Picking up the pace
UNIVERSITY PARK – It’s easy to forget that many college football players are kids, and when you put an 18-year-old kid in front of 90,000 fans for the first time, chances are he’s going to be nervous and make some big mistakes.
That’s what happened to Christian Hackenberg on Penn State’s first three possessions Saturday.
What he did the rest of the game, however, is why Hackenberg has so many people believing he could become a superstar for the Nittany Lions.
“It was unreal,” the freshman quarterback said of the atmosphere in his first game at Beaver Stadium. “Big, big difference (between) walking in there empty.”
Once he settled down, Hackenberg enjoyed a record-setting day through the air as Penn State dismantled a vastly overmatched Eastern Michigan squad, 45-7, before 92,363 fans. The Lions’ defense had an exceptional day from start to finish, giving up no points, and once the Penn State offense got going, the Eagles had no chance.
Hackenberg threw for a Penn State freshman record 311 yards, completing 23-of-33 passes with one touchdown and one interception. Prolific passing games have never been the norm at Penn State, but that certainly has changed under Bill O’Brien, and the beginning of Hackenberg’s career is a prime example.
Last week he threw for 278 yards, so he now has 589 in two games.
“We’ve got a young, great quarterback,” Penn State receiver Brandon Felder said. “He just has to get the feel of the game. Once he gets comfortable, it’s going to be a show, a great show.”
Hackenberg clearly wasn’t comfortable early Saturday. He overthrew his target three times on the first series and once again on the second. On the first play of his third series, he dropped back, dropped the ball without being touched and saw Eastern Michigan linebacker Hunter Matt scoop it up and return it for an 11-yard touchdown.
When he got to the sideline, Hackenberg was met by O’Brien, who went over to the bench and sat down for a few seconds with the young quarterback. Exactly what was said is unknown, but it made a world of difference as Hackenberg completed 78.6 percent of his passes (22-of-28) the rest of the day.
“He just told me to calm down, just next play,” Hackenberg said. “That’s how I approached it.”
Four plays into the next series, Hackenberg made the throw that calmed him down, a 43-yard strike down the seam to Allen Robinson that set up a tying touchdown.
“That was a big confidence builder,” Hackenberg said.
O’Brien said after the game he just reminded his quarterback to “go back to the basics of the offensive scheme and throwing mechanics.”
“This is a calm kid,” O’Brien said. “He was jacked up. I was reminded by one of the assistant coaches again that this is his first game in Beaver Stadium. You can take 5,000 recruiting trips here, but it ain’t like playing here. So this was his first game and he was amped up, and I thought he settled down pretty well.”
Penn State’s offense still didn’t look like a thing of beauty for the rest of the first half, which ended with the Lions holding only a 17-7 lead. Bill Belton’s 5-yard touchdown run gave Penn State (2-0) the lead for good early in the second quarter, but Hackenberg threw an interception, and a two-minute drill that looked promising wound up producing a Sam Ficken field goal after back-to-back holding penalties.
“It’s still a work in progress,” O’Brien said of the offense. “(They) have to execute better, especially in the beginning of the game, but a lot of fun to coach this group. They’re resilient. It’s a resilient football team.”
Penn State continued to struggle with three empty drives to start the second half, but with Eastern Michigan (1-1) doing nothing offensively, the Lions remained in complete control. Then they started pouring it on beginning late in the third quarter.
“Eventually we came along and we started to play our game, we started to be productive on offense,” guard John Urschel said.
A key sequence came after Hackenberg was sacked twice in a row to set up third-and-24. Zach Zwinak busted free for 20 yards, and O’Brien decided to go for it on fourth-and-4 from Eastern Michigan’s 12. Hackenberg found Brandon Felder for 7 yards, and Zwinak took it into the end zone on the next play for a 24-7 lead.
Hackenberg made a nifty play stepping up into the pocket and lofting a 45-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Robinson with 12:25 left in the game.
Eastern Michigan lost the fight it had early on, and Penn State pounded the Eagles with two more scores. Belton broke free up the middle for a 51-yard touchdown with 9:47 left, and Akeel Lynch scored from 18 yards out with 4:26 to go.
Belton finished with 108 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries, and Robinson had 129 yards on seven receptions.
Hackenberg’s 311 yards passing surpassed Zack Mills’ previous freshman record of 280 set in 2002, and the Lions finished with 574 yards of total offense.
“It would have been very easy for him to get flustered, start to get concerned, start to question himself,” Urschel said of Hackenberg. “But we just stayed the course, and he really did a great job of leading us and leading by example. That’s just a testament to the type of character he has.”
Hackenberg will have his ups and downs as the season goes on, but if his numbers the first two games are an indication, he’s well on his way to equaling the high expectations everyone placed on him.
“I really didn’t have any ridiculous expectations,” he said of his goals this season. “I just tried to come in here and do my job, and the offense, how it’s designed, will take care of itself.”