Christian Hackenberg struggled at times and showed precision at others while carrying the Penn State offense for a second straight week.
The Nittany Lions quarterback couldn’t find a rhythm in a scoreless second quarter against Akron at Beaver Stadium on Saturday. In six consecutive passes, he threw five incompletions and his first interception of the game.
The offense stalled and Penn State settled for a one-touchdown lead over Akron at the half.
Hackenberg locked in to give the Nittany Lions a two-score advantage in the third quarter, however. He completed all six of his passes to lead Penn State on a 10-play, 79-yard drive capped by his second touchdown of the game.
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Hackenberg finished 22-of-36 for 319 yards and three touchdowns while throwing two interceptions in Penn State’s 21-3 win. The quarterback set a Penn State record for passing yards in consecutive games (773) after throwing for a program-record 454 yards against Central Florida in the season opener. He also threw two interceptions in the first game. Hackenberg said he’ll continue learn from his mistakes, adding that he tried to force throws that turned into interceptions.
“It’s frustrating for me because I know that I can play so much better,” Hackenberg said. “There’s always three or four plays during the game so far the past two games where I wish I could have it back and just got to continue to improve on that.”
The Penn State offense depended heavily on Hackenberg as the Nittany Lions had trouble establishing the running game.
Hackenberg started the game strong. He completed 7 of his first 10 passes, including a 22-yard touchdown toss to running back Bill Belton, in the first quarter.
But that accuracy disappeared in the second quarter.
On first-and-10 from the 18-yard line, Hackenberg lofted a ball out of bounds in the left corner of the end zone intended for wide receiver Matt Zanellato. On third-and-11, after a 1-yard rushing loss, Hackenberg forced a pass toward Penn State wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton waiting along the goal line in the right corner of the end zone.
Akron cornerback Martel Durant stepped in front of the cross-field pass and pulled in an interception at the 1-yard line.
“I think when you have quarterbacks that have really strong arms and believe in themselves and talent, they’re going to try to make some throws that probably other quarterbacks don’t,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “This is part of the growth process. We’ll get it resolved. Hack has got a chance, I think, to be really special. That’s an area that we’re going to have to work on.”
Hackenberg got back on track to lead Penn State on the 79-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter.
Facing third-and-25, Hackenberg fired a 28-yard pass to wide receiver Geno Lewis along the left sideline. He later connected with Lewis again, this time picking up 19 yards over the middle.
Two plays later, he rifled a bullet to tight end Jesse James for a 13-yard touchdown.
Hackenberg went 6-of-6 on the drive. Penn State led 14-3.
“I wouldn’t ask for anybody else,” Lewis said. “And he has confidence in us and we have confidence in him, so we just want to be on the same page at all times.”
Hackenberg’s second interception, intended for Lewis in the end zone, was underthrown and grabbed by Zips safrey Bre’ Ford in the fourth quarter.
But the offense came through with a big play on its ensuing drive to put the game out of reach with 8:58 left.
Hackenberg found James streaking behind the defense for a 44-yard touchdown on a play-action pass, pushing the Nittany Lions ahead 21-3.
“We had to just sort of collect ourselves and start making plays,” Hackenberg said. “And I think going back to that catch that Geno had, it’s one of those things where a guy made a play, now we can start building on that. I think the guys really bought into it. And once the offensive line really started having some success in the run game. I think that that helped them get their confidence back and we started being able to protect and move the ball.”
Hackenberg knows he got greedy on the two interceptions, something he needs to improve moving forward.
But on Saturday, Penn State did enough to get the win.
“At the end of the day a win’s a win and the guys really stepped up when they needed to and made plays,” Hackenberg said. “I’m happy with what we did.”