Just in case he started feeling overwhelmed, or in the event he walked into Penn State’s huddle wide-eyed, 18-year-old Christian Hackenberg had an insurance plan for himself in his first career start.
The young quarterback wanted offensive lineman Garry Gilliam to slap him.
“Before the game started he came up to me and was like, ‘If I get spaced out or anything, just give me a little dog smack to bring me back,’” Gilliam said.
A smacking was not necessary. Hackenberg was efficient and effective leading the Penn State offense and the Nittany Lions overcame a sluggish start, four turnovers and two deflating injuries while holding off a late Syracuse surge to beat the Orange 23-17 at MetLife Stadium on Saturday.
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Sam Ficken booted two early field goals to keep the Nittany Lions afloat and added a career-long 46-yarder in the fourth quarter. Allen Robinson, who was held out of the first half for an issue coach Bill O’Brien said would stay between the two, added a 51-yard touchdown reception and Eugene Lewis hauled in a 54-yard touchdown pass from Hackenberg to cap Penn State’s scoring.
After the game, Hackenberg, who completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, met with reporters for the first time since arriving at Penn State in June. Reporters mobbed the podium inside the MetLife Stadium media room and TV cameras zoomed in to catch every word the quarterback spoke.
“As a freshman coming in, the first snap is always big for me,” Hackenberg said. “But once I got that out of the way I started getting a little bit more completions under my belt and I definitely felt more comfortable.”
Hackenberg completed the first six passes he threw to establish an early rhythm but the Penn State offense stalled on its first two drives.
Sputtering drives weren’t the only detriment for the Nittany Lions early.
Junior linebacker Mike Hull left the game in the first quarter, went to the locker room where his right knee was fitted with a brace and taped and then returned. He played sparingly, however and returned for the second half in street clothes. Senior tight end Matt Lehman was carted off the field with what appeared to be a series knee injury. Lehman’s left knee buckled as he tried to cut on a passing route on Penn State’s first play of the second quarter. O’Brien had no update on their statuses.
Sophomore quarterback Tyler Ferguson, who Hackenberg competed with through training camp, got his chance to man the offense on Penn State’s third drive. After completing an 18-yard pass, Ferguson fumbled as the ball slipped out of his hand while he was trying to pass.
The Orange recovered and used seven plays to drive 28 yards where Ross Krautman made a 32-yard field goal to give Syracuse a 3-0 lead.
Hackenberg re-entered but three plays went nowhere and Alex Butterworth punted again. On his next drive, Hackenberg was intercepted by Syracuse safety Jeremi Wilkes with Kyle Carter the intended target. Penn State got the ball right back when defender Stephen Obeng-Agyapong stripped the ball from running back Jerome Smith and forced a fumble that he recovered.
Penn State used a nine-play drive in which Hackenberg was 3-for-4 for 17 yards to steer Ficken into position to hit a 36-yard field goal to tie the game. Moments later Ficken added a 35-yarder that capped a nine-play, 41-yard drive to give Penn State a 6-3 lead going into halftime.
“He’s a very poised kid. He’s got a fantastic demeanor,” O’Brien said. “He’s got great parents and I think that’s one of the things that stood out to me in recruiting him. He’s a young guy. He’s only 18. He’s got a tremendous future but we’re not ready to waltz him into the College Football Hall of Fame and certainly not the NFL Hall of Fame.”
The Penn State offense got a boost when Robinson returned for the second half. On his first play, he caught a screen pass at the line of scrimmage and turned it into a 25 yard gain. On the next play Robinson burned Orange cornerback Ri’Shard Anderson to the outside, stopped to wait and hauled in an underthrown pass from Hackenberg, then cut back across the field where he eluded safety Durell Eskridge to complete the 51-yard touchdown to push Penn State’s lead to 13-3.
“He’s a great player, made a lot of big plays for us today as well as Geno (Lewis),” Hackenberg said of Robinson. “The whole receiving corps really stepped up today. The tight ends as well.”
But Syracuse returned fire immediately when Drew Allen threw deep to Jeremiah Kobena who snuck his way behind Malcolm Willis. Kobena reeled in Allen’s pass and was caught from behind by Willis but not before gaining 55 yards to the 10-yard-line. Syracuse running back Jerome Smith took a sweep around the left side untouched to pull Syracuse within a field goal.
Hackenberg looked for Robinson again on Penn State’s third drive of the half and found him for a big gain. But after Hackenberg stood in the pocket and delivered a bullet with defenders bearing down on him, Robinson had the ball ripped away from him by Brandon Reddish who recovered the fumble and returned it 46 yards. Gilliam, who weighs nearly 120 pounds more than Reddish, made a touchdown saving tackle when he chased Reddish down to the Penn State 27-yard-line.
The Orange couldn’t take advantage, however. Krautman missed a field goal from 43 yards four plays later.
“Everything that Garry has been through, where he’s come from, I expect nothing less of him than for him to go chase that down,” O’Brien said. “That play showed his athletic ability and also his heart and toughness.”
After punting the ball away on their next drive, the Nittany Lions forced another turnover when Allen threw the ball right to Obeng-Agyapong who returned it four yards. Syracuse was called for a personal foul giving Penn State possession at the Syracuse 28-yard-line. But Penn State couldn’t push the ball into the red zone and Ficken nailed a 46-yarder to give Penn State a 16-10 lead.
Penn State’s defense came up with another stop and the Nittany Lion offense took advantage right away. Hackenberg, given time by a blitz pick-up from Zach Zwinak, fired deep to Eugene Lewis who had a step on Syracuse’s Wilkes. Lewis caught the ball over his shoulder at the goal line and Penn State took a 23-10 lead.
“I did the easy part,” Hackenberg said. “I just got the ball to him.”
But with an entire quarter left, a second Hackenberg interception was more costly.
Facing 3rd-and-11 play midway through the fourth quarter, Hackenberg fired a pass toward the sideline but Orange defensive end Robert Welsh snagged it. Hackenberg was fooled when Welsh suddenly dropped into coverage rather than blitzing.
“The guy made a great play,” O’Brien said. “I’m not sure Christian’s ever even seen that before in a live game.”
Welsh returned the inteception 31 yards down to the Penn State 1-yard-line where Smith punched it in to cut Penn State’s lead to 23-17.
But the Orange didn’t score again, punting and turning the ball over on their final two possessions. Sophomore cornerback Trevor Williams intercepted Allen along the sideline to end Syracuse’s final drive.
“I think that as a team we did well executing,” Hackenberg said. “There’s a lot of things we’ve got to improve on and we’ll do that.”