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Penn State QB Hackenberg exceeding expectations

Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) eludes Illinois defensive lineman Teko Powell on his way to a 9-yard touchdown run in the second quarter Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, in University Park.

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Big Ten passing leaders

QB, school TD Yds/Gm

Nathan Scheelhaase, Ill 15 268.9

Christian Hackenberg, PSU 13 243.0

Devin Gardner, Mich. 14 242.8

Nate Sudfeld, Ind 19 242.4

Joel Stave, Wis. 16 202.9

Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 8:45 p.m.

Sure, there was the 54-yard spiral dropped neatly into the waiting hands of a sprinting Eugene Lewis during Christian Hackenberg's first college game Aug. 31.

There was the 15-yard needle-threading pass Hackenberg zipped to Kyle Carter during overtime of a win at Beaver Stadium nine Saturdays later.

Even this past week, during Penn State's most feeble offensive output of the season, Hackenberg's blue-chip arm was on display at times.

Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien particularly lauded Hackenberg's delivery on a Matt Zanellato curl route early in a fourth-quarter drive when the outcome was still in play.

But for all the highlights the 6-foot-4 quarterback with the golden arm has produced before he celebrates his 19th birthday, the rapid development of Hackenberg probably was best displayed during last week's loss to the Golden Gophers on three plays in which none resulted in a completion.

“We called a play that required a check,” O'Brien said, citing one such example.

“It required a check where he had to use the tools in his toolbox to get the defense to show a little bit, and I've had guys at other places that I've been that could never do that. He did it, so he checked the play, got us into the right play.”

That the pass fell incomplete isn't the point. The foresight of the kid who was playing high school baseball just a few months prior to have picked up enough of O'Brien's complicated NFL-style offense that he deftly audibled into the exact look is what most pleased the coach.

“I truly believe in this kid,” O'Brien said.

During the second quarter of that game, one of Hackenberg's throws that showed his maturity actually was caught by an opposing player.

On a first down from the Minnesota 33-yard line, Hackenberg lofted up a “jump ball” into the left corner of the end zone.

The Golden Gophers' Eric Murray beat receiver Brandon Felder to the ball — but that was relatively inconsequential.

Hackenberg had seen Minnesota's Hendrick Ekpe jump offsides. Countless practice reps with center Ty Howle had prepared them for such an eventuality.

Hackenberg took advantage of the “free play.”

“That's something that we've got better with,” Hackenberg said of the unspoken communication between him and Howle.

“It's more of a feel for each other. I understand when he's going to snap it — and I understand when he's not. That's just something that as you get more comfortable in the college game, understanding the personnel and the people around you.”

Later, after Hackenberg had been forced to throw to receivers other than Allen Robinson (Hackenberg said Minnesota devoted more attention to Robinson than most), the quarterback recognized the situation enough to pick his spots to “force feed” the ball to his star receiver.

Twice Saturday, Robinson drew pass-interference flags.

“It's free yards,” Hackenberg said. “I know when he's one-on-one down the sidelines, and at the end of the day, I have to execute and put the ball where I need to put the ball and give him have a chance to go up — or get the pass interference.”

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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