Lions count on Hackenberg for fast start
UNIVERSITY PARK (AP) – Christian Hackenberg gets his first chance to show the home fans what they have in Penn State’s quarterback of the future.
Hackenberg put up gaudy numbers and notched the win in the Nittany Lions’ first game against Syracuse. Now, it’s time to see if he can do more of the same in Happy Valley when Penn State plays its home opener Saturday against Eastern Michigan.
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, who lost the home opener last year to Ohio, has stood by his philosophy that he’s a one-quarterback coach. He meant it when he picked Hackenberg over junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson.
Hackenberg, a five-star recruit rated the top pocket passer in the nation, made his coach look like a genius with a fantastic opener en route to a 23-17 win at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Hackenberg was Penn State’s second true freshman quarterback to start a season opener since 1910. He was 22 of 31 for 278 yards, with a pair of 50-yard touchdown passes in the second half, and he led the Nittany Lions on five scoring drives.
His yards passing total was the third highest by a freshman in school history.
“We’re figuring each other out,” O’Brien said. “Now he knows what I’m like on game day and I know what he’s like. It’s going to be interesting going forward. He’s a bright kid, he’s been able to pick up so many different things in our offense, so it’s more me doing a better job with him than him doing a better job, to be honest with you.”
Hackenberg should be at ease against the Eagles of the Mid-American Conference. But he’ll have at least one less contributor on offense. Tight end Matt Lehman is out for the rest of the season after suffering a knee injury against Syracuse. He caught 24 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Maybe another strong game can energize the fan base. Beaver Stadium had dwindling crowds last season in the first year after the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the lingering effects still scar the program. Penn State is offering a gameday discount to students to try to put more fans in the seats.
O’Brien honored the players who stuck around after the NCAA levied sanctions on the program by putting their names on the back of their jerseys.
He would love for the entire program – down to the fans – to band together through the tough times.
“We’re counting on a great turnout, O’Brien said, “from our fans.”
Here are five things to watch when Penn State hosts Eastern Michigan:
The moment to remember in the home opener may actually happen at halftime. More than 50 members of the Penn State’s undefeated 1973 team will be honored. The Nittany Lions capped a perfect 12-0 season with an Orange Bowl win against LSU but failed to win the national championship. John Cappelletti, the 1973 Heisman Trophy winner, will attend the 40th anniversary celebration. O’Brien said any members of that team have an open invitation to attend practice or address this year’s squad.
Lost in the excitement of Hackenberg’s debut was a backfield performance that shouldn’t even worry Eastern Michigan. The Nittany Lions’ sputtering running game only gained 57 yards on 38 carries. Zach Zwinak, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season, was held to 61 yards against Syracuse and never broke free for anything longer than an 11-yard gain. With Hackenberg twice connecting on 50-yard scores, there was less time for the ground game to get going. Look for the running backs to try and control the pace, especially if Penn State opens the second half with a big lead. “Hopefully, you will see improvement this week against Eastern Michigan,” O’Brien said.
Eastern Michigan kicked off its 122nd season with a 34-24 win over Howard. The Eagles defeated Army, 48-38, last season and snapped a winless streak against non-conference FBS teams that dated to 2005. A victory at Penn State would give EMU back-to-back victories against non-conference FBS teams for the first time since 1987.
Keep an eye on Penn State kicker Sam Ficken. He has made 13 straight field goal attempts overall and started the season by going 3 for 3 vs. the Orange. Ficken booted through kicks of 36, 35 and a career-best 46 yards early in the fourth quarter. “He understands how to kick the ball and is able to coach himself in some ways,” O’Brien said.
Penn State opened as a 28-point favorite over the Eagles. A slam dunk? Maybe not. After all, Ohio is out of the MAC as well. Still, Penn State owns a 19-3 record against the current football alignment of that league.