Bump in the Road for Hackenberg
Christian Hackenberg didn’t look like the reigning and two-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Saturday; he looked like a normal freshman.
The 34-0 final score of Penn State’s matchup wouldn’t indicate his struggles, but the Nittany Lions’ true freshman quarterback suffered the worst game of his career.
Hackenberg started strong, tossing a touchdown on 7 of 10 passing in the first quarter, but it was all downhill from there. His final stats for the night read: 13-for-35 passing for 176 yards, with one touchdown, one interception, one fumble and two sacks taken.
It was those running downhill who bailed out Hackenberg.
Zwinak-Belton-Lynch. Belton-Lynch-Zwinak. Lynch-Zwinak-Belton. No matter the order, these guys can run. The trio ran, and then ran some more on Saturday, totaling 42 carries and 282 yards. For the game, 17 Penn State first downs came via the ground opposed to eight in the air.
Before Saturday, Kent State previously surrendered 186 yards on the ground per game. Penn State eclipsed that mark by over 100.
It should be expected that an 18-year-old will rely on those around him from time to time. Throughout the game, it seemed as though it would end in victory for the Nittany Lions, but the momentum swung in full-force when head coach Bill O’Brien shifted his approach.
“I wish I had a couple of play calls back,” said O’Brien. “We were running the ball well, and there was one series where we threw three times in a row, and I should have eluded that.”
In the third quarter, Penn State notched their third touchdown on a nine-play drive that included eight rushes. The drive featured all three running backs and ended with a leaping touchdown from Zach Zwinak.
Zwinak gave credit to those blocking for him and commented that it is always fun to run behind the offensive line unit.
Center, Miles Dieffenbach continues to recognize the talent behind him.
“We have three, big, fast, tough, running backs,” said the senior lineman. “That’s something Penn State is all about. It’s something I love, and keeps the defense on their toes.”
The man who snaps the ball to Hackenberg also realizes his quarterback’s value, although unseen against the Golden Flashes.
“Sometimes the running game isn’t working and Christian picks us up in the passing game,” said Dieffenbach.
Saturday wasn’t one of the days, but that doesn’t change the opinion in the locker room of the freshman leader.
“I have complete confidence in Christian,” said O’Brien postgame. “He’s a great young quarterback, and has a bright future.
Essentially, Penn State features three first-teamers, which isn’t a bad option for Hackenberg.
The Fork Union native, tried and tried on deep balls, but to no avail, as his touch was off all afternoon. Hackenberg’s accuracy, which had been slightly above 70% through three weeks, barely reached a 37% completion rate on Saturday.
Even the potent combination with Allen Robinson didn’t work as well, as the two connected just three times for 43 yards.
However, the struggles didn’t seem to affect or change Hackenberg’s demeanor.
“To be so young, he definitely takes control of the huddle,” said Donovan Smith, who recovered Hackenberg’s first quarter fumble. “He had great poise and that’s all you can ask for from a young quarterback.”
To give Hackenberg credit, he was good in the first quarter, which was all the time Penn State needed to score the go-ahead points. Also, rainy and potentially slippery conditions should be factored into a game evaluation.
Earlier in the week, “Professor” O’Brien awarded Hackenberg, with a “B” grade through three weeks of play. The mark likely would be lower for Saturday’s performance, but the semester is just a third finished. The career GPA; well that will see an increase.
“O’Brien always preaches the next play, the next play,” said Zwinak. “You just got to let each play go and run the next play to the best of your ability.”
Christian Hackenberg will appreciate his teammates and the victory, but now not only focus on the next play, but the next game.
Eric DeBerardinis is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.