It certainly wan’t pretty, but Penn State left MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ the victors on Saturday night after defeating Syracuse 23-17. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg had some very high highs and a few very low lows, but he was a major bright spot in the game. It was closer than it should have been at the end, but the win is all that really matters to this team and the Nittany Lions are undefeated after opening day against a resectable program.
Let’s take a look at what the season opener tells us about this Penn State team:
The defense is good. Really good.
Bill O’Brien didn’t seem to have much interest in the game when the defense was on the field, often conversing with his offensive players and coaches, but it didn’t matter. John Butler’s defensive unit had a great game despite losing Mike Hull, an integral part of the linebacker unit and the front seven. The run defense was especially impressive, holding a very good Syracuse running back duo to just 1.9 yards per carry, totaling just 71 yards on 37 rushes.
The secondary had a few slip-ups, allowing some long completions throughout the game, but the pass defense was solid too. And this defense is only going to get better as the season progresses and some of the new faces like Nyeem Wartman and Trevor Williams begin to form chemistry with the rest of the unit.
Christian Hackenberg lived up to the hype.
Just a handful of months ago, Christian Hackenberg was playing high school baseball in Fork Union, Virginia. Fast-forward to August 31 and he’s the starting quarterback for one of the most storied programs in college football history, playing his first game at a professional NFL stadium. Most kids would crack under that kind of pressure, but not Hackenberg — not with his attitude or skill set.
Sure, he had a couple big mistakes as any 18-year old kid in his shoes probably would, but he made a lot more big plays than errors. He was poised in the pocket, looked great avoiding sacks when he sensed pressure, had tremendous accuracy, showed off his cannon of an arm, and showed the world why he was the top-ranked quarterback recruit in his class.
“I was definitely nervous,” Hackenberg said after the game. “The guys really helped me through that. Once the game starts, at the end of the day, after the first snap it’s just football. Once I got the first snap out of the way and got a few completions under my belt, I definitely felt more comfortable.”
Bill O’Brien is human.
Some of you may have gotten the idea last season that Bill O’Brien is some kind of football genius robot created from the DNA of Bill Belichick and molded to have the chin of a superhero. It turns out that he’s actually human. O’Brien made some bad play calls in Saturday’s game and he wasn’t afraid to admit it either. The most glaring example was the 3rd-and-11 play in which O’Brien called a pass. He shouldn’t have, and Hackenberg threw an interception on the play that let Syracuse right back into the game. O’Brien isn’t scared to make risky play calls, but they don’t always pay off. He almost learned that the hard way on Saturday.
“I put (Hackenberg) in a bad situation there and I have to review that,” Bill O’Brien said about that 3rd-and-11 call. “He made a mistake but I put him that position so I have to coach that better. We have to come out ready to go. We’ve got to take our shots. If we make a mistake — play complimentary football.”
This team is versatile and adjusts extremely well.
Mike Hull was injured. The void at linebacker was filled almost flawlessly by Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a safety who took some snaps at linebacker in training camp this year. Obeng was all over the field and was a major playmaker for the Nittany Lions at a position that he’s not used to playing. DaQuan Jones, Glenn Carson, Ben Kline, and the rest of the front seven helped pick up the slack in Hull’s absence. Kyle Carter missed some time with an injury. So did tackle Donovan Smith and linebacker Nyeem Wartman. But their absences were barely noticed as a team that’s supposedly not very deep didn’t show any signs of having depth issues on Saturday in the face of what could have been some debilitating injuries.
Sam Ficken might make Bill O’Brien’s life a lot easier this season.
Remember the days when you knew that no matter how many yards were left on fourth down, O’Brien wasn’t going to put Sam Ficken into the game unless it was a chip-shot field goal? Those days might be over. Ficken looks like a very different player than the kicker who struggled immensely in the first half of last season and at one point missed four field goals in one game. He has now hit 13 straight field goal attempts, including three on Saturday, a game in which he also set his career high after hitting from 46 yards out. Ficken’s confidence is through the roof and he’s going to make O’Brien’s job a lot less difficult this season if he can be trusted to make field goals. And right now, there’s no reason to doubt that that’s the case.
O’Brien praised Ficken after the game for his strong opener, and the compliment didn’t go unnoticed.
“It means a lot coming from where I came from, with the rough start last year, for him to give me a shout out in front of the whole team,” Ficken said. “That’s pretty important for me. It feels good.”