The offense of the Penn State Nittany Lions was maybe a little too excited for the 2013 home opener against Eastern Michigan.
Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg was as jittery as anybody at Beaver Stadium at noon local time. Hackenberg's first University Park start was exactly what one would expect from a gunslinger looking to impress his coaching staff and also the loyal fan base of the Nittany Lions, both of whom remain stuck in college football purgatory for the next several years. There were ups and there were downs, but Hackenberg finished strong and did well to ensure that the good outweighed the bad.
Things got off to a rough start for the young man with the big arm. With the noise of an adoring student section booming over his shoulder, Hackenberg miss-fired on four of his first five attempts. Each overthrow appeared to be the result of a quarterback who needed to dial it down from a ten to a four more so than one who was lacking poise and confidence.
Then came his darkest moment of the afternoon. Hackenberg dropped back from his own 20-yard line, readied his arm for a pass and then found himself stranded as the ball slipped out of his hand. Hunter Matt scooped up the fumble and strolled into the end zone to give the Eagles their first and only lead of the day. It wasn't the worst start Hackenberg could have asked for, but it was undeniably not good.
Here's where having head coach Bill O'Brien is such a positive. O'Brien called for Hackenberg to begin the next drive with a short screen pass to dynamic wide receiver Allen Robinson, the type of play that settles a rattled QB into a game. Hackenberg and Robinson connected again two plays later, this time on a 43-yard bomb that set up a Zach Zwinak two-yard touchdown run.
The roller coaster ride continued. Completions of 17 and 27 yards led to Penn State's second touchdown drive of the afternoon, one that ran off only 62 seconds of game clock. Penn State's next drive didn't end so well. Hackenberg failed to adequately read the defensive back sitting in a zone and thus unintentionally delivered a pass into double coverage while just outside the Eastern Michigan 20-yard line. A ball that would have made Brett Favre smile was tipped and intercepted, the first teaching lesson of the freshman's afternoon.
His next learning experience came halfway through the third quarter, when he fired a pass to a WR from six yards away when he easily could have instead run for the first down. While the completion was made, it was a ball that should never have been thrown. Hackenberg made the right call later on in the same quarter, when, presented with a similar scenario, he brought the ball down and rushed up the middle for 15 yards before showing off some impressive sliding skills.
Like all showmen, Hackenberg saved his best for last. He was given plenty of protection by his offensive line on Penn State's sixth play of the fourth quarter, and he threw a perfect down-field ball again for Robinson, who easily beat his man before making the grab and then jogging into the end zone for the home run TD that had been coming. Hackenberg was so confident that the touchdown was guaranteed that he began walking toward the sideline before Robinson had even reeled in the ball.
Hackenberg finished with 311 passing yards, a school record for freshman QBs. He completed 23 of 33 attempts, and erased a tipped interception from the memory with a touchdown. The first-year Penn State quarterback successfully made it through what was an on-the-field exam as much as it was a competitive football game. Hackenberg is unpolished, he's unproven against a good defense, and he's going to have to work on his decision-making skills. With that said, O'Brien is the ideal quarterbacks coach one would have work with such a talent.
Imagine what could be in store for Hackenberg and this offense as he improves; which is going to happen under O'Brien.