EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When it comes to injuries, Bill O’Brien’s attitude is a familiar football refrain — next man up.
O’Brien had to call for the next man up twice Saturday during Penn State’s 23-17 win over Syracuse at MetLife stadium — once for linebacker Mike Hull and then for tight end Matt Lehman.
In the first quarter, Hull was escorted from the field and back through the tunnel. He returned to the sideline, and then the game, with his right knee heavily taped, surrounded by a knee brace. He played a few more plays before being removed permanently.
After halftime, he could be seen on the sideline in shorts and a ball cap.
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“It’s always tough when you lose a guy like Mike Hull. He’s one of the hearts and souls of the defense,” fellow linebacker Glenn Carson said. “He’s just a guy that gets after it every time so it’s tough when a guy like him goes down, but you’ve got to keep rolling. That’s part of football and you’ve just got to keep rolling with the punches and hang in there.”
Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong stepped in for Hull.
“I was doing what was best for the team. Ideally I would love to play safety but playing linebacker is great for me,” he said.
Defensive lineman DaQuan Jones said he was pleased and impressed with Obeng-Agyapong’s play.
“That’s great for him,” Jones said. “My hat’s off to him. He just came in there and replaced Mike Hull. It was amazing to watch that. I was very happy to see that happen,” he said.
Then on Penn State’s first possession of the second quarter, Lehman went down with what looked like a left knee injury. On first-and-10 from the PSU 18, Christian Hackenberg rolled to his right on a bootleg waggle. Lehman ran a short route down the seam, stopped, chopped his steps and, before he could make his cut, went down clutching his left knee. He didn’t return.
“It's tough for those guys. We just use that as fuel. There's nothing we can do about it we've just got to keep on trucking and that's what those guys want us to do, just keep on playing," Obeng-Agyapong said.
Safety Malcolm Willis echoed O’Brien and Obeng-Agyapong’s sentiments on having to keep moving on despite seeing a teammate go down.
“Everybody feels for that person but at the same time we want to perform and win the game for that person,” he said. “When they went down, it was unfortunate but we had to finish the game and that’s what we did.”
Young, young guns
Of the 74 players that traveled with Penn State for its showdown with Syracuse, 42 percent were freshmen. Yep, 42 percent. Sixteen of them were true freshmen and 15 of them were redshirt freshmen.
The rest of the roster was comprised of 15 sophomores, 16 juniors and just 12 seniors.
Famous firsts for Hackenberg
A new era of Penn State football started Saturday. True freshman Hackenberg got the start at quarterback and performed admirably. There’s no telling how successful he’ll be, but here’s a list of his firsts:
His first play under center, on first-and-10 at the PSU 26, resulted in a false start.
His first pass and first completion was a 5-yard completion to running back Zach Zwinak.
After completing the first six passes he attempted, his first incompletion was directed toward Lehman.
His first punt, yes punt, was for 42 yards into the end zone and ended Penn State’s first possession.
His first interception came when he targeted tight end Kyle Carter. The ball floated and was picked off by Syracuse free safety Jeremi Wilkes.
The first time he was sacked came on a second-and-four with 8:12 left in the second quarter. When no one was open, he had to hold the ball and take the sack.
His first touchdown pass was a 51-yard connection with Allen Robinson, who was wide open on the play on an obviously blown coverage.
A number of NFL scouts were in the press box evaluating talent on both teams. Representatives from Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, Jackson Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks and York Jets were on hand.
Wide receiver Eugene Lewis caught the first touchdown pass of his career, a 54-yard post route caught in stride from Hackenberg.
Several other Nittany Lions celebrated firsts, as well.
Tackle Garry Gilliam made his first career start on the offensive line. He previously had started 11 games at tight end.
Obeng-Agyapong had his first career interception in the third quarter and returned it four yards to the Syracuse 44-yard line.
Cornerback Trevor Williams made his first career start on the defense.
Hall of Famer in the house
New Pro Football Hall of Famer Dave Robinson, a Penn State grad, was an honorary captain for the Nittany Lions.