Penn State Football

Penn State football: Hackenberg leads offense in late-game comeback

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Christian Hackenberg’s voice was shot.

The Penn State quarterback, as hoarse as he’s been all season after the Nittany Lions beat Boston College 31-30 in a thrilling, back-and-forth Pinstripe Bowl, had to swallow a few times and try to clear his throat deep in the bowels of Yankee Stadium on Saturday.

Otherwise, the sophomore quarterback looked no worse for wear, a victim of just two sacks in this game. He credited his offensive line that largely protected him and gave him time to fire four touchdown passes and lead a dramatic comeback despite losing their best lineman and emotional leader just a quarter into the game.

“I think they were extremely prepared,” Hackenberg said of his offensive line. “BC’s a great team. They’re coached well. They came in, executed their gameplan and we had some ropes. We were able to scrap back into it and ultimately win the game. That’s what it’s all about.”

When Miles Dieffenbach was carted off with an apparent left leg injury, all appeared to fall apart for the Nittany Lions. The Eagles applied plenty of pressure and two sacks quickly thereafter to build a 21-7 lead late in the third quarter.

But Penn State’s offense wouldn’t wimper out of the Bronx. Despite two fumbles on bad snaps in the first 38 minutes of play.

Penn State’s offensive line of Donovan Smith, Derek Dowrey, Angelo Mangiro, Brian Gaia and Andrew Nelson eventually settled in.

As a result, Hackenberg was protected and with time, stood in the pocket and delivered. He completed 21 of 30 throws after halftime for 203 of his 371 yards. Most importantly, so did those “ropes” as Hackenberg called them — pinpoint passes to DaeSean Hamilton and Kyle Carter, and another one that might’ve been a bit off the mark, but still wound up in Geno Lewis’ hands.

On the game-tying drive, Hackenberg spread the ball around to five different receivers to help set up Sam Ficken’s 45-yard game-tying field goal.

Hackenberg spied Jesse James standing all alone near the left hashmarks on a third-and-15 in overtime with his team down by six and tossed it the tight end’s way. James did the rest, picking up about 13 yards before lowering his shoulder into Kamrin Moore for four more yards and a critical first down.

Three plays later, Hackenberg threw the ball with touch to Carter, who came down with a tying touchdown.

It was a performance Penn State fans who watched Hackenberg put together a promising freshman campaign last season grew to expect. Rather, the strong-armed quarterback rarely had time to come close to putting on similar performances with any regularity. He was sacked a program-high 45 times in all and was prone to turnovers with 15 interceptions.

“I tried all season long to deflect that as much as I could,” Penn State coach James Franklin said, “not because I didn’t think Christian couldn’t handle it, but because I’ve been telling everybody before the season started that everyone wants to talk about Christian, Christian, Christian, but that wasn’t really the issue.”

“We had to make sure we developed the guys around him. There was a lot of production that had left, and we knew we had challenges on the offensive line.”

Hackenberg’s completions and yardage were Penn State bowl game records and his receivers recovered nicely after three early drops caused the offense to bog down. In addition to his offensive linemen, running back Bill Belton stepped up into two Boston College blitzes to give Hackenberg time and space to deliver a 72-yard touchdown to Chris Godwin that opened the scoring.

Godwin caught seven passes for 140 yards while Lewis hauled in seven more for 82. Hamilton, who Franklin revealed had been dogged by a pulled hamstring for “the last four or five weeks,” caught seven more passes for 51 yards.

Carter and James combined for six catches and 57 yards while running backs Belton and Akeel Lynch also helped balance out the passing attack. Belton caught three passes for 14 yards and Lynch added three more grabs for 12.

Penn State’s offense scored 24 points during four of its last five possessions in regulation.

“Early in the season when we would get down like that and we would keep digging a hole for ourselves,” Hamilton said. “And making it even harder for us to have a comeback win. And now we’ve got an uptempo offense, kept making plays, kept drives alive and in the second half we stopped shooting ourselves in the foot like we did in the first half and we were able to keep our offense on the field and actually put points on the board.”