Christian Hackenberg delivers in opener
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Breaking a huddle, addressing a horde of reporters, and celebrating a touchdown in an NFL venue -- Christian Hackenberg was a lot of places most true freshman do not get to be Saturday.
Hackenberg, 18, not only got the start at quarterback for Penn State, but settled in and threw two second half scores in the team's 23-17 season-opening win against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium.
The Nittany Lions (1-0) had a quarterback battle at the beginning of training camp, and though coach Bill O'Brien never publicly named a starter before Saturday's contest, he said afterward he made the decision to start Hackenberg two weeks ago. The choice proved favorably, as Hackenberg completed 22 of his 31 attempts for 278 yards, was intercepted twice, but connected for two touchdowns.
"It's a big change, but this coaching staff has helped me get through this," Hackenberg said of adjusting to the new level of play. "The team has helped me get through this. I'm just trying to really immerse myself in the team and what the coaches are preaching every day."
Hackenberg, who beat out junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson for the starting spot, had a modest first half (11-for-15, 69 yards, one interception), and the Lions carried a 6-3 lead into the locker room. However, in the final 30 minutes, the five-star recruit out of Fork Union Military Academy completed touchdown passes of 51 and 54 yards.
"[Hackenberg] is a talented guy. He’s got a long way to go," O'Brien said. "It’s one game. He made some nice throws. He made some mistakes, and I made some bad play calls, put him in bad situations and we’ll just keep learning from each other."
Hackenberg's first score was a strike to Allen Robinson, who accumulated two catches, 76 yards and a touchdown on his first two plays of the game. Those were the first two offensive plays of the third quarter, because O'Brien had the star wideout sit out the first half of the game for an undisclosed reason the coach said would stay between him and the player.
Robinson, the 2012 Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year, became Hackenberg's favorite target by game's end and finished with a game-high seven catches for 133 yards.
"It was important to make that decision for him," O'Brien said of Robinson's benching. "But, when he came back in, in the second half, obviously we try to get him the ball."
Penn State's second touchdown came in the fourth quarter when Hackenberg floated a ball over the Syracuse defense to hit Eugene Lewis in the front of the endzone. Though he would be intercepted after the pass to Lewis, Hackenberg said he felt more in-tune with the offense as the game went along.
"[As a] freshman coming in, first snap was always big for me," Hackenberg said. "But once I got that out of the way and started getting more completions under my belt, the team started moving the ball, and I felt more comfortable."
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound righty also noted that though he is younger than most players on the roster, he senses a mutual respect in the locker room.
"We know who the signal caller is, and we're listening to him," center Ty Howle said. "He's seeing it out there, calling it out and we're all on the same page."
Penn State's running game had a shaky day, as Zach Zwinak was held to 61 yards on 24 carries. But the offense was helped by the right foot of Sam Ficken, who drilled three field goals -- including a career-long from 46 yards.
Lewis' grab put the Lions up by double-digits with less than 12 minutes to play, but the team needed some crucial stops from its defense down the stretch. Penn State allowed one fourth quarter touchdown, but it came on a one-play, one-yard drive after Hackenberg's second interception.
The defense limited the Orange to 260 total yards and got a great effort from senior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong. Linebacker Mike Hull went down with a knee injury in the first half, so Obeng-Agyapong, whose normal role is safety, helped fill in and stuffed the box score (eight tackles, one sack, one interception, and he forced and recovered a fumble).
O'Brien said his team played "Penn State defense." The Lions had a total of three takeaways, the final one coming when Trevor Williams intercepted Allen to ice the game with barely a minute on the clock.
Hackenberg trotted back to the field after Williams' pick, and got to break the huddle for the final three plays like every quarterback would want to end a game: in victory formation.
"He's a smart football player for a guy who is 18 years old," O'Brien said of Hackenberg. "…He understands things. He made some mistakes today, but there's a lot to build on."
NOTES: Tight end Matt Lehman was carted off the field with an apparent left knee injury, but O'Brien had no update after the game. Ferguson did play one series, and completed the only pass he threw for 18 yards. However, he lost a fumble as the ball slipped through his hands on his second passing attempt. Northeast High School product Deion Barnes hurried the quarterback twice and deflecting a pass. Sicklerville, N.J. native Bill Belton had six carries for 19 yards.