NCAA FOOTBALL: Hackenberg, Nittany Lions seek strong finish
STATE COLLEGE — Christian Hackenberg’s season has mirrored that of Penn State overall. Some highs, some lows and a lot of memories in between.
But if the Nittany Lions freshman quarterback has indeed hit the wall during this roller-coaster season, he’s not showing it. In fact, he’s focused on finishing with an upswing — and that’s it.
“You’re going to face adversity throughout the season,” Hackenberg said. “That’s something I tried to keep on the back burner and just focus on doing everything I can do to help the team. The big thing for me is sending the seniors out right. They’ve done a lot for me and I have a lot of respect for the guys and I couldn’t thank them enough.”
Penn State (5-4) meets Purdue (1-8) on Saturday.
“It’s the same for all the underclassmen; we look at them with the same amount of respect,” Hackenberg added. “For me, it’s just time to buckle down and send the team out right.”
That could start vs. the Boilermakers this weekend. Securing and stashing Win No. 6, after all, won’t be as easy against Nebraska and Wisconsin — Penn State’s final two opponents.
Hackenberg has completed 178 of 306 passes for 2,187 yards. He’s also thrown eight interceptions and mishandled a few snaps. But it’s all been a part of the game as the Nittany Lions continue to build a new brand in the Bill O’Brien Era.
“I think that every freshman definitely hits that wall,” O’Brien said. “There’s been times when it’s been tough because we haven’t made plays or maybe made the play call we wanted to make. I think there’s other times that have been great times, like the Michigan and Illinois overtime wins. I think he made really great throws there at the end of both games.
“It’s an ever-evolving process and I think one of the things that’s great about Christian is that he’s very resilient.”
Hackenberg has passed for 13 scores this season, and opened the year 2-0.
“He’s smart, he has a tremendous work ethic and he’s 18 years old,” O’Brien said. “That’s not an excuse for anything; it just is what it is.
“I do think that over the next three weeks, you’ll see improvement and I think you’ll see Christian get better here.”
Offensive guard John Urschel concurs. Urschel, a fifth-year senior, has taken Hackenberg under his wing since June.
“Hack’s a different breed of guy,” he said. “He’s a true competitor. As a true freshman, he’s leading our offense. This guy is a leader and he really shows it day in and day out, and I’m really thankful we have him here.
“He makes mistakes here and there. Everybody does. But I don’t know how he handles everything he does.”
Hackenberg is second overall in Big Ten passing, and has handled the attention — that goes with being a quarterback at Penn State — quite well.
“As a quarterback, you have to understand everyone’s looking at you,” he said. “You have to bring the same type of intensity to the huddle each day at practice and then in the games be consistent. For me, luckily, it’s worked out pretty well. I wouldn’t say I’m the only leader.
“We have a lot of seniors out there we all rely on, and I rely on heavily, and they help me out.”
The feeling is mutual. And that’s why — despite some disheartening losses this season — there is still a wave of optimism around Happy Valley.
“I definitely,” Hackenberg said, “feel comfortable.”