Penn State beat Indiana on Saturday behind a four-touchdown performance out of quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The junior not only threw for 262 yards and two touchdowns, but also ran in two scores himself.
In fact, Hackenberg accounted for 24 of Penn State’s 29 points, despite taking four sacks, which is a production level that hadn’t yet been seen so far this season.
And after five weeks of questionable scheme on offense, a head coach who, without throwing any of his staff under the bus, proclaimed that he would “be more involved in the offense and playcalling,” a playbook that may as well have been called “Jet Sweep: The Penn State story,” and just three truly “deep” passes (45-plus yards) from Hackenberg, the Nittany Lions looked, for a large part of the game, smooth on the attack.
Penn State’s first touchdown was almost a tongue-in-cheek look at the jet sweep, during which Hackenberg faked a handoff to speedster Brandon Polk in motion, and the latter blew by his coverage up the sideline, and caught the 39-yarder for the score.
And later, offense bunched tight at the door of Indiana’s end zone, Hackenberg executed a beautiful fake to running back Nick Scott, who curled out to the left and drew coverage as the quarterback carried in the touchdown himself on the right, with only fresh air and teammate Kyle Carter in the vicinity.
Head coach James Franklin had alluded, over the past several weeks, that Penn State would like to open its playbook up a bit, and said he’d like to be more aggressive on offense. That, he said, had been problematic because each time the Nittany Lions felt they could potentially do so, they’d lose a player. Freshman standout running back Saquon Barkley went down with an apparent ankle injury and hasn’t played in two weeks. Lineman Andrew Nelson got hurt against Buffalo and finally played again on Saturday. Starting running back Akeel Lynch was hurt against San Diego State and his return is questionable.
But against Indiana, who would of course load the box when Penn State was on offense, the opportunity was there to open up the playbook in favor of a very deep receiving corps. In fact, as Franklin said early last week, bringing so many defensive players to the line just “dared” Penn State to throw. So Hackenberg did, to a wide variety of receivers, including a gorgeous ball that went 39 yards in the air before DaeSean Hamilton brought it down for a touchdown with his fingertips.
And when Indiana’s defense dropped back a bit to cover the pass, the quarterback ran right up the middle — a 19-yard carry followed by a 22-yard carry — to eat up the field himself.
“If a quarterback can get two first downs a game for you with his legs, you’re going to be in a really good position,” said Franklin, after the game. “Christian was able to do that today. I’ve been saying for awhile that he has the ability to do that and it showed up today.”
It wasn’t a perfect game, by any means. But it’s the best Hackenberg has looked this season, and gives reason to be optimistic that offensive pieces, developing, according to Franklin, for the last five weeks, might look all the more cohesive once Barkley is back in the mix.
• Hackenberg didn’t start well. He took shots deep in the first quarter that either blew right over top target Chris Godwin’s head, or were broken up by the corner covering him, Rashard Fant. He had six completions on 13 attempts and took two sacks in the first quarter alone (plus that clever jet-sweep fake touchdown pass), but the point is, he kept throwing.
“You can’t give up on it, obviously,” he said. “You can’t expect to go out, when you’re throwing the ball more than 30 yards down the field, to go out and hit 70, 60 percent of it. If you walk out 35, 40 percent, then usually you’re pretty happy because that usually leads to a lot of big plays, big chunk yards, big touchdowns.”
He passed 39 times (more than in any other game this season) and completed 21 of them, for his second 200-plus-yards game in six so far this season. He threw to eight different receivers, and kept the ground game balanced with nine of his own carries (a team-high) for a 39:32 pass-to-run ratio.
It’s a huge improvement from last week’s performance against Army, in which Hackenberg averaged just 2.5 completions per quarter.
• Indiana got creative in the first quarter, after backup quarterback Zander Diamont ran in a 12-yard touchdown. The Hoosiers executed and recovered a very unexpected onside kick on their own 49-yard line, and tried to go hurry-up down the field to capitalize on the momentum swing.
However, Penn State’s defense held Indiana to a three-and-out on the resulting drive, after Jordan Lucas wrapped up Diamont’s first target for just a 5-yard gain, Jason Cabinda and Parker Cothran stuffed the run on second down and Anthony Zettel swatted away Diamont’s pass on third down.
• Former walk-on Carl Nassib continues to boost his breakout season. Nassib recorded two sacks against Indiana, and now has a national-best 10 sacks in six games.
• Punter Daniel Pasquariello recorded one of the best performances by a Penn State punter this season. He averaged 44.3 yards per punt and some stellar hang time on short-field punts, with a 54-yard long.
• Mark Allen was responsible for Penn State’s first fumble by a running back so far this season, and Penn State’s fourth total turnover this year, when he simply bobbled a carry and dropped it late in the first quarter. Allen, who is a talker according to teammates and coaches, was seen jawing back and forth with running backs coach Charles Huff after the turnover, and Huff responded by grabbing a handful of Allen’s jersey and pushing him toward the back of the sideline.
That's not a good look. Heat of the moment or not. https://t.co/vPZT1noIyU— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) October 10, 2015
• Penn State’s offense continues to struggle in the third quarter.
The Nittany Lions have been outscored 31-13 in third quarters this season, and while Indiana couldn’t put up any points in the period on Saturday, Penn State couldn’t either, and was held to just 29 yards of offense.
• Joey “Big Toe” Julius missed two consecutive point-after attempts. Punter Chris Gulla, who is usually his holder, was out after taking a big shot against Army and leaving the game, so Julius had a new one.
It’s not clear whether that affected Julius, who was not made available to media postgame.
Tyler Davis replaced Julius after his second miss, and booted in a 30-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. It was his first-ever collegiate kick.
“We missed two extra points. You put the next guy in,” said Franklin, simply.