How Much More Can He Take?

Hackenberg leads Penn State to another comeback win, but is hit hard and often in the process.

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Where Christian Hackenberg is concerned, the best advice for Penn State fans might be this: Enjoy it while he lasts.

He pulled another rabbit out of his hat on Saturday night at Rutgers, leading his team to a down-to-the-wire 13-10 victory. He was the antidote for all the venom the Scarlet Knights poured into this game, their first in the Big Ten. He was the solution for all problems on the Lions' offensive line.

But how much more punishment can he withstand? How long can he shoulder the load for an offense that has no running game? And how many miracles does he have left in him?

This is twice in three games he has led PSU to a last-minute victory. Did it in the opener against UCF, when he took the Lions 55 yards in eight plays to set up Sam Ficken's field goal at the gun. And on Saturday the march was six plays and 80 yards, culminating in a five-yard run by Bill Belton for the decisive touchdown with 1:13 left.

Never mind that Hackenberg was sacked five times, more than in any other game he has played in a season-plus at Penn State, and harassed constantly. Never mind that his offensive line was flagged for holding on three occasions, with one of those penalties negating the apparent go-ahead scoring toss, a 19-yarder to tight end Jesse James with 2:05 left.

Oh, and never mind that Hackenberg is 19.

“You've got to do it,” he said after a 25-for-44, 309-yard performance. “It's one of those things that comes with being the guy back there, throwing the ball. As a quarterback you've got to be able to keep your composure, sort of be the rock for these guys.”

He began the pivotal drive at his own 20 with 3:02 left, firing a dart to Geno Lewis, who broke free from some would-be tacklers to turn the play into a 53-yard advance, to the Rutgers 27. After an incompletion -- a throwaway with Hackenberg in the grasp of a defensive lineman -- there was a screen to DaeSean Hamilton for eight, then the throw to James in the end zone.

But here came the flag, as well as a holding signal from James Franklin on the sideline.

“They thought the game was won, and it wasn't,” the first-year head coach said, “so I'm trying to get the composure and get them back in the huddle and get the play called, to try to win the game again.”

Hackenberg was thinking right along with him.

“I was just like, 'All right -- next, man,' ” he said. “I think that was the first thing I said when we got in there: 'Next.' We've got to come out and do our thing, and execute this as best we can, and we did that.”

“I was just like, ‘All right — next, man.’ I think that was the first thing I said when we got in there: ‘Next.’ ”

The very next play, a third-and-12 snap, was a beautiful 23-yard hookup with Lewis, after a double move on the part of the sophomore wide receiver. That put the ball at the Rutgers 6. Two plays later Belton took it in.

Belton is the guy who had been transformed into one of the many motivational eggs the Knights placed in Saturday night's basket. You had the countdown clock for the game in the Rutgers locker room. You had RU coach Kyle Flood refusing to use the words “Penn State,” choosing instead to call the Lions “our neighbors to the west” or “that team from Pennsylvania.”

And you had Rutgers' players seizing on the fact that Belton, a New Jersey native, had said at the Big Ten media days in July that he chose PSU over RU because he wanted to play “big-time college football.”

All in the name of trying to transform the game into the rivalry it had never been when the teams met regularly; before Saturday, they hadn't squared off since 1995.

Turns out that Belton was thinking about all the backlash when he crossed the goal line.

“They've been chirping all week in the media,” he said. “They asked for a big-time game, and they got one.”

One other thing, about what he said back in July: “I stand by my statement.”

Hackenberg made yet another statement, as he has been since arriving on campus last summer. Back then, Lewis said, he caught the attention of the older guys on the team immediately.

“He came in, and he's very confident in what he does,” he said. “He wasn't too worried about the pressure and what his expectations were.”

He kept meeting them, notably in a preseason scrimmage, when he was asked to deliver in the two-minute drill.

“It was the last scrimmage we had during preseason,” Lewis said. “The scrimmage was at (Beaver Stadium). He made some big plays with his arm. He made it happen.”

On Saturday the Lions spotted Rutgers a 10-0 halftime lead. Hackenberg was intercepted in the third quarter, and continually harried. He led a field goal drive, then another. A 27-yard pass to Lewis at the RU 9 was wiped out by a hold on guard Brian Gaia with 6:36 left in the game, but still Hackenberg kept pitching.

“I don't think there's any doubt: Christian is light years ahead of a true sophomore,” Franklin said, adding that quarterbacks tend to be evaluated on things like how they fare on third down and in the red zone, how they do in game-on-the-line situations and, naturally, wins and losses.

The Lions, 3-0 for the first time since 2009, join Nebraska as the conference's only unbeaten teams. But their flaws are obvious, and glaring. They rushed 33 times for 64 yards on Saturday, and have gained 226 on the ground through three games (a paltry 2.5 a pop). The line, with four new starters, has yet to mesh.

They can't keep this up.

And talented as he is, neither can Hackenberg.


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