UNIVERSITY PARK — Saturday’s game between Penn State (5-4, 2-3) and Purdue (1-8, 0-5) at Beaver Stadium will mark the first time this season that true freshman quarterbacks will make starts against one another in a Big Ten game.
Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg knows a thing or two about his Purdue counterpart, Danny Etling. The two shared a room together in Redondo Beach, Calif., while competing at last summer’s Elite 11 quarterback camp.
“I got to know him pretty well,” Hackenberg said. “He’s a great player. It was a great experience for both of us. Just getting to know him, he’s a really good kid. So it’ll be neat competing against him at this level now.”
Hackenberg has a headstart on Etling, however. He’ll make his 10th start of the season and look to improve on his already impressive numbers. Hackenberg ranks highly in nearly every passing category in the Big Ten and has drawn praise, not only from his coach Bill O’Brien, but from others around the Big Ten who have game-planned to stop him.
Purdue’s Darrell Hazell is no different.
“I think he stands in there pretty well for a young guy,” Hazell said. “I think they’re doing a lot of half-field reads with him, so he doesn’t have to scan across the field. But I think they’ve kind of protected him a little bit that way as a coaching staff, which they have to do with a young guy like that. But you’re going to continue to see him get better and better each week.”
Hazell is hoping Etling can follow a similar arc early in his career. It’ll be up to him to spark the Boilermakers to snap their seven-game skid and a six-game slide to Penn State.
“We don’t overlook anybody, because any team can be beaten,” Penn State cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “They do a lot of different things on offense, and we just want to piggyback off the of the second half of the Minnesota game and just grow from there. We don’t want to take a step back from there, we want to keep on going.”
Like Hackenberg, Hazell thinks Etling will continue to grow into his role.
Ranked the No. 9 overall pro-style quarterback by Rivals.com when he came out of Terre Haute, Indiana’s South Vigo High School, Etling will make his fifth-straight start since relieving an ineffective Rob Henry in Week 5. So far, he hasn’t had much help.
The Boilermakers rank at or near the bottom in every major offensive statistical category. Their running game has gone nowhere. Purdue has rushed for just three touchdowns and averages only 68 yards per game on the ground. They’ve tried to lean on Etling’s arm. But that’s been tough, too, as Etling hasn’t had much time to throw. He’s been sacked 13 times in the last three games.
In that span, Etling completed 75 of 156 passes for 819 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions.
“I think he can make all the throws,” Hazell said. “We’re in such a situation right now where you’ve got to do some things to protect him, because of protection, but you’d like to be able to push the ball deep with him a little bit more.”
With nine starts in games he’s played the heavy majority of the snaps, Hackenberg continues to develop for Penn State.
While Hackenberg has made his share of mistakes, O’Brien said he sees a quarterback who has grown in every phase exponentially since he took his first snap with the team in August. Most of those improvements can’t be measured by numbers in box scores, O’Brien said.
“It’s an ever-evolving process, and I think one of the things that’s great about this kid is he’s very resilient,” O’Brien said. “He’s smart, he’s got a tremendous work ethic, and he’s 18 years old. That’s not an excuse for anything. It is what it is. Like they say, you are what your record says you are. You’re 5-4, that’s what your record says you are, that’s what you are. But I do think that this guy over the next three weeks, I believe you’ll see improvement, and I think you’ll see him get better and better here in his years at Penn State.”
Follow Travis Johnson for live, in-game updates @bytravisjohnson.