BY Dan Gelston
STATE COLLEGE —
Christian Hackenberg had to hold on to his secret that he was Penn State’s starting quarterback tighter than his playbook.
After a debut to remember, there’s no doubt which QB is leading offense for the immediate future at Happy Valley.
Hackenberg is the man.
He dazzled coach Bill O’Brien enough in training camp to wrest the job away from Tyler Ferguson and earn the starting spot last week against Syracuse. O’Brien refused to publicly name the starter and keep fans in the dark until pretty much the moment the 18-year-old Hackenberg led the Nittany Lions on to the field at MetLife Stadium.
Hackenberg’s arrival was considered one of the biggest victories of O’Brien’s two seasons at Penn State. He committed before the program was slammed by NCAA sanctions due to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Nittany Lions fans worried Hackenberg might bail, but he stuck it out and the future is now for the freshman.
Up next for Hackenberg and new-look offense? Penn State’s home opener Saturday against Eastern Michigan.
“Christian’s the starter,” O’Brien said. “But Tyler needs to be ready to play.”
Ferguson, a junior college transfer, played only one series in the 23-17 victory over the Orange.
Hackenberg was Penn State’s second true freshman QB 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.
“They threw a lot of stuff at him,” O’Brien said, “and to be able to handle it the way he did overall, is pretty good.”
He was as good as could be expected in the second half, putting away the Orange with an 11 of 16 for 209-yard effort that included a 51-yard score with Allen Robinson and a 54-yarder with Geno Lewis.
O’Brien and Hackenberg hit the film room Monday to review the performance. The numbers were solid, but there’s plenty to improve.
“He’s got great demeanor, great poise,” O’Brien said.
“He’s a smart guy, fun to coach.
Hackenberg did throw two interceptions, and the offense wasn’t helped by a sputtering running game that only gained 57 yards on 38 carries.
O’Brien took the hit for the weak rushing effort.
“The running game plan starts with me,” he said. “I thought the guys blocked hard up front. I don’t know why people think that the offensive line struggled. The offensive line, when the play was called properly and the right play was put into the game, the offensive line blocked very, very well.”
Hackenberg had one more win after the game – O’Brien let him come out and talk to the media, a rarity in the past for Penn State freshman.
“He stuck with us when the sanctions came out,” O’Brien said. “No matter what happens in his career, 10 years down the road, all these guys that did that, they’re better men for having done that. I felt like after a game like that, why wait?”
Penn State is down at least one offensive contributor on Saturday. 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.
For their efforts against the Orange, Hackenberg and kicker Sam Ficken were named Big Ten players of the week. Ficken has now made 13 straight field goal attempts after going 3 for 3 vs. the Orange.
As the season goes on, O’Brien expects to open up the playcalling for Hackenberg, especially if he looks as comfortable as he did against Syracuse. Without the benefit of an NFL-type preseason, making the jump from practice to a real game at the site of next year’s Super Bowl is a big leap for most players, especially a freshman.
Hackenberg and O’Brien have started to forge the quarterback-coach connection needed to win a lot of games, even if one won’t be in a bowl this year, due to the sanctions.
“He’s been able to pick up so many different things in our offense,” O’Brien said.