Christian Hackenberg sat in the Beaver Stadium media room with his hat pulled way down over his brow.
It was the best way to hide the pain lurking behind his eyes following Saturday’s 20-19 loss against Maryland.
Make no mistake, no player feels the hurt of Penn State’s four-game losing streak any more than the sophomore quarterback.
Literally and figuratively.
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Hackenberg, who had a gash on his leg early in the contest, also suffered five sacks against the Terrapins, bringing his season total to 30. He was belted several more times, including a blast near the sidelines that immediately preceded a fumbled snap to end the Nittany Lions’ last gasp.
But to look at Hackenberg after the contest, you can see the mental anguish might be more to suffer than the physical abuse.
“You really can’t explain it,” said Hackenberg, as he took his lumps from the media — just like he had from the Terps — after the game. “It hurts. You want to dig everything out. You want to dig the guys out of it. You want to do it for everyone else.”
And that’s why the 19-year-old is maybe pressing a little too much.
He’s had some opportunities over the course of the skid, but has rushed some throws and missed open receivers. Maybe that’s anxiousness to make a big play or maybe it’s because he’s used to not having much time to throw behind a terrible offensive line.
And the burden rests on him. He’s got no running game to bail him out. The Nittany Lions ran 41 times for 42 yards against the Terps. For the season, they’re averaging just 2.3 yards per carry.
So it’s left to Hackenberg to move the team with his arm.
Sometimes, like in Saturday’s touchdown drive, he’s outstanding. He was 6-for-6 on that third-quarter march, including his two-yard scoring pass to Jesse James.
But after starting the game 4-for-5, Hackenberg missed on 17 of his next 21 passes.
Sure there were a couple of drops, but that won’t get it done at any level.
And of course, he was hit repeatedly. Yes, he holds onto the ball too long sometimes, but what fans can’t often see on television is that there is no one open — not even freshman sensation DaeSean Hamilton.
It’s all frustrating for a teenager, who wants so hard to succeed.
Those frustrations took on a more animated role Saturday. Hackenberg and offensive coordinator John Donovan became involved in a heated conversation after a failed drive and the sophomore also waved his arms frantically while in telephone conversations with quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne, who was up in the press box.
Those kinds of things happened rarely during Hackenberg‘s freshman season under Bill O’Brien’s regime. O’Brien, famous for chewing out future Hall of Famer Tom Brady on the New England Patriots sidelines, was a mentor for the young quarterback.
Hackenberg dispels rumors that he doesn’t get along with Donovan and Rahne.
“That’s just us being competitive,” he said of Saturday’s outbursts. “Both of those guys I have a ton of respect for. Both of those guys I am extremely close with. I’d trust both of those guys with my life. I love working with them. I think it was just heat of the moment, all of our competitive flares showing and wanting to do better.”
Coach James Franklin did not notice the heated exchanges Saturday, but has praise for Hackenberg.
“What I will tell you is he wants to be successful and he’s extremely competitive,” Franklin said. “He’s getting pressured and hit a lot. You take a guy that had some successes as a true freshman and then this year, we’re not able to consistently protect him and run the ball. It’s a fine line and I think that’s a part of what makes him really good.”
Hackenberg won’t put the blame on the system, which is different this season. At 21.2 points per game, Penn State is averaging more than a touchdown less than a year ago.
What’s the difference
“I’m not sure,” Hackenberg said. “Obviously, we’re a lot younger than we were last year. Me being the young guy last year to now me being the old guy — still at 19 years old — it’s a transition, but it’s what I signed up for and what we we have to deal with. We have to go out and wins games.”
Thanks to two bye weeks worked in, the Nittany Lions haven’t won a game since Sept. 20 against UMass. And losing is like an infectious disease, spreading throughout the locker room.
To his credit, Hackenberg is putting on a brave face, even if it is obscured by a ballcap.
“You’ve got to keep fighting through it. It’s part of the deal,” he said. “... You focus on your job. I think that’s what each and every one of us has to do.”
And while he’s gone from hero to zero in some of the fans’ minds — we hear you out there calling for his head, Hackenberg has his teammates’ respect.
“I think he’s handling it as well as he can,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said of Hackenberg. “He’s had a lot thrown at him this year. He’s working his butt off every single day and he’s trying to stay confident. I think he’d doing all he can.”
And that means preparing to get belted again — if necessary — next weekend at Indiana to with the hopes of keeping bowl hopes alive.
“There’s no magic potion or no wave of a wand,” said Hackenberg of the solution to the skid. “You’ve just got to continue to keep your nose to the grindstone and keep working. I think we’ve got a couple of good opportunities ahead of us, starting with Indiana. We’re going to prepare the best we can.”