me.”

His receivers certainly helped him out today, leaping up for 50/50 balls and coming down big with big plays as the Nittany Lions (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) had five passing plays of over 30 yards. 

Hackenberg’s favorite target last season, DaeSean Hamilton, and his top receiver this season, Chris Godwin, combined for 231 yards  and two touchdowns on nine catches. But it was junior receiver Geno Lewis who caught the go-ahead touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter, as Hackenberg hung in the pocket on a blitz to deliver a 27-yard bomb to Lewis, who jumped over his defender and snatched the football for the score that put Penn State 31-27. 

"I was big time proud of all of them,” head coach James Franklin said of his receivers. "They are doing a good job, with the opportunities that they get, taking advantage of them. 

"Geno Lewis hasn’t had a lot of opportunities lately but he went up and snagged the ball. I am really proud of him and how he handled that."

This game was back and forth from start to finish, as the teams exchanged leads six times, but a disruptive Penn State defense, forcing five Maryland (2-5, 0-3 Big Ten) turnovers, secured the victory for the Nittany Lions.

Maryland quarterback Perry Hills punished the Lions on the ground piling up 124 yards on 26 rushes, but failed to take care of the ball, throwing three interceptions—on the opening and final drives—and coughing the ball up three times and losing it twice.

But Hills’ success on the ground showed Penn State's inability to contain mobile quarterbacks. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett won the starting job after his 102-yard, two-touchdown outing last week.

“You have to stop the running back, you have to stop the quarterback and you have to stop the run-pass-options. It’s a challenge,” Franklin said. "The most important thing is that we held them to one less point than our offense scored."

In his first game as interim head coach, Mike Locksley implemented dangerous return man Will Likely on offense, and the cornerback was effective, gaining 30 yards on four carries. Already with three special teams touchdowns this season, Likely was relatively kept in check by the Penn State special teams unit averaging 8 yards per punt and 25 yards per kick return.  

The ground game didn’t open up much for freshman running back Saquon Barkley, who managed 67 yards on 20 carries plus two fumbles, but the back did score Penn State’s first touchdown on a 6-yard run, which was preceded by two passes that found Hamilton and Godwin for 38- and 40-yard gains.

It didn’t look pretty, but the Nittany Lions did what they had to do to go “1-0” for the sixth time in eight attempts, and are in position to add an extra game to the calendar in December for the second season after being sitting out in 2013 despite winning seven games.

"We are bowl eligible. We will talk about it for about 30 seconds and then move on and go back to being 1-0 again,” Franklin said. "Like I told the seniors, tonight allowed us to keep our family together for another month or so at the end of the season."

Next up for Penn State is a Halloween matchup versus Illinois at Beaver Stadium with a noon kickoff. 

Marley Paul is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism. To contact him, or follow him on Twitter: @MPaulPSU