UNIVERSITY PARK — As his high school coach Micky Sullivan tells it, Christian Hackenberg took a beating manning the offense at Fork Union Military Academy during his junior year.
Those bad memories resurfaced Saturday against No. 4 Ohio State which battered the true freshman quarterback, forcing him to the bench with a sore throwing shoulder early in the second half of the Buckeyes’ 63-14 win. With more than half of the third quarter to play, Hackenberg yielded his spot to backup Tyler Ferguson after the Buckeyes sacked Hackenberg four times, hit him on seven more plays and hurried seven of his throws.
Right before Hackenberg left the game, he was pressured by Joel Hale and Bradley Robey and pulled to the turf. The Penn State quarterback winced as running back Zach Zwinak put his arms around him and pulled him up off the Ohio Stadium turf. He headed to the sideline to have his throwing shoulder wrapped moments later and his night was finished.
“We need to pass protect better,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “I think three-step drop, we shouldn't be getting hit on a three-step drop. I think things like that need to improve.”
But Penn State’s offensive formations didn’t matter against Ohio State. The Buckeyes were able to get to Hackenberg whether Penn State utilized quick drops to get the ball out quickly or ran passing plays out of the shotgun formation. Most of the pressure came off the edges where Ohio State defensive ends Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington dominated the Nittany Lion tackles — Adam Gress, Garry Gilliam and Donovan Smith — assigned to block them.
Spence notched two hits, two hurries and added two sacks. Washington picked up a sack and Bosa put two crunching hits on Hackenberg even though one came after the whistle after Donovan Smith was flagged for one of two false starts. Bosa’s second hit came on Penn State’s first scoring drive. As Hackenberg released his lone touchdown pass to Brandon Felder, Bosa beat Smith around the left edge and lunged at Hackenberg, hitting the Penn State quarterback in the legs, folding him to the turf.
Smith, who is just a sophomore but is in his second year as the team’s starter at left tackle, gave up two sacks — one to Spence which resulted in a first-quarter fumble that Penn State recovered and a second to Washington.
Meanwhile, Spence beat Gress to the inside in the first quarter to force an errant Hackenberg throw that resulted in his second interception of the game.
Now, Penn State coaches could shake up the rotation at offensive tackle. The team’s depth chart listed Gilliam or Gress as the starter at right tackle for Penn State’s upcoming game against Illinois and also had Gilliam or Smith pegged as the starter at left tackle.
Penn State’s trio of tackles is looking to improve against the Illini defense which has just seven sacks so far this season.
“(They) have had their bright spots and had their not so bright spots,” O’Brien said. “So we've made that a very competitive situation this week, and that's why you see the ‘ors’ there. So it could be Gress and Gilliam starting at tackle on Saturday. It could be Gress and Donovan. It could be Gilliam and Donovan. It could be a combination, but all three of those guys will play on Saturday.”
Smith has started every game at left tackle this season and made nine starts protecting Matt McGloin’s blindside last season. Gilliam has started three games at right tackle with Gress starting the other four this season.
Gress has rotated at right and left tackle in practice, but most of Gilliam’s experience is on the right side. Gilliam played some snaps on the left side during training camp but has spent all his time at right tackle since. All three of them spend plenty of time together, however. Gilliam and Smith are roommates while Gillam and Gress have side-by-side lockers.
“We understand that competition is going to make all of us better so there’s no hard feelings between any of us whether who starts or whatever,” Gilliam said. “We’re all going to play regardless. We understand that.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.