Penn State slides past Syracuse, 23-17
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — His roster lacking a quarterback with any experience, NCAA sanctions sapping his team's depth and secure that this particular precocious 18-year-old can handle the burden of the future of Penn State football, coach Bill O'Brien didn't hold back when it came to Christian Hackenberg.
“Penn State can't dip our toe in the water,” O'Brien said when asked about the freedom he gave his true freshman quarterback.
“We dove right in,” Hackenberg said.
Despite turbulent waters, the debut of the Hackenberg Era went swimmingly for Penn State.
Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns and the Nittany Lions held off Syracuse, 23-17, to ensure O'Brien opened his second season with a win.
Hackenberg was never officially announced as the starter by O'Brien. Word leaked via an ESPN report Friday evening, and the 6-foot-4, 220-pound graduate of Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy played all but one series for Penn State (1-0). Junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson played three snaps, completing his only pass attempt but also fumbling.
Just the second true freshman to start Penn State's first game of a season at quarterback in the past 103 years, Hackenberg was as good as O'Brien could have hoped for, despite the interceptions.
“He's a very poised kid, and he's got a fantastic demeanor,” O'Brien said. “He made some nice throws. He made some mistakes. I made some bad play calls and put him in some bad situations. But we'll keep learning from each other. He's a fun guy to coach.”
Hackenberg showed why he was one of the nation's top recruits last year on a perfectly thrown 54-yard touchdown pass to Eugene Lewis in the fourth quarter. He also showed his tender age by allowing the Orange (0-1) back into the game by throwing his second interception — to defensive end Robert Welsh — with 7:01 left.
But the fact Lions coaches had enough faith in him to call for a passing play speaks volumes.
“It's great to know they have that confidence; it always helps to know the staff is behind you and what you can do,” Hackenberg said.
“Once I got (the first snap) out of the way and started to get a little more completions under my belt and the team started moving the ball, I definitely started feeling more comfortable.”
It helped getting his top receiver back. Allen Robinson sat out the first half for undisclosed reasons, but the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year had a 51-yard touchdown reception on the Nittany Lions' second play from scrimmage of the second half.
The first two Lions' offensive plays in the third quarter were Robinson catches for more passing yards than the Lions had the entire first half.
An at-times stifling Penn State defense limited Syracuse (0-1) to 260 total yards and shut the door late after the Orange pulled to within six on a 1-yard touchdown run by Jerome Smith — his second of the game — one play after Welsh returned his interception down to the Penn State 1.
Orange quarterback Drew Allen had the ball twice over the final 5:12 with a chance to drive for a winning score.
“I thought we were going to win the (darn) thing. I really did,” Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said. “I thought we were going to win the doggone game — it was just what we wanted.”
The first of those possessions lasted four plays before a punt. The second ended with converted receiver Trevor Williams intercepting Allen along the far sideline.
Hackenberg's debut more than made up for poor support from a running game that totaled 57 yards on 38 carries for a 1.5 average. Returning 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak had 24 carries for 61 yards.
Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.