By the Numbers: Christian Hackenberg’s Freshman Season
After a stellar freshman campaign, Christian Hackenberg picked up numerous awards and accolades from the media — and rightfully so.
Following a 339 yard, four touchdown, no interception performance in a thrilling 31-24 victory over No. 15 Wisconsin in the final game of the season, ESPN’s Rece Davis awarded Hackenberg with a helmet sticker on College Gameday Final. In his year-in-review column, Penn State graduate and Sports on Earth editor Matt Brown recognized Hackenberg as the “Future Quarterback Star” of the NCAA. In addition, the Fork Union, Va. native received the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award and was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team along with five other Nittany Lions.
While looking at end-of-the-year awards is all fine and dandy, it doesn’t effectively highlight the outstanding performance of the true freshman. By analyzing some key stats, we can see where Hackenberg shined and where he needs to improve.
Let’s start by taking a look at how he compares to the rest of the nation in key passing statistics.
What jumps out here is the number of points Hackenberg is responsible for. Some quick math reveals that of the 344 total points Penn State scored this season, Hackenberg was responsible for approximately 41.86 percent — nearly half. That stat doesn’t even take into account the drives Hackenberg led to setup a Sam Ficken field goal, which would easily put his total over 50 percent.
Breaking it down by quarter, you can see how effective Hackenberg was late in the game, facing the most pressure. In the fourth quarter and overtime, he threw 7 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions, while passing for 797 yards – the most of any quarter.
I’ll let the numbers do the talking here: 11 touchdowns vs. one interception in the Red Zone. In the most critical area of the field, Hackenberg took great care of the football through the air, allowing Penn State to capitalize on long drives and good field position. The accuracy needs to improve, and we all remember that goal-line fumble against Minnesota, but overall, Hackenberg has been excellent near the end zone.
What’s revealing about these statistics is Hackenberg’s effectiveness on first down throws. While Bill O’Brien usually likes to start each possession by running the football, he and Hackenberg have been wildly successful throwing the ball on first down. Hackenberg’s roll-out and throw on play action to Adam Breneman for a 68-yard touchdown to open up the scoring against Wisconsin was on first down, and the defense was caught completely off-guard. If these numbers are any indication, O’Brien should consider dialing up more play-action passes on first down to fool defenses next year.
Perhaps the most alarming statistic is Hackenberg’s dependency on the amazing wide receiving talent that is Allen Robinson. With all signs pointing toward one of Penn State’s all-time best wide receivers leaving for the NFL, the pressure will fall on rising sophomore Geno Lewis to become Hackenberg’s new favorite target.
However, thanks to O’Brien’s love affair with tight ends, there are plenty of other options to go to down the field. Penn State has a fabulous pair of tight ends in Jesse James and Adam Breneman, while rising target Kyle Carter looks to improve after a season that was marred by injuries.
As you can see, the future is bright for not only Hackenberg, but the Penn State program. The sanctions still loom, but the recent addition of scholarships will no doubt help the Nittany Lions add more depth in key positions. After the team and the university seemed all but lost just two years ago, watching a high-caliber player like Hackenberg represent Penn State is extremely exciting, and should not be taken for granted.