This is what Christian Hackenberg signed up for.
The Penn State quarterback wasn’t about to lose his composure or focus despite being beaten around and forced out of the pocket all night under the lights and in front of a vicious, record-setting High Point Solutions Stadium crowd.
Hackenberg, who was sacked five times, hurried eight more and forced into throwing his fifth interception of the season, was best when it mattered. He led a six-play, 80-yard drive capped with a five-yard run from New Jersey native Bill Belton and Penn State spoiled Rutgers’ Big Ten debut with a 13-10 win in front of 53,774 fans on Saturday.
The sophomore quarterback completed a 53-yard pass to Geno Lewis to spark the winning drive and hooked up with his top receiver again for a 23-yard gain on third-and-12 from Rutgers’ 29-yard line. Belton pranced in two plays later to give Penn State (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten) its first lead of the night with just 1:13 to play.
“You’ve got to do it,” Hackenberg said. “It’s one of those things that comes with being the guy back there throwing the ball. As a quarterback, you’ve got to be able to keep your composure and sort of be a rock for these guys.”
Hackenberg did so with little help from his offensive line and running game. The Nittany Lions managed just 64 rushing yards on 33 carries and drove into the red zone just four times with Hackenberg under almost constant duress. He was forced to use his legs, turning 12 of his dropbacks into 18 rushing yards, counting the five sacks he took.
“It was not pretty,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
But Hackenberg got plenty of help from his defense and kicker Sam Ficken, who hit field goals of 32 and 25 yards.
The Nittany Lions held Rutgers (2-1, 0-1) to 294 yards overall and just 95 in the second half. Meanwhile, the Penn State defense forced six Rutgers turnovers to keep Penn State’s erratic offense in the game.
Cornerback Trevor Williams intercepted Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova twice and Adrian Amos and Brandon Bell each picked off one pass.
Anthony Zettel added a sack on Rutgers’ final drive and Ryan Keiser sealed the game when he intercepted Gary Nova on a desperation heave on fourth-and-12 from Rutgers’ territory. When Hackenberg took a knee to run out the clock, Penn State players ran full speed to the corner of the stadium where most of their fans were seated.
“It was a hard-fought battle from start to finish,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said. “It was the first Big Ten game and they came out swinging. The whole game was a dogfight and I think that’s why there was so much emotion poured into it.”
After Nova started the scoring with a 14-yard run in the second quarter, Rutgers kicker Kyle Federico padded his team’s lead with a 32-yard field goal with 12 seconds to play in the first half. The Nittany Lions started to get some momentum after their defense foiled Rutgers’ first three drives of the third quarter. Williams made a leaping interception on a deep throw down the middle and Penn State turned the pick into a Ficken’s first field goal with 3:45 to play in the third.
The Nittany Lions ran 13 plays and covered 72 yards in 5:18 but were slowed when Hackenberg was sacked on two of three plays in the red zone. Ficken hit a 32-yarder to cut Rutgers’ lead to 10-3.
Penn State got another Ficken field goal to cap its next drive — a nine-play, 68-yard series that ended at the Rutgers’ 8-yard line and a 25-yard kick from Ficken.
Rutgers drove into Penn State territory just once in the second half and had to punt from Penn State’s 44. The Nittany Lions then drove the field for the winning score.
“You play a close game and you don’t win and it’s devastating,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. “And it’s probably a good word I can use for our team right now.”
The Scarlet Knights’ defense set the tone to start the game, however.
Hackenberg completed just 9 of 17 passes for 79 yards and added 10 yards on six carries in the first half. He was sacked twice and hurried four more times. Hackenberg led the team in rushing in the first half.
But the Nittany Lions got the most important carry of the game and got their best effort of the night from a beleaguered front five who opened a big hole for Belton to take a handoff out of the shotgun untouched up the middle and across the goal line.
“The line got great movement up front and they opened it up for me,” Belton said. “So I give them all the credit.”
The five-yard score by Belton capped an emotional week that started on a personal note for the running back from Sicklerville, an hour and 20 minutes south of High Point Solutions Stadium.
Scarlet Knights players, especially receiver Leonte Carroo, took offense to remarks Belton made over the summer when responding to a question — why didn’t he consider attending his home state’s school. Belton said he wanted to play “big-time college football.”
Belton was scheduled to speak to the media on Wednesday and revealed after the game he canceled his conference call with reporters.
“It means a lot,” Belton said of scoring the go-ahead touchdown. “They’ve been chirping all week in the media, so they asked for a big-time game and they got one.”
Belton’s mind raced when he crossed the goal line.
“What was really going through my mind, it just came back to what they were saying. I don’t know why but the Big Ten Media Day thing, I said what I said and it is what it is but they were talking a lot and we’re not about that. We just go out there and play football.”