Penn State football: After inaccurate start, Hackenberg recovers to direct offense with precision

tjohnson@centredaily.comSeptember 7, 2013 

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Penn State head football coach Bill O'Brien yells to his players Jesse James and Christian Hackenberg during the Saturday, September 7, 2013 game against Eastern Michigan.

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— By all accounts and testaments from his teammates, 18-year-old Christian Hackenberg is pretty unflappable, a calm, cool, collected signal-caller who carries himself in a way not typical of a true freshman quarterback.

He was a bit fired up after his first career start at Beaver Stadium went awry at first.

Unlike Week 1 at MetLife Stadium where Hackenberg started hot — he completed his first six passes — the rookie quarterback was inaccurate to begin the afternoon against Eastern Michigan.

He was able to dial-in his game, however, but not before he got a little excited on the sideline.

“This is a calm kid now and he was jacked up,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “I was reminded by one of the assistant coaches again that this is his first game in Beaver Stadium. You can take 5,000 recruiting trips here but it ain’t like playing here. So this was his first game and he was amped up and I though he settled down obviously pretty well.”

After missing on three of his first four throws, Hackenberg settled down to complete 22 of his next 29. He finished off the 45-7 win over the Eagles by completing 23 of 33 passes for 311 yards — a freshman record — with a touchdown and interception.

A deep pass to a diving Allen Robinson for 43 yards that helped set up Penn State’s tying touchdown helped Hackenberg settle down.

“It just calmed me down,” Hackenberg said. “A downfield-type play, a lot of confidence just to sit back there and the protection is going to hold up and then go from there.”

After the game, Hackenberg said there were a few plays he’d like to have back — his three incompletions to open the game, all of which he threw high, an interception and a bizarre fumble that proved costly.

Eastern Michigan scored its only points when Hackenberg pulled back to throw deep in his own end and the ball slipped from his grasp. Hunter Matt gathered the ball and stepped into the end zone to give the Eagles their only lead of the game.

“It just slipped out of my hand,” Hackenberg said. “That’s completely on me.”

But so was the heads-up audible on a fourth down play late in the third quarter. Facing a fourth-and-four from the Eastern Michigan 12-yard-line, Hackenberg stepped to the line and surveyed the Eagles defensive formation. He recognized Eastern Michigan’s man coverage and figured they’d send blitzers at him. He needed a quick route to get rid of the ball so he checked out of the play that was called and instructed wideout Brandon Felder to run a quick pattern toward the sideline.

At the snap, Hackenberg released the ball quickly to Felder who made the catch for the first down. Zwinak scored on a seven-yard run on the next play.

“In high school I didn’t have to do that that much so coming here that’s something that I felt like I did better than last week,” Hackenberg said of making pre-snap reads. “Last week I really didn’t make those checks. As a whole, just understanding it, seeing things, great check. Everyone did a great job on that and executed it perfectly.”

Although he threw another interception to push his total to three on the season, Hackenberg equaled it with another deep touchdown throw to Robinson.

After steering Penn State into the red zone by going 5-for-5 for 22 yards and adding two carries for four yards, Hackenberg forced a throw into traffic on Penn State’s second drive of the second quarter. He threw behind Felder where Eastern Michigan’s Darius Scott batted it away and into the arms of teammate Mycal Swaim.

“They were doubling Allen so I came back to my curl,” Hackenberg said. “I threw it just a little inside and Brandon had a chance to catch it but it’s just one of those things where the ball doesn’t bounce your way. Definitely got to move on from that.”

And he did.

Hackenberg went 5-for-6 on Penn State’s next drive to put Sam Ficken in position to hit a 36-yard field goal before halftime.

Penn State failed to move into scoring position early in the second half but Hackenberg capitalized on a scoring chance when he found Robinson open for a 45-yard touchdown pass to cap Penn State’s first drive of the fourth quarter.

“He missed a few throws but I don’t think it was because of him being too anxious,” Robinson said. “That happens to anybody.”

Hackenberg finished with completions to 10 different targets.

“I think we have a pretty good connection but he has a good connection with all his receivers,” Robinson said. “He spread the ball around today.”

Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.

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