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After A Tumultous Season, Christian Hackenberg Emerges As A Leader

Even after breaking the Penn State bowl record for completions and passing yardage, and tying the record for most touchdown passes en route to being named the Pinstripe Bowl’s Most Valuable Player, Christian Hackenberg chose to deflect the spotlight onto his teammates.

“It’s not about me,” Hackenberg said after the game, his throat hoarse from celebrating on the sideline following Sam Ficken’s dramatic walk-off extra point. “It’s about everyone else as a team, carrying this momentum into the offseason and sending these seniors off right.”

“The bowl game and everything its meant to the program, and not just this team, but the alumni, the guys that played before us, the guys that stuck through it, the 2012 class — I think that added a little motivation not just for myself but for everyone,” he added.

Say what you will about Hackenberg’s season, but the sophomore came up big when the spotlight shone brightest, completing 34-of-50 for 371 yards and four touchdowns in front of 49,012 fans, the second-largest crowd to ever watch a football game at Yankee Stadium.

Leading Penn State down the field with under two minutes remaining to set up Ficken’s game-tying 44-yard field goal attempt was yet another late-game drive engineered by the young quarterback, part of a long list of comebacks and clutch throws with the game on the line. In overtime, following a deflating Boston College touchdown, his perfectly thrown fade to tight end Kyle Carter in the back of the endzone tied the game, allowing Ficken to kick an easy chip shot for the one-point victory.

The 19-year old signal caller now has five game-tying or game-winning drives in his career.

“He’s a student of the game,” Kyle Carter said when asked about what makes Hackenberg great. “He’s prototypical size. He works on his craft. That’s something we have to keep working with him on.”

Following an incredible performance in the team’s dramatic victory over Central Florida in Dublin to begin the season, a game that saw Hackenberg throw for 454 yards, the excitement was building in Happy Valley. After a stellar freshman season, the Nittany Lion faithful expected big things from the young quarterback, despite quarterback whisperer Bill O’Brien leaving for greener grass in the NFL.

While optimism dipped during a four-game losing streak that saw Hackenberg throw five interceptions while constantly being chased, harassed, and ultimately sacked behind a porous offensive line, the doubts began to creep in. Is Hackenberg really the answer at quarterback? Is he really the blue-chip prospect he was expected to be?

As the losses piled up, so too did the criticism. His footwork is off. He’s not getting rid of the ball in time. He’s forcing too many throws. For every Penn State loss, Hackenberg’s performance was the easy target for blame.

For head coach James Franklin, the problem was never with his sophomore quarterback. Inside Lasch, the first-year head coach understood there were plenty of other issues to address. The problem was convincing the media.

“I tried all season long to deflect [criticism] as much as I could, not because Christian couldn’t handle it, but because I’ve been telling everybody before the season started that, everyone is talking about Christian, Christian, Christian,” Franklin said. “That wasn’t really the issue. We had to make sure we developed the guys around him. There was a lot of production that had left.”

Franklin pointed to the offensive line as a major cause for concern. Boston College entered Saturday’s bowl game with an offensive line that boasted a combined 146 starts. Penn State had one remaining starter on the offensive line in Donovan Smith, who has 21 career starts. Unfortunately, writing about the offensive line doesn’t exactly sell newspapers. That left Hackenberg as the team’s scapegoat.

“It’s tough nowadays,” Franklin said. “With social media, you can’t protect your players the way you used to. But I love Christian Hackenberg, I couldn’t trade him for anybody.”

Perhaps there’s no clearer sign of assurance for Hackenberg’s growth this season than in what he said in the dark hallway underneath Yankee Stadium, just outside the press conference room. Mobbed by reporters and photographers, Hackenberg spoke humbly about taking on a bigger leadership role with the team, a remarkable feat for a player that’s just two years removed from high school.

“Every day I came in and just tried to work as hard as I could to become the best player, the best teammate I could be and push these guys to take their game to the next level,” Hackenberg said. “I think that’s a big role as a quarterback, especially at Penn State. You need to be able to elevate everyone else’s play when need be.”

Hackenberg certainly elevated the team’s play on Saturday night, as the team gained 453 yards of offense against a defense ranked among the top 25 in the country. Freshman wideout Chris Godwin, relatively anonymous this year with the exception of a few catches, hauled in seven passes for 140 yards, including an electrifying 72-yard touchdown late in the first quarter.

For Hackenberg, the biggest lesson learned from an up and down season is just that — experiencing the highs and the lows of an up and down season.

“Just being able to deal with a bunch of adversity,” Franklin said. “Being able to come back and focus on the things you can control. Make sure that you can be a great teammate, push everyone else, teach the young guys how to prepare, teach the younger guys how to play and win at this level.”

Forget the touchdowns, passing yards, interceptions, and incomplete passes. Where Hackenberg took big strides this season was in the locker room, and on the field as a leader of the nation’s second-youngest football team. He did exactly what you’d expect a young quarterback to do — mix in head-scratching throws with moments of sheer brilliance. There’s no question that he struggled mightily this season, and he has much to learn and improve upon if he wants to be a top pick in the NFL Draft someday. But playing well in big moments, like erasing a 14-point deficit in Penn State’s first bowl game since 2011, is something you can’t teach.

“I think he’s got a really bright future at Penn State moving forward,” Franklin said. “I will fight and defend him till the end.”

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About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.

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