Penn State routs Eastern Michigan, 45-7
UNIVERSITY PARK — Known for his calm, even-keeled disposition, Christian Hackenberg acknowledges he was uncharacteristically rattled early in his Beaver Stadium debut.
For all of, by his estimation, “20 or 30 seconds.”
All it took was a quick pep talk from Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, who'd recognized his freshman quarterback was “a little jacked up.”
After a substandard first three drives in which he looked every bit of an 18-year-old, Hackenberg settled in and had a record day.
Hackenberg completed 23 of 33 passes for 311 yards, and Penn State pulled away from overmatched Eastern Michigan for a 45-7 victory.
“You can take 500 recruiting trips here,” O'Brien said, “but it ain't like playing here. It was Christian's first game — and he was amped up.”
Hackenberg misfired badly on four of his first five throws. Penn State went three-and-out on each of its first two possessions — totaling 1 net yard of offense — and it got worse for Hackenberg during the third drive.
When he dropped back and began to cock to throw on a play that originated at the Lions' 20, Hackenberg lost the football. Matt Hunter picked it up and ran 9 yards to give Eastern Michigan (1-1) the early lead.
“I was a little upset at myself,” Hackenberg said.
Sensing that, O'Brien approached Hackenberg on the bench.
“He just told me to calm down and just, ‘Next play,' ” Hackenberg said. “That's sort of how I approached it.”
After saying throughout much of preseason camp that both of his quarterbacks would play this season, O'Brien resisted turning to backup Tyler Ferguson. For up to the next four years, Penn State's program will live and die, in large part, with Hackenberg. O'Brien is willing to ride out the lumps.
“I told him, ‘Just go back to the basics of the offensive schemes and the throwing mechanics,” O'Brien said. “He settled down pretty well.”
Hackenberg completed 22 of his next 28 passes after the fumble, including a 45-yard touchdown pass to Allen Robinson in which he hit his top receiver in stride.
Hackenberg, who also had an interception, has 584 passing yards in his first two games. To put that in perspective, Zach Mills previously held the PSU freshman passing record with 280 yards on two occasions in 2001.
Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton each had two touchdowns in helping Penn State amass 251 rushing yards, and the Nittany Lions overcame a sluggish start to improve to 2-0 for the first time since 2009.
Despite being outgained, 578-185, Eastern Michigan (1-1) drove into Nittany Lions' territory during each of its first three possessions and during five of its first six drives. But the Eagles did not score, and they did not advance past midfield in the second half.
“It's a pride thing we take into every game — we want to go out there and not let the other team score,” defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. “I'm happy we could do that in the first home game. We really picked it up in the second half and got after it.”
The Lions' running game that averaged 1.5 yards per carry in a season-opening win against Syracuse was much better against an Eastern Michigan defense that was the worst in the nation against the run last season.
Belton and freshman Akeel Lynch each had a career-high 108 yards — the first time the Lions had two players with at least 100 rushing yards since 2010. Zwinak, the starting running back, had just seven carries.
The Lions' defense pitched a shutout despite being without injured linebackers Mike Hull and Ben Kline.
“(Eastern Michigan) only had (139) yards in the first half, but it felt like a lot more than that,” Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler said. “They were kind of bleeding us a little bit, so it was aggravating. But we settled in, and for the most part I think our kids played hard.”