Column: Hackenberg Signals Bright Future for Penn State
When word broke out Friday afternoon that Christian Hackenberg would start the season opener against Syracuse, there was a quite a buzz around State College. Saturday’s game would be the beginning of the future for Penn State football.
The name “Christian Hackenberg” was known to Nittany Lion fans long before his first ever collegiate snap this past weekend. Hackenberg had been the center of attention in State College ever since last year, when the number one rated high school quarterback reaffirmed his commitment to Penn State despite the sanctions handed down by the NCAA. After witnessing the success of Matt McGloin in Bill O’Brien’s new offensive system, fans grew excited for what a top quarterback recruit could do for the Penn State football program.
O’Brien’s decision to start Hackenberg on Saturday was to the liking of many Penn State followers. This was the correct decision. Hackenberg is the current and future face of Penn State football. Whether he played spectacular, average, or awful was not of any importance (although spectacular is always preferred). Hackenberg needs thousands of reps to get to the quarterbacking level that many Penn State fans expect him to reach. For his first three years, Penn State is ineligible to go to a bowl game so there is little to lose in starting a true freshman quarterback. By the time Hackenberg is a senior and Penn State is once again bowl eligible, he should have three years of starting experience under his belt, which would give him more or just as much experience as any college quarterback in the country. Having an experienced quarterback like that would allow Penn State to at least contend with any team in the Big Ten.
Once the game finally started and Hackenberg took the field for his first career start, it was evident that a true freshmen quarterback was under center. He did not play poorly, but at times seemed jumpy in the pocket and was late getting the ball out to his receivers, which in one case led to an interception. His freshman status was also seen by some of the play calling. O’Brien elected to take the ball out of Hackenberg hands in some obvious passing situations, opting instead to run the ball with Zach Zwinak on a couple of third and longs. In the first half, Hackenberg did little to demonstrate his ability to move the Penn State offense down the field.
In the second half, Hackenberg and the Penn State offense were sparked by the return of Allen Robinson, who had sat out the first half for disciplinary reasons. Robinson holds the key to Hackenberg’s success in his freshmen campaign. He will provide Hackenberg with a safety net as well as create one-on-one matchups for other receivers. Robinson hulled in seven catches for 133 yards and caught a touchdown on Hackenberg’s second throw of the second half. Robinson is arguably one of the top five wide receivers in the country, and undoubtedly will almost always be Hackenberg’s first option. Hackenberg capped off his day with beautifully lofted 54 yard touchdown pass to Geno Lewis.
Hackenberg finished the day 22-for-31 for 278 yards, with two touchdown passes and two interceptions. Not bad for a guy competing in his first ever college football game. It was obvious that his comfort level rose when Allen Robinson entered the game, which, barring any injury or further disciplinary actions, should be the case the remainder of the season. As the season he progresses, he must improve in two major categories. One, Hackenberg must get the ball out to his wide receivers quicker. He needs to hit his targets out of their breaks. Holding the ball a second longer, like he did last week, will result in more interceptions, especially against faster defenses like Michigan and Ohio State. Second, Hackenberg will need to gain O’Brien’s trust. Penn State can ill-afford to be running the ball on third and seven once they get into their Big Ten schedule.
Overall, Hackenberg was impressive in his first ever collegiate start. It is hard to bash a true freshmen quarterback who went into an NFL stadium and helped lead Penn State to a victory. Look for him to be given more chances and responsibilities in this week’s matchup against a much weaker Eastern Michigan team. There is a lot that Hackenberg still must learn, but the future is bright.
Tim Madore is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.