Hack is Back as Penn State Downs Eagles

Yet after winning MVP honors in the Pinstripe Bowl, the Nittany Lion quarterback says "It’s not about me."

Christian Hackenberg talks to the media after the game

BRONX, N.Y. -- Finally, Christian Hackenberg was the quarterback he had always been before this season, and the QB everyone expected him to be.

Finally, Hack was back.

Back to his 2013 form. Back to the guy who is capable of making every throw, and making fans' imaginations run wild.

He went 34-for-50 for 371 yards and four touchdowns, the last a 10-yarder to tight end Kyle Carter in overtime, lifting Penn State to a 31-30 victory over Boston College in the fifth edition of the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday in Yankee Stadium.

And after he capped an often-frustrating sophomore season with such a strong performance, he reminded reporters of something: “It's not about me.”

It's always about the quarterback, though. Always. Especially one as talented as he is. It's about finding a way to protect him, and finally the Lions (7-6) did. Sacked a school-record 42 times during the regular season, he was dropped just twice Saturday.

It's also about the receivers developing, and it appears they have. Four different guys caught touchdown passes -- Carter, Geno Lewis, Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton. Eight different guys had receptions, and three of those -- Hamilton, Godwin and Lewis -- led the way with seven apiece. Godwin accounted for 140 yards (72 on his TD grab in the first quarter), the first 100-yard day of his freshman season.

In rallying his team from a 21-7 third-quarter deficit, Hackenberg matched a career high with his four scoring passes, and equaled a Penn State bowl record. His completions and passing yards were also PSU bowl marks.

But the focus was more on the smaller picture. On the fact that Hackenberg had thrown just four TD passes over his previous 10 games. That the only other time he had thrown for more than one in a game before Saturday was in his second outing, when he had three against lowly Akron. That he had only eight during the regular season, after firing 20 in '13.

He showed his frustration this year more than once. He turned the ball over at an alarming rate; his two lost fumbles Saturday give him 21 giveaways this fall, 15 of them interceptions.

And some heat came his way, though not all of it was justified.

“I tried all season long to deflect that as much as I could, not because I didn't think Christian could handle it, but because … everyone is talking about Christian, Christian, Christian,” coach James Franklin said. “That wasn't really the issue. We had to make sure we developed the guys around him.”

The line never really came around all season, but on Saturday it hung in there after losing guard Miles Dieffenbach to a leg injury in the first half. That was due in part to the fact that assistant coaches Ricky Rahne and Herb Hand had a good handle on BC's defensive tendencies, Franklin said.

As for the receivers, Carter said they benefitted greatly from having a month to work on things after the end of the regular season -- to spend time “just focusing on ourselves, not focusing on BC,” as he put it.

“We all know we have a great quarterback on this team,” Carter said. “It's really just about us being able to get open, us being able to get separation. He'll definitely fire it in there when he needs to.”

Hackenberg was likewise helped by the time off. It helped him get his mind and body right.

But again, it's not just about him.

“Everyone was able to get their legs underneath them,” he said. “Everyone was able to rest up a little bit. Everyone was able to prepare a little more.”

Franklin was sure Hackenberg was “banged up and bruised and sore and uncomfortable” after being hit so often during the regular season, but mentioned no specific injury that might have been holding him back. The coach did say, however, that Hamilton was bothered by a hamstring pull “the last four or five weeks” of the regular season.

“It was really one of the hardest things I've ever played through,” Hamilton said. “It was something that's been holding me back and ailing me, but I've wanted to fight through it.”

Hackenberg, meanwhile, was looking to move forward.

“Every day,” he said, “I came in and just tried to work as hard as I could to become a better player -- with the coaching staff and the players around me, try to be the best teammate I could be, and push these guys to take their game to the next level. That's a big role as a quarterback, especially at Penn State: You need to be able to elevate everyone else's play when need be, and I think we were able to do that today.”

As Hamilton said, “I think we just came out, and we had our swagger back. … We just came out and looked like the team we were possibly capable of being, all year.”

Hackenberg's 72-yarder to Godwin was the day's first score. It came on a streak down the right sideline in the first quarter, on which the QB stood tall against a blitz.

But Boston College (7-6) was as good as advertised offensively. The Eagles rushed for 289 yards in the game (the most allowed by PSU's top-ranked run defense this season), 148 by tailback Jon Hilliman and 105 by quarterback Troy Murphy.

A 49-yard TD run by Hilliman in the first quarter, the longest surrendered by the Lions this year, tied it. Murphy, 11-for-19 for 97 yards through the air, threw 11 yards to Shakim Phillips for the go-ahead score in the third quarter, then ran 40 yards for another touchdown later in that period, making it 21-7.

At that point, Hackenberg said, “I don't think we really did anything different. We stuck to our game plan. We stuck to our guns.”

He hit Lewis for a seven-yard TD on the last play of the third quarter -- a ball that was deflected by defensive back Justin Simmons -- and threaded a 16-yarder to Hamilton with 6:48 left in regulation to tie it.

Somehow cornerback Ty-Meer Brown didn't intercept that pass. Somehow it found its way to Hamilton.

“It was very close (to a pick),” Hamilton said. “Hack put that in the tightest window possible. I don't know how he squeezed that in there. Luckily I was just able to make a play on it.”

BC's Mike Knoll kicked a 20-yard field goal to make it 24-21 with 2:10 left in regulation, but Hackenberg went 5-for-5 to set up Sam Ficken's game-tying 47-yarder with 20 seconds left.

The Eagles had the ball first in overtime, and Murphy found David Dudeck for a 21-yard TD, only to see Knoll pull his extra point wide right. It was the eighth missed point-after by a BC kicker this season.

Hackenberg hit tight end Jesse James for 17 yards on third-and-15, then lofted the game-winner to Carter in the left corner of the end zone on third-and-seven. Carter easily out-maneuvered the luckless Brown for the catch, and Ficken added the PAT to win it.

It was Carter's first TD since he caught the game-winner, also in overtime, against Illinois last season.

“There's no better way for me to end the season, honestly,” he said. “Everybody knows it was a tough season, but to finish off that last game the way it was, that was just the icing on the cake for me. I'm happy about it, blessed.”

The Lions all seemed to feel that way, seeing as many of them did the equivalent of the Lambeau Leap on top of the Yankees' dugout after the game, so they could celebrate with fans. Then they jogged along the right field wall, high-fiving well-wishers.

“It kind of was the story of our season -- up and down,” Hackenberg said.

He also said he learned this season about “being able to deal with a bunch of adversity, to come back and make sure you focus on the things you can control.” And he tried to be a guy “that can push everyone else, that can teach the younger guys how to prepare, teach the younger guys what it takes to play and win at this level.”

And on this night he gave the ultimate example.

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