DaeSean Hamilton was open in the back of the end zone. Christian Hackenberg, scrambling to avoid pressure, held onto the ball and settled for a gain of one yard on Penn State’s initial possession last week.
Hackenberg trotted off the field following the meager third-down gain. As Sam Ficken hit a field goal to open the scoring, Hamilton and Hackenberg got together on the sideline. The wideout wondered if Hackenberg had seen him.
Indeed, Hackenberg did. But Hackenberg also saw the defender heading toward Hamilton as the receiver jumped up and down calling for the ball. When Hackenberg relayed what he saw on the play, Hamilton was satisfied, especially when he looked up at the scoreboard and saw the three points go up.
“Hack scrambled on that play and he was more worried about not making a costly turnover in the red zone than necessarily throwing it,” Hamilton said. “That’s something on that play, not to lose our team any points.”
It signified a bit of progress for Hackenberg, who has flung 14 interceptions and struggled to reproduce the numbers he put up as a true freshman last season. So far this year, the 19-year-old sophomore has completed just 41 percent of his red zone throws with three touchdowns and two interceptions. The Temple game marked the third-straight game he’s completed less than 50 percent of his passes.
Hackenberg is the first to say it — he knows he needs to play better.
“It starts with me,” Hackenberg said following each of Penn State’s losses during a four-game skid earlier this season.
But his coaches are quick to remind people that Hackenberg hasn’t had the same, consistent on-field support this season.
Although the offensive line and running game showed marked improvement over the last two weeks, it wasn’t that way for most of the first eight games. Hackenberg has been sacked 37 times and, as a result, has been inconsistent with his mechanics and has been forced to throw early and off-balance. He also lost dominant wide receiver Allen Robinson, who posted back-to-back record-breaking seasons and opened the field up for other targets. Penn State’s running game only recently got back on track after averaging less than 100 yards per game before the Indiana game.
He’s had plenty of support off the field, however. Take head coach James Franklin’s response to a national reporter’s assertion after Wednesday’s practice that “Hackenberg has developed some bad habits as the season’s progressed.”
“I don’t agree with you,” Franklin said. “I think Christian has done some things that we would like to get corrected. He’s made a few choices that I think he’d like to have back. His footwork has been not what he’d like it to be at times. But I would not describe it the way you’ve described it.”
Take Franklin’s response to another question earlier this week that pondered Franklin’s philosophy on potentially benching an inconsistent quarterback who’s turned the ball over.
“Christian Hackenberg is our quarterback, and we love him,” Franklin said.
Keiser won’t travel
Franklin confirmed safety Ryan Keiser will not travel with the team Friday when it treks to Champaign for Saturday’s game against Illinois.
For now the plan is to have Keiser at the team hotel next week prior to the Michigan State game, where Keiser will address the squad. The Nittany Lions typically have a player stand up and share stories about their background on the eve of games, even when they stay in a hotel in town before home games.
Keiser suffered a broken rib and torn bowel before the Ohio State game and was hospitalized for more than three weeks while he underwent numerous surgeries.
Coaches plan to use
scholarships on specialists
Sam Ficken has three games left in his collegiate career and, once he’s gone, the Nittany Lions will be without a scholarship specialist.
A member of the 2011 recruiting class, Ficken was the last kicker given a scholarship out of high school. The plan eventually is to recruit more.
“That is the plan. But right now, it’s kind of, which finger are you going to put in what hole here in the boat that’s leaking?” said special teams coach Charles Huff, alluding to the team’s scholarship restrictions. “We’ve got some more immediate needs necessarily and we think we’ve got some guys here that will kind of get us to the point where we’re able to use scholarship specialists.”
Not counting Ficken, Penn State has five kickers, two punters and four long-snappers projected to return next season. Redshirt freshman Chris Gulla is listed at both punter and kicker spots. He and current starting punter Danny Pasquariello are both held in high regard by the current staff and could earn scholarships, Huff said.
But that doesn’t mean Penn State won’t go after top-tier specialists now that they have the scholarships to hand out in the upcoming recruiting classes.
“If you want to be elite at special teams, you’ve got to have the elite specialists,” Huff said.
No beef with Beckman
It is no secret former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien didn’t think very highly of the Illinois coaching staff when Illini head coach Tim Beckman dispatched assistants to State College in 2012 in an attempt to lure Penn State players away from Happy Valley.
In the wake of the NCAA sanctions against the program, the Illini staff hoped to take advantage of a free transfer waiver that permitted Penn State players to leave the team without having to sit out a season. Only Glendale, Ariz., native Ryan Nowicki defected to the Illini, but he never played a down for them, eventually transferring to Northern Arizona.
“I’ve talked to him at the Big Ten Media Days and the head coaches’ meetings,” Franklin said. “From everything I see, it seems like he’s a pretty good guy and he’s working hard to represent Illinois and get their program where they want it to be.”