Lions Hack Through Syracuse

True freshman quarterback Hackenberg "dove right in" to lead the Penn State offense in his first college game.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Christian Hackenberg summarized his first collegiate game thusly: “We dove right in.”

There were times when Penn State's freshman quarterback had trouble keeping his head above water. And other occasions that surely left the True Believers with the impression that he might be capable of walking upon it.

The winner of a preseason QB derby with junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson, Hackenberg threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns Saturday afternoon, as the Nittany Lions opened their season with a 23-17 victory over Syracuse in MetLife Stadium.

Hackenberg went 22-for-31 through the air, with the TDs coming on a 51-yard pitch to Allen Robinson in the third quarter and a 54-yarder to Geno Lewis in the fourth. He was also intercepted twice, giving coach Bill O'Brien ample reason to tamp down expectations. (Though not ample reason to bench him; Ferguson played a single first-half series, which ended when he fumbled.)

“We're not ready to waltz him into the College Football Hall of Fame, and certainly not the NFL Hall of Fame,” O'Brien said. “We're just saying he's a talented guy. He's got a long way to go. It's just one game.”

But certainly O'Brien showed great trust in the newcomer, employing a no-huddle offense and allowing him to throw a bootleg pass on fourth down on the game's first possession -- which Hackenberg completed for a gain of 16 -- and then keeping the reins off even down the stretch, even when the Lions were backed up in their own end, even when caution seemed like the prudent course.

“Penn State can't dip our toe in the water,” O'Brien said. “We have to come out ready to go. We've got to take our shots. If we make a mistake, play complementary football -- see if the defense can hold them.”

The most notable instance of this came with 7:01 left, when with Penn State facing a third-and-11 at its own 30, Hackenberg forced a throw into traffic that was intercepted by defensive end Robert Welsh and returned 31 yards to the PSU 1. Jerome Smith punched it in on the next play, and the Lions' lead had suddenly been sliced from 23-10 to 23-17.

“I thought we were going to win the damn thing, I really did,” said Scott Shafer, Syracuse's first-year coach. “I thought we were going to win the doggone game.”

But the Lions stopped the Orangemen on their last two possessions of the day, finally nailing the game down when cornerback Trevor Williams -- a converted wide receiver and first-time starter -- picked off Drew Allen with 1:53 to play.

In all Syracuse managed 260 total yards. Just 71 of those came on the ground -- no small accomplishment, considering Smith and fellow running back Prince-Tyson Gulley combined for nearly 2,000 last year.

Williams and the other new starting corner, Jordan Lucas, held up well, as Allen's stat line -- 16-for-37, 189 yards, two picks -- attests. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, employed as a linebacker/safety/nickelback hybrid, had a huge game, with eight tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception.

That all came within miles of his native New York City, with 10 friends and family members in attendance.

“It was,” he said, “real special.”

Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones also had nine tackles and a sack, and safety Malcolm Willis made eight stops.

The special teams did their part as well. Sam Ficken kicked three field goals, including a career-long 46-yarder, and has made 13 straight attempts dating back to last season. There was also a 31-yard punt return by Jesse Della Valle, which set up the Hackenberg-Lewis TD connection.

All of that offset not only Hackenberg's misadventures but three key injuries. Outside linebacker Mike Hull -- “one of the hearts and souls of the defense,” according to middle 'backer Glenn Carson -- spent the second half on the sideline in street clothes, after injuring his right knee.

Tight ends Matt Lehman and Kyle Carter were also hurt, Lehman suffering a first-half knee injury that resulted in him being carted off and Carter injuring his arm. Carter later returned to the game, but did not have so much as a single reception.

Then there was Robinson. He served a Manzielesque disciplinary suspension in the first half, for reasons that are unclear.

“That's between me and Allen,” O'Brien said.

Robinson was not made available to reporters after the game. He was very available to Hackenberg earlier, zipping 25 yards with a screen pass on Penn State's first offensive play of the third quarter -- i.e., Robinson's first play of the season -- and then combining with the freshman for that 51-yard score on the very next snap.

Your scoring drive: two plays, 76 yards. Elapsed time: 34 seconds.

That gave the Lions a 13-3 lead, and was the start of a seven-catch, 133-yard half for Robinson. But Allen found Jeremiah Kohena open behind Malcolm Willis for a 55-yard pickup on Syracuse's next possession, and Smith (16-73 rushing) skirted left end for a 10-yard TD with 11:05 left in the period.

Ficken made it 16-10 when he connected on his 46-yarder 34 seconds into the final quarter, a kick set up by Obeng-Agyapong's pick.

The lead swelled to 23-10 on Hackenberg's bomb to Lewis with 11:39 remaining. And here again, O'Brien did some tamping, noting that Lewis ran a great route and running back Zach Zwinak did a great job of picking off a blitzing linebacker.

“On that football play,” O'Brien said, “Christian did the least amount of work.”

Hackenberg was not about to disagree with his head coach.

“I did the easy part,” he said.

Well, he made it look easy, anyway.

“For the most part,” Shafer said, “Hackenberg did a good job and he'll be a good football player.”

For the most part. There will certainly be more ups and downs. But what is clear now is that the Lions will continue to dive right in with the kid. That they will continue to sink or swim.

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