No Saquon Barkley.
No Akeel Lynch.
No Angelo Mangiro.
No problem, because Christian Hackenberg came to play.
Behind Hackenberg’s four touchdowns -- two rushing, two passing -- solid defense, and some -- dare it be said -- excellent play-calling, Penn State beat Indiana 29-7 on Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium.
“We’ve dealt with different things throughout each week, different challenges,” said Hackenberg. “So I think being able to come out, and do what we needed to do, have a game plan, stick to it, go out, execute it, have great balance running the football and throwing the football, being able to make plays in both those areas, was huge for us. One week at a time, that’s been our mentality.”
The first touchdown was a clever call, sure. It was a jet-sweep-handoff-fake-turned-wheel-route from Hackenberg to freshman receiver Brandon Polk to put Penn State’s first points on the board.
But Hackenberg’s second touchdown told the 97,873 fans in attendance, and the players on the field, that he wasn’t messing around.
The quarterback set up the score with his legs, carrying on two consecutive snaps for 19 and 22 yards, respectively, the latter of which is a career-long for the junior. He then faked a handoff and looped around the back side, then shook off a wide-open Kyle Carter in the end zone to run in the keeper himself.
Carter was visibly unhappy he didn’t get the ball, after.
“He was expecting me to throw it, because that’s what I usually do,” said Hackenberg after the game, grinning a little sheepishly. “But, you know, safer play. Just get the ball in there, make sure to get it in there.”
Hackenberg’s third touchdown showed athleticism not previously seen this year. Staring into the Hoosier end zone, he cradled the snap and leapt into the end zone, stiff-arming an Indiana player in the process.
“Took a little lesson from (former Penn State quarterback) Matt McGloin,” he laughed.
Hackenberg impressed his teammates with the stretch.
“That was Cam Newton-like there,” said linebacker Jason Cabinda. “When you see your quarterback giving up his body for the greater team, that’s sweet.”
Hackenberg finished with 262 yards in the air and four touchdowns, and for the first time in his career combined two rushing scores with two passing. He also became the second quarterback in Penn State history to record 7,000 passing yards.
“Whatever we gotta do to win the football game, I’m all in,” said Hackenberg. “I think what was asked of us this week, we bought into it. We executed it, we were able to come out and win.”
Added head coach James Franklin after the game, “If a quarterback can get two first downs a game for you with his legs, you’re going to be in really good position, and Christian was able to do that today. I’ve been saying for awhile he has the ability to do that, and it showed up today.”
“Now come the conversations about him being a dual-threat quarterback and installing the option,” Franklin deadpanned.
Both sides couldn’t muster much offense to start, combining for four punts in the first six minutes of the game. Hackenberg was also sacked twice, before hitting Polk for the score on the following drive.
Indiana, led by backup quarterback Zander Diamont (starter Nate Sudfeld was out with an ankle injury as was starting running back Jordan Howard), marched the Hoosiers down the field in just over three minutes late in the first quarter. He ran in a 12-yard touchdown himself to answer the previous Nittany Lions’ touchdown. After, he faced the Penn State fans, and held a finger to his facemask as if to “shush” the crowd.
The defense, then, came alive. The unit racked up three sacks for ten yards and kept attacking, finishing with four sacks for 28 yards -- two of which came from defensive end Carl Nassib, whose two sacks put him at 10 through six games. Penn State’s defense also held Indiana to just 13 yards in the second quarter, and just 234 total yards.
The unit finished with 46 tackles, led by Austin Johnson, Jason Cabinda and Marcus Allen with nine tackles apiece. Anthony Zettel contributed two pass breakups to Penn State’s seven total.
“Yeah, those guys weren’t too happy,” said Hackenberg, of the defense’s reaction to Diamont’s gesture. “And I think, we obviously came out and we attacked, I think we had a couple sacks there right after on the next possession.
“(The defense) came after him. That doesn’t sit too well with a lot of the guys on our team.”
Diamont had to leave the game after a particularly vicious hit sent him to the turf at an awkward angle, sending in third-string quarterback Danny Cameron.
Receiver DaeSean Hamilton answered for Penn State in the second quarter with a 39-yard fingertip snag for six. Kicker Joey Julius missed his second consecutive extra point and was pulled for Tyler Davis, who hit a 30-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter for Penn State’s only non-Hackenberg points of the game.
“You miss two field goals, you put the next guy in,” Franklin said simply.
A sluggish third quarter saw a total of 29 offensive yards from the Nittany Lions, while the defense still held Indiana scoreless. Freshman John Reid intercepted Cameron to give Penn State a spark in the fourth -- Hackenberg’s final touchdown was the result of the following drive, which put the win away before Davis’ field goal sprinkled sugar on the donut.
“That was huge for us, huge for our team,” said Hackenberg, of Reid’s pick.
Penn State has now improved to 5-1, and 2-0 in the Big Ten, after winning five straight home games.