NCAA FOOTBALL: PENN STATE 45, EASTERN MICHIGAN 7
STATE COLLEGE — Even with Beaver Stadium’s glaring deserted sections, thousands of “We Are” chanting fans and a home opener still gave Christian Hackenberg some early jitters.
His first scattershot passes sailed way off the mark. He lost a fumble.
But once Hackenberg beat his nerves, Eastern Michigan never stood a chance.
Hackenberg threw for 311 yards and a touchdown, and Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton each ran for a pair of scores, leading Penn State past Eastern Michigan, 45-7, on Saturday.
Hackenberg went 23 of 33 and overcame a shaky first couple of series to lead Penn State (2-0) to a win in its home opener. He connected with Allen Robinson for a 45-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that helped put the game away. He set a Penn State single-game mark for passing yards by a freshman.
And he made a big impression on fans needing a reason to back the program.
“There’s a big, big difference than walking in there empty,” Hackenberg said. “They try to simulate it with some noise. Nothing compares.”
After the running game stumbled in the season opener versus Syracuse, Zwinak broke through for a pair of short scores. Belton added a 51-yard touchdown run in the fourth and had 108 yards rushing. Akeel Lynch added a 27-yard scamper in the fourth and also had 108 yards rushing.
Penn State’s Sam Ficken set a school record with his 14th straight field goal, a 39-yarder that closed the first half.
Eastern Michigan (1-1) scored off a fumble to avoid the shutout.
Hackenberg followed up a strong debut with another promising effort. The 18-year-old just needed time to get going. Hit with some home-field nerves, he wildly overthrew his first few attempts, and lost a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Hunter Matt for an 11-yard score.
He started 0-for-3, and was 1-for-5. He was sacked and fumbled. Then he turned his game around.
Hackenberg hit Robinson, who had 129 yards receiving, for a 43-yard gain down to the 8-yard line. Zwinak carried a couple of defenders on him as he stormed into the end zone for a 2-yard run that tied the game at 7.
Lost in the excitement of Hackenberg’s debut last week was a backfield performance that had coach Bill O’Brien taking blame for the poor effort. No need for apologies after this one.
Zwinak had a 20-yard run in the third, then scored two plays later on a 7-yard burst for a 24-7 lead.
Belton had a 5-yard scoring run in the second, then charged into the end zone with an open-field 51-yard burst down the middle that put the Nittany Lions’ faithful on their feet.
Led by Belton and Lynch, Penn State powered its way to 251 yards rushing.
“It took a little while to get it going,” O’Brien said, “but it was nice to see ’em get it going.”
The committee approach was a booming success.
“Not one person is going to take them all,” Zwinak said. “When it’s not your turn, you’re there for the guy. You’re cheering him on. As soon as he comes to the sideline, you’re talking about what they’re seeing. Blitzes? It’s a great thing to share with these guys.”
Penn State announced more than 92,000 fans were at Beaver Stadium, though it was far from full and there were scores of empty sections in the upper levels. O’Brien had stumped around the state asking fans to continue to support the program and fill the stadium every Saturday during this period of transition for the Nittany Lions.
But the crowd is still large enough to awe a freshman QB — at least, for a few series.
“You could take 5,000 recruiting trips here,” O’Brien said, “but it ain’t like playing here. I thought he was amped up.”
Not even the return of the 1973 undefeated team could spark a full house. Penn State honored more than 50 members of the squad that capped a perfect 12-0 season with an Orange Bowl win against LSU but failed to win the national championship.
There was a huge ovation for John Cappelletti, the 1973 Heisman Trophy winner. In a surprise move, Penn State retired his No. 22. He talked to the team in the Penn State locker room after the victory.
In his second season, O’Brien seems to have won over the die-hards, even though not all of them showed up Saturday. He was greeted to a rousing ovation from fans who lined the entrance to the stadium. He popped off the team bus thrusting his fists and pointing at the early risers who came out to greet the team.
And the result in his second home opener was much different from a disheartening loss to Ohio last year on Labor Day weekend.
Ficken went 3-for-3 last week and kicked another field goal Saturday to set the Nittany Lions record.
And all the while, Eastern Michigan’s offense could do little against Penn State. A few early marches into Nittany Lions territory came up empty and the Eagles, out of the Mid-American Conference, were flat in the second half. They mustered only 7 total yards in the third quarter.
EMU’s Tyreese Russell was one of few bright spots, hauling in eight catches for 73 yards.
“The defense was on the field a lot,” Eagles safety Mycal Swaim said. “We were on the field more than we’ve been this year. We just got tired.”