Hackenberg Shines, And Shows He Can Pass, Run, And Catch
Penn State’s passing game lived and died by the explosive play last Saturday in Baltimore against Maryland. The result was a rollicking 31-30 back and forth affair that saw the Nittany Lions thrive on some drives, but stagnate on others.
This Saturday back at home against Illinois, Christian Hackenberg led a much more balanced attack — a steady combination of screens, deep balls, and precise lasers — that saw helped Penn State hang 39 points, the most of the season.
Following the victory, Hackenberg preached balanced, efficient execution — buzzwords he incorporated into nearly every answer. He insinuated that for once, everyone did their job, and that made everyone’s job all the more easier.
“At the end of the day, at my position you have to have a very focused mindset,” he said. “You can’t control other things, you do what you need to do. For me, I just try to block it out, I trust those guys and the hours they put in.”
That trust Hackenberg has instilled in his teammates, especially his offensive line, has left him on the ground many times this season. Hackenberg was sacked three times Saturday afternoon, in large part a result of an offensive line that saw its seventh combination of starters in nine games. But compared to previous games, it held its own. Running lanes allowed Saquon Barkley to tally 84 yards on the ground, and Hackenberg had time to pass 29 times. That was as many attempts as last week, but he completed eight more of them this time.
“You got guys playing well, that takes pressure off of you. You got your line blocking, that takes pressure off of you. You’re running the ball really well, that takes pressure off of you,” he said. “It makes things a lot easier.”
And even when all of those things weren’t clicking, Hackenberg made plays for himself. James Franklin has joked that No. 14 is a dual threat quarterback because of his ability to scramble. Saturday’s performance affirmed that, and suggested a triple threat label may be more appropriate. First there was the most exciting three-yard scramble one will ever witness. Forced from the pocket, Hackenberg eluded one tackler, side stepped the next diving defender, then sprinted past the third.
“That one scramble he had, I was like ‘Throw it away!’, ‘Throw it away!’,” Franklin said. “But then it was awesome.”
Later, Hackenberg caught his first career touchdown pass. As he described it, “we knew it would be tough sledding up the middle,” so the Lions keyed their running game to the outside. Once the offense felt Illinois was over-pursuing, it called a trick play in which Nick Scott ran out wide, leaving Hackenberg wide open on the other side.
“My stomach dropped a little [when the ball was in the air,” Hackenberg said.
But matching the message of the rest of the day, he chalked the Halloween trickery up to execution and practice.
“I think it was called in the time of the game where you’re still wrapped up about what will the defense do,” he explained. “So I think being able to just get the flow of the game, and execute how we did, its just a testament to who we are.”
After a slow start to the year, Hackenberg is now quietly putting together an impressive season — especially of late. He’s thrown 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions, and more than 1500 yards. He’s also found his receiving corps again, and playmaker Geno Lewis has two touchdown in the last two games after being nearly unheard from in previous weeks.
“A lot of times people find reason to be critical,” Franklin said. “To me the most important statistic is touchdown-to-interception ratio. He’s done a great job of that in our last six games, 12 touchdowns and 0 interceptions.”
Hackenberg elaborated, and praised the team effort.
“We were able to just get lost in the flow of the game,” he said. “It was a great victory in terms of how we set it up.”