It’s been a season of firsts for Christian Hackenberg and that trend will continue on Saturday afternoon
In Madison, Hackenberg will line his offense up for the first time against a collegiate defense that uses a 3-4 formation as its base. While other teams have used three down linemen and four linebackers at the same time against Penn State sparingly this season, No. 15 Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1) has excelled with it.
“I think they’re a really good team,” Hackenberg said.“They’re athletic. I would think they don’t make many mistakes. They play really well together. So we have to focus offensively on not making mistakes and just keeping and stringing drives together one play at a time.”
So far, Wisconsin has shut down opponents with its 3-4 defense. The Badgers are fifth in the country in scoring defense, having given up just 13 points per game and have allowed only three touchdowns in the last 16 quarters of play. They’re also sixth in total defense (278.5 yards per game) and seventh ion rushing defense (99.1 yards per game).
They’re doing it all with four talented linebackers led by senior Chris Borland that compliment three big linemen led by nose guard Beau Allen.
At 6-foot-3 and 325 pounds, Allen has been a driving force up the middle for Wisconsin. Along with a revolving cast of defensive ends — the Badgers have started five different players at those spots — Allen and the rest of the Wisconsin defensive line have made it difficult for offensive linemen to put clean blocks on Badger linebackers.
“It’s a tough scheme,” Penn State guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “They can run a lot more different blitzes and stunts and movements so you’ve got to be in check. They run a lot of different blitzes. They stem their fronts so they do a lot of stuff up front that we have to be ready for.”
The New England Patriots ran a similar defense during Bill O’Brien’s time there. The Penn State coach knows all about the difficulties of playing against a 3-4. Wisconsin’s is especially tough thanks to the talent level of the its four linebackers, O’Brien said.
Borland leads Wisconsin’s linebacking corps with 92 tackles. Borland is joined by Ethan Armstrong, Conor O’Neill and Brendan Kelly who have combined for 23 tackles for loss and 12 1/2 sacks. They’ve also been supported by safeties Michael Caputo and Dezmen Southward who have 93 tackles between them.
“It's different than going against a 4-3, which is more of a four-down look and three linebackers in the box,” O’Brien said. “So different plays are better than against a 3-4 than they are against a 4-3 and vice versa. So you've got to retrain your players.”
Penn State coaches have done that, too. The Nittany Lion defense has been running a 3-4 look to help the offense prepare.
Hackenberg, who has led the Nittany Lions to a 6-5 record, will have more surveying to do as pre-snap as blitzes could come from multiples spots.
Hackenberg has shown he can take on more responsibilities and handle them efficiently. Dieffenbach said the 18-year-old quarterback has been “playing like a 21-year-old” for most of the season.
“This kid has gotten better and better and better throughout the year, which you would expect,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said of Hackenberg. “He’s a competitor. He can throw all the balls. I think the offense has grown, as it’s gone through the season, to give him a little bit more as he’s progressed and developed. (Hackenberg and O’Brien) just got confidence in each other as a play caller and as a quarterback.”
And O’Brien’s been vigilant about monitoring his young quarterback’s number of throws in practice. While Hackenberg had to leave the Ohio State game with discomfort in his throwing shoulder, he hasn’t shown signs of fatigue with one game remaining.
Hackenberg said he’s started to feel the physical grind.
He’s already thrown 71 more passes in games this season than he did in 13 games during his senior year at Fork Union Military Academy. Even there, Hackenberg got used to heavy workloads. He attempted 341 passes as a junior in just 10 games.
“At practice I'm just taking the reps that I really need to take,” Hackenberg said. “I think that that goes back to the offseason, a lot of throws then as well. So I think with the new guys coming in, it's going to help out. But right now it's just focusing on the reps I need to take and warming up.”