Hackenberg Era Begins with 23-17 Victory over Syracuse

The game was a tale of two halves for Penn State in MetLife Stadium, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

True freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg had a slow start, but the offense got hot in the second half and put enough points on the board to hang on for a 23-17 victory in the season opener over Syracuse. A strong defensive performance allowed the team to overcome some potentially costly turnovers.

“I was definitely nervous,” Hackenberg said of how he felt pre-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.”

Hackenberg started the game with six straight completions but the first two drives stalled early. By the end of the first quarter, neither team had scored. Zach Zwinak wasn’t running the ball especially well as the offensive line failed to open many lanes for him. Tyler Ferguson came in for the third drive, as Bill O’Brien later said was promised, and fumbled the ball on his second play when he dropped back on a play-action fake.

Hackenberg was accurate in the quarter, going 6-for-7 early, but they were mostly short passes. He was without star receiver Allen Robinson, who didn’t play in the first half. Bill O’Brien did not disclose the reason for this other than saying, “It’s between me and Allen.” Matt Lehman went down early with an injury as well. The absence of these skill position players certainly showed as the offense was mostly stagnant early on.

The start of the second quarter saw more of the same. Syracuse opened with a field goal drive after a solid 27-yard pass from quarterback Drew Allen put them in scoring territory. Hackenberg threw a bad interception two drives later. But two plays after that, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, filling in at linebacker for Mike Hull who was injured early in the game, came up with a momentum-changing play.

He forced a fumble on a run up the middle to take the ball right back. Penn State played some complimentary football, Bill O’Brien’s favorite kind of football, and drove for a field goal. The Nittany Lions did the same on their next offensive possession thanks to some strong running from Zwinak. After being quiet for most of the first half, Zwinak exploded on the drive before Sam Ficken hit from 36 yards to give Penn State a 6-3 lead going into the locker room.

O’Brien praised Ficken after the game for his strong opener, in which he was 3-for-3 on field goal attempts. “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.”

The Nittany Lions came out firing in the second half. After a defensive stop, Hackenberg quickly took advantage of his new receiving option, hitting Robinson for a 25-yard gain. Hackenberg saw a wide open Robinson on the next play and severely under-threw him, but in typical Robinson form he turned it into a 51-yard touchdown to go ahead 13-3, avoiding a few potential tacklers on his way to the end zone.

Syracuse responded quickly though, completing a 55-yard pass to put them 10 yards short of the end zone. Running back Jerome Smith quickly picked those 10 yards up on a run wide left to cut the Penn State lead to 13-10.

Penn State looked to be on the verge of another scoring drive soon after. Hackenberg moved the offense from their own 14-yard line to midfield. He completed a pass to Robinson over the middle who took off before being stripped on the tackle for a fumble. Garry Gilliam managed to chase down the ball-carrier and stop a sure touchdown. Syracuse kicker Ross Krautman went on to miss a a 43-yard field goal wide left. The Gilliam play might have been the most important of the game for Penn State.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong pulled off a great interception late in the third quarter. Ficken hit his third field goal, a career long 46-yard kick, on the ensuing drive to pull ahead 16-10. The defense then stopped ‘Cuse and Jesse Della Valle returned a punt 31 yards, giving the offensive the ball just shy of midfield. Hackenberg threw a bomb to redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis on the first play of the drive for a 54-yard touchdown to stretch the lead to 23-10.

It looked as though it could be smooth sailing for Penn State from there, but the tides turned midway through the final quarter. Facing heavy pressure on a 3rd-and-long on the Penn State 30-yard line, Hackenberg was picked off by Syracuse linebacker Robert Welsh who returned the ball to the one-yard line. One play later it was a 23-17 game and Syracuse was within a possession.

“I put him in a bad situation there and I have to review that,” Bill O’Brien said of calling a pass on the play. “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.”

Penn State was held to a three-and-out on the following drive. The defense stepped up and stopped Syracuse on five plays with just over three minutes to go. Three Zwinak runs and two Syracuse timeouts later, Alex Butterworth punted to the Syracuse 34 with 2:08 remaining. On 3rd-and-10, Syracuse’s Drew Allen tried to go deep but Trevor Williams picked him off to seal the deal.

Hackenberg took three victory formation snaps and the game was over. Penn State won the first game of the season 23-17.

Game notes:

  • Hackenberg was somewhat inconsistent, but his generally strong play was the driving force in the victory. His two interceptions were certainly major mistakes, but O’Brien took blame for the second one. His statline in his first career game is a respectable 22-for-31 (71 percent) with two touchdown and two interceptions. “He’s a very poised kid,” O’Brien said. “He’s got a fantastic demeanor. He’s got a long way to go. It’s one game. He made some nice throws. He made some mistakes. I made some bad play calls. We’ll just keep learning from each other and he’s a fun guy to coach.”
  • Allen Robinson had six receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter alone. He may have sat the first half, but he picked up right where he left off last year. He looks to be Hackenberg’s favorite target by far for good reason.
  • There were quite a few injuries for Penn State today, something you never want to see, especially in a season opener. Matt Lehman hurt his left knee and was carted off the field. Mike Hull hurt his right knee and came out of the locker room in street clothes with his knee wrapped. Kyle Carter, Jordan Lucas, and Nyeem Wartman were also injured but continued playing. “It’s always tough when you lose a guy like Mike Hull,” linebacker Glenn Carson said after the game. “He’s one of the hearts and souls of the defense.”
  • Penn State ran the ball 38 times compared to 32 pass attempts, but the team totaled 296 yards of passing offense and just 57 yards of rushing offense. Zach Zwinak averaged just 2.5 yards per carry, gaining 61 yards on 24 attempts.
  • Turnover, turnovers, turnovers. Penn State had four turnovers in the game. They may have gotten away with it against Syracuse, but the offense is going to have to clean up their play once the schedule starts getting more difficult. “I made a few mistakes, but overall, I was happy,” Hackenberg said. “I think that as a team we did well executing. There’s a lot of things we have to improve on, like recognizing defenses. But winning was our goal today and we accomplished that goal.”
  • DaQuan Jones was an absolute workhorse on the defensive line. The senior defensive tackle totaled nine tackles (eight solo) including three tackles for a loss and one sack.
  • Stephen Obeng-Agyapong saw extensive time at outside linebacker with Hull out of the game and he took advantage of it. Obeng had eight tackles, a forced fumble, a sack and an interception in the game. He was all over the field.
  • The defensive unit as a whole played very strong in John Butler’s first game as defensive coordinator. They held Syracuse to 71 yards on 37 rush attempts for 1.9 yards per carry. That’s an outstanding number, especially with Hull out of the game. The defense also held ‘Cuse to 189 yards passing.

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About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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